Persistent throughout the history of the United States has been the relationship between the destruction of Black bodies and the projection of White feelings. For centuries, one has been the result of the other. But vitally, for the most part, large-scale empathy and subsequent resolving action have failed to transpire. The term state-sanctioned violence defines forms of violence that the state is the arbiter of, whether by active means or in a complicit capacity. In America, it is often hoped that a solution to the racialized state-sanctioned violence directed against Black people will emerge from a phenomenon called White guilt. Many people believe that inducing feelings of guilt in members of the White community has had and will continue to have a positive effect on social progress for African Americans. This sentiment has been widely adopted and it is still strategically employed by those seeking to achieve racial progress.
The concept of White guilt is complex in its very meaning. More than a mere feeling of guilt alone, White guilt is the irreversible bonding of guilt and whiteness. The guilt White people experience when they think about anti-Black violence emerges from a combination of empathy and culpability, whether direct or indirect. It can be experienced only by those who hold the power to alter the phenomenon. This perverse version of guilt is inextricably tied to White privilege (whiteness), which thrives and seeks to maintain itself on the continued exploitation and subjugation of Black people. Thus, the presumption that White guilt can effectively result in racial progress is misguided. As soon as White people attempt to alleviate their racial guilt, a conflict of interest arises between sentiment and self-interest, requiring them to give up the privilege gained by exploiting other members of society. But the guilt is a manifestation of the privilege, and the expression of it only deepens the conflict of interest.
Notably, prior to the Civil War, White Americans from different backgrounds opted to exploit Black bodies regardless of the level of benefit gained or cost incurred. For instance, though the majority of White southerners did not own slaves, as an electoral majority they consistently voted to uphold the institution of slavery: slavery was politicized. In the nineteenth century, it is likely that there was not a violent act that did not transpire on the Black bodies in America.1 It can be argued that the unimaginable sadistic cruelty that Black people faced should have prompted extreme levels of guilt that would lead to the eradication of the institution of slavery. Thus, I raise the question: why did the violence of slavery fail to inspire White guilt and compel swift, impactful action?
All of these injustices result in contemporary state-sanctioned violence that dismantle either the Black body or, equally as harmful and likely more widespread, the Black mind.
Activists throughout American history, from abolitionists to Dr. King and even members of BlackLivesMatter have made the assumption that Black people can attain racial progress by prompting White guilt. State-sanctioned violence that destroys Black bodies inevitably coincides with the concept of disposability or nobodiness. It is no secret that standards of decency have evolved over time but, coincidently, so have the sweeping tools and methods of oppression that enable the state to prey on the Black populace. It seems that America has devised new systems that can carry out violence more efficiently and more stealthily, passing through the gaze of White guilt. The modern-day infrastructure of state-sanctioned violence includes, but is not limited to, the economic dilapidation of Black communities, grossly inadequate public schooling and housing, mass incarceration, police brutality, voter suppression, and disenfranchisement.2 All of these injustices result in contemporary state-sanctioned violence that dismantle either the Black body or, equally as harmful and likely more widespread, the Black mind. These injustices have not only remained extant, they have actually proliferated in the past fifty years under the White moral gaze. The current era of racial violence stemming from the state is more discrete, allowing for the continual exploitation of African Americans without awakening White opposition.
Even if White guilt can in some instances have a positive effect on racial progress in dismantling aspects of the American racial-caste system, White guilt is customarily ignorant of the swift and mighty evolutionary processes that allow the tools of White supremacy to mutate and reset in stronger forms after such progress is made. In an emotional feedback loop, the guiltier some White people feel, the more other Whites reify the myth of their supremacy. It often takes generations for the racial injustices to be exposed and perceived by the masses while costing the lives of hundreds of thousands if not millions of Black people who are subjected to trauma and violence tied to their existence in America. There are countless examples of racial progress that is rapidly countered by White racism throughout American history, including but not limited to the destruction of slave labor camps and the rise of sharecropping, the passage of the 13th Amendment and the stripping of voting rights, the admission of Blacks to citizenship and then the making of Jim Crow, the erstwhile integration of schools following Brown v. Board and the development of White flight, redlining and resegregation, the freedom struggle culminating in the Black Power movement and the formation of mass incarceration. White guilt and White supremacy dance in tandem. The greater the guilt, the greater the violence.
There is a cyclical pattern that follows the achievement of racial progress in America: each large-scale White countermeasure leads to renewed violence against Blacks.
