Richard Spencer, the infamous American white supremacist, fundamentally misunderstands biology, history, and social anthropology, resulting in a deeply flawed moral economy. Although his racist beliefs are extreme, I think that we can take them as a point of departure for evaluating less conspicuous, but more prevalent, forms of insensitivity, including the denial that white people should feel guilty for benefiting from white privilege. After surveying these attitudes, I argue that white guilt is an appropriate affective response to knowing that one is unfairly benefiting from an economy of racial injustice. It is also a constitutive part of taking responsibility for one’s role within this system.
Spencer, in case you’re not familiar, is a white supremacist – in his preferred terminology, a ‘racialist,’ – who believes that white people are a superior ‘race.’ He takes a race to be “something between a breed and an actual species.” He espouses an ‘identitatian’ politics on which white people have a collective identity rooted in their genes and shared history, and this history is something to celebrate. He claims that “race is the foundation of identity,” meaning that race confers morally-relevant character traits – traits that constitute a person’s deepest self. He supports the creation of an exclusively white nation or a “white ethno-state.”
This system of beliefs is so distorted on so many levels, it’s difficult to know where to begin, but I’ll start with what I take to be a basic axiom– the belief that there are separate races with separate and distinct biological traits, and these biological traits are linked to moral properties that determine each group’s moral character. This belief is doubly unscientific, as there are, in fact, no biologically distinct races, and phenotypic traits do not correlate with moral properties. Kwame A. Appiah pointed this out in his 1990 essay, so I won’t elaborate, except to say that there is general consensus that race is a social construct.
Next, Spencer believes that European people’s history of oppressing other races is a mark of strength and moral excellence, rather than a geographical accident, combined with moral and political corruption on the part of the beneficiaries. To begin, Europeans were able to develop agricultural surpluses because they happened to live in a fertile geographical location with easily-domesticated animals; this surplus of crops enabled a division of labour and accelerated technological progress, including the production of steel and guns; and these developments allowed Europeans to slaughter and oppress other peoples, whom they encountered on their voyages. Their advantage lay not so much in their fighting ability as in their acquired immunity to transmissible diseases, conferred by their close proximity to livestock, together with their location in a hospitable climate. In other words, Europeans were able to develop a hegemonic imperialist culture by virtue of a series of geographical accidents, not due to innate properties. All of this was pointed out by Jared Diamond in ‘Guns, Germs, and Steel’ (2007), but anyone with a passing familiarity with anthropology and a modicum of common sense could have figure out the basic premise.
This isn’t the end of the story, of course, because Europeans weren’t just lucky: they exploited their geographical good fortune to oppress differently-geographically-located groups, and this was a conscious choice and an act of political will. Far from being heroic, this political decision was one of the most shameful acts of terrorism in history.
If Spencer truly wanted to reclaim his European ancestors’ heritage, he would apologize on their behalf to historically oppressed groups and demand that governments of white-majority countries pay reparations to these groups out of taxpayer dollars. He would also admit that European hegemony is rooted in a historical accident that was then exploited by Europeans who, after committing cultural genocide, rewrote history to favour their interests, and created racist policies to protect their privileged status. These historical myths and social practices have been passed down to the current generation, and are being revivified by Spencer and his followers.
This is just the tip of the iceberg. Spencer holds homophobic and misogynistic beliefs that are similarly rooted in false biological assumptions, misrepresentations of history, ignorance about social anthropology, and false generalizations about the targeted social groups. Apparently Spencer holds an M.A. in the Humanities from the University of Chicago, but what knowledge he could have gained during this degree is truly a mystery for the ages. So misguided are his beliefs about every aspect of human nature, it beggars belief that he was deemed competent at any single discipline in the Humanities.
Spencer’s claims that European culture is admirable and ought to be ‘reclaimed’ and championed are widely rejected because they are embedded in a broader racist belief system. What surprises me is that a lot of people seem to think that European culture is dissociable from the institution of slavery, in a way that Nazism is not dissociable from the Holocaust. Europeans are a larger and more diverse group than Nazis, of course, but to think that European history can be expunged of, or bracketed from, the politics of slavery is just another example of Eurocentric historical revisionism. If you are going to claim derivative responsibility for the positive accomplishments of European peoples, you must also, by the same token, claim derivative responsibility for the system of oppression that enabled those developments and is intertwined with the politics and morality of that culture. That is, if you are going to feel pride about your European inheritance, you must also feel, by the same token, shame. You cannot cherry-pick flattering elements of your cultural legacy and tout them as emblematic, while pretending that institutionalized, race-based terrorism is not part and parcel of that same legacy.
A common objection to this line of reasoning is that slavery is a thing of the past and therefore has no bearing on the image or self-conception of contemporary white people. But this logic is flawed for two reasons. First, if you are going to claim that ‘white culture’ exists at all, you must admit that oppressing other races is a defining feature of this culture’s historical legacy. Second, even if you wanted to draw an arbitrary line in the historical record and extol ‘white culture’ as it now exists (ignoring the history that led up to it), you would be denying the fact that white people currently reap the rewards of historical white imperialism, because this legacy is enshrined in our current systems of legal and social practices. For example, red lining and anti-black credit policies throughout the 20th Century banned Black Americans from purchasing valuable property, resulting in a 21st-Century economy in which white households are worth 20 times as much as black households; Black American are incarcerated at five times the rate of white Americans; Black Americans are paid less than White Americans at every level of education; and so on and so forth. These are current injustices enforced by our current social institutions (not to mention the countless microagressions that Black Americans face on a regular basis). Thus, if ‘reclaiming white culture’ means anything, it means taking responsibility, if not for Europe’s legacy of cultural genocide, then at least for profiting off of the fallout of this legacy, viz., the systems of racial injustice in which we are presently situated. It also arguably means agreeing to pay reparations to historically disenfranchised groups, who continue to bear the burden of white cultural imperialism.
