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Collective guilt Is a catastrophic mistake

Laura Hollis on

During my lifetime, the national conversation about race has gradually moved from culpability for individual behavior to culpability for ideology to collective culpability without regard to behavior or ideology.

This transition is significant. It is deliberate. And it is dangerous.

Focusing on "discrimination," as our laws have done for decades, places the emphasis on conduct , which can be clearly identified and prohibited. Individuals (or groups) who engage in that prohibited conduct can be penalized.

Punishing an attitude of racism, however, is more problematic. It is one thing to condemn it. But how do you penalize or sanction it, apart from the conduct that reflects it?

Contemporary race theorists and activists have chosen to expand their definitions even further to encompass what they now call "systemic racism" and "white privilege." These newer, broader definitions of the reprehensible sweep much wider swaths of people into the "racism" net, no matter how beneficent and inclusive their personal attitudes and actions may be.

According to these theories, one is culpable simply for having "benefitted" from a system in which blacks and other minorities were -- and are -- discriminated against. "Race" is not only a "social construct"; it becomes a matter of economic identity, rather than ethnic identity. Even nonwhites who have succeeded in this system become "white" by virtue of that success. Conversely, whites who have endured poverty, discrimination, broken homes, substance abuse or countless other factors beyond their control that have impeded their own upward mobility are told that those struggles are irrelevant to their "privilege."

 

It is one thing to acknowledge that blacks have suffered grievous discrimination, and that the consequences of that continue to this day. Those are the ugly facts. Similarly, when white Americans -- or anyone who has not personally endured bias and discrimination -- vow to do everything in their power to make their community and our country a better place, that is individual agency, not collective guilt.

But some of the current calls for "honest conversations" entail members of the "privileged" classes admitting to collective culpability. This is cast as a precursor to "healing," and many well-intentioned people are more than willing to do it. I have read tweets and emails, and watched videos in which white Americans kneel, bow their heads in supplication, beg for forgiveness for the wrongs committed by other people or refer to themselves as "recovering racists" simply because they are white.

This is insulting, offensive and dangerous.

First, it runs completely counter to one of the most fundamental tenets of the American legal tradition: We do not punish people for the crimes or wrongdoing of others.

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