Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

In 1936, Harry Hopkins made a speech defending the honor of the poor.

I am getting sick and tired of all these people on the W.R.A. and local relief roles being called chiselers and cheats. These people are just like the rest of us. They don’t drink any more than us, they don’t lie any more, they’re no lazier than the rest of us—they’re pretty much a cross section of the American people. . . . I have gone all over the moral hurdles that people are poor because they are bad. I don’t believe it. A system of government on that basis is fallacious.

Fifty years later, virtually the same words were spoken by Jesse Jackson at the 1988 Democratic national convention.

Most poor people are not lazy. . . . Most poor people are not on welfare. . . . They work hard every day. . . . They catch the early bus. They work hard every day. They raise other people’s children. . . . They clean the streets. . . . They drive vans with cabs. . . . They change the beds you slept in [in] these hotels last night and can’t get a union contract. They work hard every day. . . . Someone must defend them because . . . they cannot speak for themselves. They work in hospitals. . . . They wipe the bodies of those who are sick with fever and pain. They empty their bed pans. They clean out their commode. No job is beneath them, and yet when they get sick, they cannot lie in the bed they made up every day. America, that is not right. We are a better nation than that.

Hopkins and Jackson were both engaged in a task central to the advocacy of the welfare state: denying any important differences between people who are poor and people who aren’t. This denial serves three purposes. First, if the poor are just like the rest of us, then poverty is something that happens to people for reasons unrelated to their character or conduct. To hector the poor to be more diligent or thrifty is cruel and gratuitous. Second, if poverty is a calamity that simply befalls some people, then our sympathetic instinct to help those who suffer must not be restrained or mitigated by thoughts that we are encouraging the sort of conduct by the poor that perpetuates their poverty. The liberal ideal for the welfare state is the relief effort for victims of natural disasters, in which we alleviate a plight that can in no way be blamed on the behavior of those who suffer from it. And finally, if poverty can truly happen to anyone, then it is in the self-interest of people not currently poor to support a thorough and generous welfare state as a prudent recognition of the universality of susceptibility to hardship.

Defending the honor of the poor by insisting they are just like the rest of the population shores up liberalism at its most vulnerable point, namely, its inability to explain why people who don’t benefit from the welfare state should acquiesce in the taxes that pay for it. The more closely those who are not poor identify with those who are, the easier it will be to secure their support for programs to help the poor, or persuade them that programs that help people regardless of how much they make have the same moral stature as programs directed to the poor.

Now while Hopkins and Jackson were saying the same thing, the historical conditions under which they were saying it were very different. The Depression made it easy for New Deal liberals to convince the country that harsh Darwinian ideas about poverty were wrong. The millions of Americans who were unemployed and impoverished surely were victims of an economic catastrophe. Clearly, they were not suddenly and inexplicably too lazy to care for themselves. Those Americans who still had their jobs in the 1930s could easily believe that better luck was all that distinguished them from their neighbors who were out of work. Knowing that their own fortunes might well change, they could envision how government programs that help people when they cannot help themselves could be their own salvation.

By the same token, the unprecedented economic growth that began after World War II steadily weakened the identification of the rest of society with the poor. The ever larger and more prosperous middle class found it increasingly difficult to believe that they were as susceptible to impoverishment as migrant farm workers or slum residents. For millions of Americans, this awareness of their own prosperity incorporated the knowledge of the numerous opportunities created in postwar America as well as the great efforts they and their peers had made in responding to those opportunities. To view the poor as people just like themselves, but with worse luck, would have required them to disparage their own sacrifices and achievements. A couple that had undergone the experience of night school or job transfers, that had taken on mortgages and the anxieties of raising children properly, could no longer look at the chronically poor and sincerely believe, as liberals insisted they must, “There but for the grace of God go I.”

Liberals looked upon this change of heart sourly. After working on the Adlai Stevenson presidential campaign of 1952, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. summarized his candidate’s defeat by saying, “Having been enabled by Democratic administrations to live like Republicans, the new suburbanites ended up voting like Republicans.”

In the 1960s, this kind of bitterness about the decline in the identification of the American majority with the poor was expressed more frequently and forcefully. As the poor became more anomalous in America, liberals became more insistent that the poor were not to be blamed for their poverty. No attempt to vindicate the honor of the poor was more comprehensive than a 1970 book called Blaming the Victim by William Ryan. It was a book whose title was to prove more memorable than its content; during the two decades since its publication “blaming the victim” has remained on the lips of politicians and intellectuals as a codified rebuke to any suggestion that people are poor because of what they have done or not done rather than because of what has been done to them or not done for them.