The question must be asked whether we are moving forward at all, or whether the idea of racial progress is itself a manifestation of the very White guilt that institutes White privilege in the first place. To elaborate, the manufactured crime crisis of the 1970s that led to mass incarceration nullified many of the voting rights protections and other freedoms achieved throughout the decade prior. The deepening of the carceral state in our time mirrors a similar phase of prison construction across the country that followed the ratification of the 13th Amendment.3. There is a cyclical pattern that follows the achievement of racial progress in America: each large-scale White countermeasure leads to renewed violence against Blacks. Perhaps it isn’t ignorance that causes this. Perhaps, in some cases, it is a White backlash to perceived Black progress.
In Capitalism and Slavery the historian Eric Williams describes the factors involved in the dismantling of the slave trade by the British Empire in the nineteenth century.4 Notably, Williams asserts that the British institution of plantation slavery in the Caribbean was largely undone by its own success: Black slavery built the capital that led to the industrial revolution, which produced new economic interests that ended Caribbean slavery. Williams refuted the commonly circulated notion that morality was a central force in ending the immoral practice. In contrast, Seymour Drescher has written in Econocide that the ultimate abolition of slavery in the British Empire resulted from economic interests and also from “political activism” driven by a moral cause.5 These opposite diagnoses of the causes of emancipation, although not American, reveal the entanglement of economic factors and moral problems.
Guilt that prompts the pursuit of a just action must not be accompanied or cosponsored by any other factors. For example, one cannot feel guilty and, at the same time, cite economic reasons to stop committing an injustice without substantially mitigating the claim of guilt. This precisely ought to be the case, especially when considering White guilt-prompting action in response to violence directed toward Black communities. I make this claim for an assortment of reasons. First, it is dehumanizing: unjust actions that disproportionately exploit vulnerable populations should be countermanded on that basis alone, without the need for any other justification. Second, the existence of an accompanying justification subtly implies that either of the justifications offered to end the unjust action is insufficient alone. If an unjust action is overturned on the basis that it is both immoral and economically inefficient, that presumably leaves the door open for an unjust action to be implemented that is exploitative and immoral but economically efficient. This has routinely ensued under the gaze of White guilt.
The conflation of economics and morality by feelings of White guilt seems particularly dangerous given America’s habit of commercializing the state violence inflicted on Black communities. This is another reason why people should be, at the very least, skeptical of the fruits of White guilt. From slavery to sharecropping, to convict leasing, Jim Crow, redlining, mass incarceration, and the financial crisis of 2008 that disproportionately wiped out Black wealth percent-wise, and on to problems that lie ahead, like the outcomes of environmental racism, profit in the face of Black exploitation has never ceased. Black people are more than three times more likely to have asthma than White people in America, and four times more likely to die from it.6
These unjust circumstances all can be summarized by the term state-sanctioned violence and they all lead toward the overall destruction of Black people. A recent counter to White violence has been the #BlackLivesMatter movement, created to challenge and shift American politics away from the abuse of Black communities. With the rise of the BLM movement, America’s predictable instinctual reaction was to subvert the validity of the claims made by Black activists under the slogan “AllLivesMatter.” In a revealing manner, the ALM chant invaded the minds of folk across various ideological and political spheres. BLM activists presented evidence of violent Black exploitation to the general White community and the result was invalidation. Therefore, it is my contention that White “guilt” throughout American history has done little in terms of progress for people of African descent in the United States. What is needed from White people is action addressing current and historical injustices, not their tears.
Stephen Neilson is a graduate student at the Harris School of Public Policy at the University of Chicago. He is a graduate of Morehouse College, where he studied Political Science and Sociology. He is interested in topics that range from Black liberation to political theory, environmental policy, and the history of the Caribbean.
- Michael Bellesiles, Lethal Imagination: Violence and Brutality in American History (New York: New York University Press, 1999), 60.
- Joe Feagin, Racist America (New York: Routledge, 2010).
- Matthew W. Meskell, “An American Resolution: The History of Prisons in the United States from 1777 to 1877,” Stanford Law Review 51, no. 4 (1999): 859–66.
- Eric E. Williams, Capitalism and Slavery (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1944), 38–41.
- Seymour Drescher, Econocide: British Slavery in the Era of Abolition, 2d ed. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010), 123.
- Anthony R. Chase, “Assessing and Addressing Problems Posed by Environmental Racism,” Rutgers Law Review 45, no. 2 (1993): 21.