September 1, 2022 - 5:30pm

The great black writer Shelby Steele argues that after acknowledging the sin of racism in the mid-1960s, Americans, and whites in particular, lost their moral authority. To regain it, white liberals or those in elite positions virtue signal their anti-racism by declaring — through words and policies — that only mainstream white society, not individual responsibility, can deliver ‘black uplift.’ The result is to place responsibility for minority problems squarely at the foot of white America while stripping agency from minorities, consigning them to perpetual failure. Whites are self-determining agents, while minorities are other-determined objects.

The latest example of this double-consciousness over racial free will emerged in response to the latest American life expectancy statistics showing a 3-year decline in the country’s lifespan from 79 in 2019 to 76 in 2021. The progressive American media, determined to, in Steele’s words, ‘dissociate’ from racism in order to legitimate its moral authority and status, lavished microscopic attention on the racial disparities in the numbers.

Unfortunately for these moral entrepreneurs, the current gaps in life expectancy confound simple white supremacy hot takes: Asians live by far the longest, followed by Hispanics, then whites, blacks and finally Native Americans.

All groups have slipped during the pandemic but the one statistic that stands out is the dramatic fall in Native life expectancy, from 72 in 2019 to 65 in 2021. Rather than adopt a scientific approach in which a hypothesis (‘settler colonialism’) is advanced and counterarguments refuted, some American Leftists rushed to judgement in a bid to assert their moral bona fides. As one New York University professor admonished:

Life expectancy for Indigenous people in the U.S. fell by four years last year to only 65. That’s what life expectancy for all Americans was in 1944. A horrifying, devastating demonstration of what continued settler colonialism does. 
- Jacob Remes

The double-consciousness of viewing whites as self-determining agents and minorities as billiard balls determined by white systems wasn’t long in surfacing. In a relatively sober New York Times piece, one of the those interviewed attributed the drop in Native American lifespan to ‘longstanding health problems — rooted in poverty, discrimination and poor access to health care,’ leaving indigenous people susceptible to the virus.

Meanwhile, whites’ drop in life expectancy is attributed to their feckless disregard for the advice of health experts. For Dr. Steven Woolf, director emeritus of the Center on Society and Health at Virginia Commonwealth University, ‘racism and segregation’ marginalise minorities but:

The white population did worse in 2021 than communities of color… [This] reflects the greater efforts by Black and Hispanics to get vaccinated, to wear masks and take other measures to protect themselves, and the greater tendency in white populations to push back on those behaviors.
- Dr. Steven Woolf

Woolf’s virtue signalling perfectly illustrates Shelby Steele’s ‘dissociation’ thesis. Was Woolf ignorant or just lying when he performed his ‘look, I’m one of the good whites’ gesture? This is impossible to know, but, as Park MacDougald tweeted, data from the Kaiser Family Foundation shows that whites, blacks, and Hispanics all have similar vaccination rates, and whites are significantly more likely to have received a booster.

Steele’s contention is that white liberals’ performative dissociation from racism harms minorities by stripping them of the agency needed to solve their problems, and that progressives don’t really care about the results. One might add that it hampers scientific progress by preventing experts from testing potential explanations (such as anti-vaccine resistance in Native communities). These might point to alternative solutions (such as new vaccine outreach programmes) that could actually help solve the problems progressives profess to care about.

Eric Kaufmann is Professor at the University of Buckingham, and author of Whiteshift: Immigration, Populism and the Future of White Majorities. He is a Senior Fellow at Policy Exchange.