The admonition against blaming the victim is, strictly speaking, tautological. Victims are by definition people who are not responsible for what has happened to them. The real argument, then, is not about whether to blame victims, but about who can and who can’t legitimately lay claim to the designation.


The desire to bestow victimhood on virtually all poor people in America was dramatically intensified in the 1960s by the fusion of liberalism’s civil rights agenda with its welfare state agenda. The problems of poverty and race had once been regarded as overlapping but distinct. John F. Kennedy, for example, is said to have encountered truly horrendous poverty in America for the first time during the 1960 West Virginia primary, not while campaigning in Harlem. At the same time, the civil rights movement was unwilling to turn its attention from fighting Jim Crow to fighting poverty. As Nicholas Lemann has written, “The [1963] March on Washington was officially billed as the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, and its chief organizer. Bayard Rustin, was annoyed that King’s overpowering ‘I Have a Dream’ speech effectively switched the focus from economic issues in the North to segregation in the South.”

Rustin would not have to wait much longer for the poverty issue to become central to the politics of race relations. The 1963 march turned out to be one of the last moments in American history when it was possible to think of race as an especially Southern problem. The Watts riot erupted one week after the signing of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, the last great piece of civil rights legislation. By the time the riots ended in Watts—and Detroit, and Newark, and dozens of other cities—Americans understood that race was a much bigger problem than they had ever thought before. Liberals in particular believed that poverty in the Northern ghettos had become America’s most urgent crisis.

The civil rights movement had coincided with the peak of liberals’ confidence in their own ability to manage domestic and international affairs. Optimism about attainment of racial harmony was of a piece with the certainty that Keynesian economics and the containment doctrine were adequate to their tasks. Once the vestigial feudal legal structure of Southern segregation was dismantled, it was believed, blacks would follow other ethnic groups in taking advantage of the freedom to assimilate and prosper. Furthermore, the fight against segregation, while politically difficult, was morally simple. It appealed to a principled understanding of equality that could be traced back through Lincoln to Jefferson and the Declaration of Independence.

By the same token, the decline of liberalism coincided with, and to a large extent was caused by, the growing moral complexity and practical difficulty of pursuing racial justice after segregation had been vanquished. The seeds of the troubles to come are visible in this passage from the famous speech President Johnson made at Howard University in 1965:

You do not take a person who, for years, has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him up to the starting line of the race and then say, “you are free to compete with all the others,” and still justly believe that you have been completely fair.

Thus it is not enough just to open the gates of opportunity. All our citizens must have the ability to walk through those gates.

This is the next and more profound stage of the battle for civil rights. We seek not just freedom but opportunity—not just legal equity but human ability—not just equality as a right and a theory but equality as fact and as a result.

The new civil rights goal, then, was to “address the problems” caused by the history of legally sanctioned discrimination against blacks. As with most liberal directives, it is impossible to apply this one in a way that allows us to know whether we have satisfied its terms or not. Even allowing for Johnson’s orotund rhetoric, it is unclear what his injunctions—opportunity, human ability, equality as a fact and as a result—will require in practice. But the policies and arguments that have been advanced for twenty-five years to give flesh to such aspirations make it possible to infer their meaning in theory. Slavery and segregation having been abolished, runs the argument, America must now transform itself into the society that would exist if these evils had never been practiced at all. Because the social evils bequeathed by the history of racial discrimination are enormous, this transformation will have to be, at the practical level, a prodigious reconstructive effort; and because America’s legacy of racial bigotry is so deeply regrettable, the assumption of the burden of undoing it will be a necessary and profound act of atonement.

A fixture of liberal rhetoric in the late 1960s was the call for massive federal programs to end urban poverty—“Marshall Plans for our cities.” The desire to redeem America from its history of racism made the rhetoric used to advance these programs more apocalyptic, and the recommended price tags larger, but did not otherwise force liberals to stretch themselves. Since the liberal instinct is to believe that every problem deserves a program, the discovery of a very big problem naturally required the creation of a very big program.