Even many people who are not proud of European history or ‘white culture’ deny that they ought to feel guilty in light of the fact that they are participating in a system of racial injustice that unfairly favours them. This refusal of collective guilt is weaker than ‘white pride’, but still, in my opinion, a kind of bad faith, because it denies the reality that white people are profiting off of racism and, for the most part, doing remarkably little to foster change. Oddly, justice theorists like Jose Medina and Althea Prince (who are not white) argue that white people need not feel guilty, we simply need to acknowledge the existence of white privilege in order to discharge our moral-epistemic obligations. But how can we dissociate these two states? Being aware of your (unearned, historically contingent) privileges surely entails some negative affective response. Turning to philosophy, on some theories of responsibility (e.g., Arpaly), benefiting from injustice may be sufficient for feeling guilty; on others (e.g., Fischer), benefiting from injustice together with being in a position to grasp and respond to this situation may be sufficient for guilt. There is good philosophical reason, I believe, to feel guilty as the beneficiary of white privilege – unless you are making a momentous effort to foment political change. For the average white person, lack of guilt for one’s status in the social order is a reliably sign of (what Charles Mills calls) white ignorance as well as moral insensitivity, and is therefore grounds for blame.
Relatedly, people who lack adequate guilt are notoriously defective in their capacity for moral responsibility, i.e., their capacity to respond to moral facts. This applies not only to psychopaths and clinical narcissists (who are incapable of guilt and sympathy), but also to relatively neurotypical people who are in denial about certain facts of life. Responsibility deficits can be global or domain-specific: psychopaths lack guilt entirely, while ordinary people who are in denial have circumscribed insensitivities, which allow them to retain their rosy self-conception while denying the reality of their role in systems of social injustice. Having these traits makes one an appropriate target for blame and censure.
Another objection to the argument for ‘white guilt’ – feeling guilty for benefiting from systemic white privilege – is that white privilege is simply an accident, not something over which we have control and can bear responsibility. (This objection assumes a control-based theory of responsibility, which is relatively stringent, but I will grant it for the sake of argument). Perhaps white privilege is an instance of moral luck, over which we can feel, at most, “agent-regret,” not guilt. Agent-regret is a term coined by Bernard Williams (1979) to describe the feeling a moral agent experiences in response to causing harm purely by accident. If a trolley driver hits and kills a child who darts out into the road, the driver feels ‘agent-regret’ if he is a competent moral agent, but he is not responsible for the tragedy – perhaps no one is responsible. Maybe white people are in the position of the trolley driver, in that they lack control over their privileged status, though this status imposes harms and limitations on historically disenfranchised groups. Notably, this analogy already entails a concession, which is that we should feel, at least, agent-regret about benefiting from white privilege. But white privilege is not actually a case of moral luck, because beneficiaries of white privilege do not simply cause harm, we also profit off of this harm: we gain substantive advantages in terms of economic security, perceived credibility, and so on. If the trolley driver had killed the child and subsequently been rewarded for doing so, and also kept the reward, he would then be implicated in a harm over which he had no control (warranting agent-regret), as well as responsible for an injustice (reaping the rewards of that tragedy). What he should do is transfer the rewards to the family of the deceased child to compensate for their loss. Benefiting from a system of racial injustice is like this: it is a state of affairs in which both agent-regret and guilt are fitting for beneficiaries. People who lack these sentiments may be morally /epistemically lacking.
Spencer’s belief system is riddled with such flaws – denials of reality, misconstruals of the historical record, mythical interpretations of contemporary social institutions, and so on… White ignorance is a matter of degree, and Spencer is on the far end of the spectrum – the fringe of extreme ignorance. Spencer is also on the far end of the spectrum of white privilege, since he is seemingly well-off and directly profits from his ancestors’ enslavement of African peoples, as an absentee landlord (with his mother and sister) of “5,200 acres of cotton and corn fields in an impoverished, largely African American region of Louisiana.” This means that Spencer is both high in white privilege and high in white ignorance – a toxic combination of moral-epistemic flaws. Instead of feeling the guilt appropriate to a moral agent, he willfully denies responsibility, choosing to re-interpret biology, history, and social anthropology in a way that justifies his narcissistic worldview. He is not someone with whom moral agents can have a functional relationship – he is, in Strawson’s term (1963), outside of the boundaries of the moral community.
I’ve said a lot in this post, but the main points are: (1) Spencer is deeply delusional, not merely by accident, but by virtue of his own willful (white) ignorance; and (2) white guilt is a respectable philosophical concept – namely, the appropriate affective response to voluntarily benefiting from privileges conferred by social injustice. White guilt can also be seen as the content of an attitude of responsibility (following Strawson’s model), in which one takes responsibility for a wrong, in this case, accepting the proceeds of racial injustice.