It was in coming to terms with the moral logic of its new understanding of the politics of race that liberalism was forced to enter uncharted and perilous terrain. The corollary of the increased emphasis on white culpability for the suffering of blacks was a new hesitancy about expressing expectations or judgments of blacks’ behavior. The enormity of America’s history of oppression meant that the right of white people to expect any particular conduct from blacks, and the obligation of black people to comply with such expectations, were both severely attenuated. Black compliance with “white middle-class values” should no longer be taken for granted; such compliance involved, at best, heroic self-restraint, given the cruelties inflicted on blacks; at worst, it made blacks complicit in sabotaging the redress of their powerful grievances against America.

In other words, whites had no right to ask, and blacks had no duty to proffer, reassuring behavior. In the public arena, this meant that blacks were not obliged to “work within the system,” given the brutality inflicted upon them by the system over the decades. No one winced in 1963 when President Kennedy characterized blacks’ civic obligations as a component of their participation in the social contract: “We have a right to expect that the Negro community will be responsible, will uphold the law, but they have a right to expect that the law will be fair; that the Constitution will be color-blind . . .” By the end of the 1960s, few liberals could bring themselves to insist on any such quid pro quo. Black compliance with the law was no longer something whites were entitled to expect. Liberals allowed that they could not condone rioting and law-breaking, but always hastened to point out that, in view of how blacks have suffered, they understood it. Sometimes the distinction between understanding and condoning shrank to invisibility. Hubert Humphrey concluded a description of the horrors of slum life in a 1966 speech by saying, “If I lived in such conditions, I could lead a mighty good revolt myself.”

At the level of personal relationships, the new sensibility about race meant that whites had no right to ask for the psychological reassurance that came from false deference by blacks or unmerited displays of racial comity. “Integration” and “brotherhood” had been the ideals of the civil rights movement before 1965. But under the ensuing dispensation of hyperawareness of the legacy of discrimination, whites dared not seek, and blacks dared not give, signs that there were, in spite of everything, “no hard feelings.” Hard feelings were precisely what now constituted in the minds of white liberals the essential manifestation of black authenticity. Grave dignity and selflessness had characterized the civil disobedience of the Southern sit-ins and marches. Whites might still admire this heroic behavior, but this admiration was clouded by the belief that to insist on blacks’ indefinite forbearance was impossible, and that, in light of the severe provocation, black behavior in fighting Jim Crow may have been, after all, insufficiently assertive. For many whites, the situation became a Catch-22: they continued to hope for the spirit of racial reconciliation that had characterized the civil rights movement, but regarded blacks who actually behaved in conciliatory ways as untrue to the historic situation and destiny of their people.

Thus, in the political calculus that flowed from portraying racism as the central fact of American life, no white effort to redress the transgressions against the blacks was ever adequate, and no black challenge to the privileges or sensibilities of whites was ever excessive. The severity of this shift in the liberal outlook was displayed most vividly in the reaction to the 1965 report on the black family, issued by the Department of Labor and written by Daniel Patrick Moynihan when he was an assistant secretary there. The Moynihan report, observes Nicholas Lemann, “might be the single most refuted document in American history, a slim pamphlet to whose discrediting book after book has been devoted.”

The most remarkable aspect about this reaction is that the Moynihan report itself took great pains to identify white bigotry as the fundamental cause of the breakdown of the black family: “There is a considerable body of evidence,” says the report, “to support the conclusion that Negro social structure, in particular the Negro family, battered and harassed by discrimination, injustice, and uprooting, is in the deepest trouble.” President Johnson’s speech at Howard University, which Moynihan helped write, put forward the same argument:

Perhaps most important—its influence radiating to every part of life—is the breakdown of the Negro family structure. For this, most of all, white America must accept responsibility. It flows from centuries of oppression and persecution of the Negro man. It flows from long years of degradation and discrimination, which have attacked his dignity and assaulted his ability to provide for his family.

None of these efforts spared the Moynihan report from controversy. Its argument was that from 1948 to 1963 black male unemployment and the number of black families applying for Aid to Families with Dependent Children had been very closely correlated—reassuring evidence that a liberal program of full employment and job training would eliminate black poverty. But when these two statistics began to diverge, and AFDC cases increased despite falling unemployment rates among black males, Moynihan felt that changes within the black community were decoupling economic opportunity and family stability. His report argued that the new intervening variable was the breakdown of the black family. He cited statistics showing that one of every four black infants was now born out of wedlock, and employed vivid rhetoric to describe the “tangle of pathologies” that perpetuated itself in communities without cohesive families.

The civil rights leader James Farmer had a syndicated newspaper column in 1965, and he used it to denounce the Moynihan report for providing “the fuel for a new racism.”

By laying the primary blame for present-day inequalities on the pathological condition of the Negro family and community, Moynihan has provided a massive academic cop-out for the white conscience and clearly implied that Negroes in this nation will never secure a substantial measure of freedom until we learn to behave ourselves and stop buying Cadillacs instead of bread.

William Ryan’s book Blaming the Victim was an expanded version of a critique of the Moynihan report he wrote for The Nation, titled “Savage Discovery.” Twenty-five years later, The Nation was still enraged by the Moynihan report, denouncing it in a special issue called “Scapegoating the Black Family.” One of the contributors to this issue, Jewell Handy Gresham, wrote:

[The] report served the time-tested purpose: Whenever the system is in crisis (or shows signs of becoming transformed); whenever blacks get restless (or show strength); whenever whites in significant numbers show signs of coming together with blacks to confront their mutual problems (or enemies), the trick is to shift the focus from the real struggle for political and economic empowerment to black “crime,” degeneracy, pathology, and—in Moynihan’s innovative twist—the “deterioration” of the black family.

By 1989, the black illegitimacy rate, which Moynihan found so alarming in 1965 when it reached 25 percent, was over 63 percent. Narcotics and lethal violence constituted a well-documented epidemic in the ghettos. Yet The Nation still felt constrained to use quotation marks in alluding to black “crime” and the “deterioration” of the black family, as if these were phenomena of dubious factuality. Clearly, an important part of the reaction to the Moynihan report was the belief that it was sinister, not because it had spread falsehoods, but because the truths it chose to examine were unfit for public discussion.

The avoidance of victim-blaming has, ever since the Moynihan report, mandated great efforts to police the boundaries of the undiscussable, and berate all who transgress them. Two rules, both deriving from the fundamental goal of nullifying every consequence of the legacy of American racism, control the determination of these boundaries. First, since racism must be completely expunged from America, the presentation of any data that might gratify racists or reinforce their beliefs is wrong. Second, and in particular, since white injustice against blacks is the crux of American history, and indemnifying that injustice is America’s most profound duty, any account suggesting that black people’s problems or their progress can be explained by their own conduct, rather than in terms of social conditions determined by whites, is impermissible. James Farmer brought up the white conscience because it is supposed to be guilty—it has so much to be guilty about—and he condemned the Moynihan report because it might assuage that guilt.

Reverberations of those altered sensibilities are reflected in one participant’s account of a 1965 White House conference on race (quoted in Lee Rainwater and William L. Yancey’s The Moynihan Report and the Politics of Controversy):

There was a total refusal by most of the Negroes [I heard] to discuss anything that might remotely imply that there was anything whatsoever that Negroes, individually or collectively, should be doing or needed to do. [One leader’s] formulation, which was repeated ad nauseam, was that race was entirely a white man’s problem that could only be solved by white men, and that it was intolerable that the government had all these white men sitting around discussing “our problem.” They simply refused to discuss anything but what the government ought to be doing. They even refused to discuss the question of how Negroes might mount more effective political pressure to force the government to institute the programs they were demanding.

White liberals who might once have joined this observer in being exasperated by such intransigence now took it to be their duty to go to almost any lengths to react “constructively.” Did the attainment of racial justice require white initiatives and ingenuity, rather than black perseverance? Then initiatives and ingenuity there must be. Christopher Jencks, for example, expressed doubts that the black family was in as bad a shape as the Moynihan report claimed. But even if it were, he wrote, the problem could be solved by others:

If [poor black families] are matriarchal by choice (i.e., if lower-class men, women, and children truly prefer a family consisting of a mother, children, and a series of transient males) then it is hardly the federal government’s proper business to try to alter this choice. Instead, the government ought to invent ways of providing such families with the same physical and psychic necessities of life available to other kinds of families.

A government determined to guarantee not only the physical but the psychological welfare of a family consisting of an unmarried nineteen-year-old girl raising three children is going to have to be very inventive indeed. The Jencks formulation reveals an attitude that is at once generously accommodating about how people live their lives, and at the same time deeply anxious about the circumstances in which they live. Most remarkably, these divergent concerns are to be reconciled by a benevolent government that is charged with the duty to intercede constantly to make sure that there are never any disagreeable connections between the two—that how people act never has any adverse effects on how they live.

Jencks’ approach was given an elaborate theoretical justification a few years later by John Rawls in A Theory of Justice. The principles of justice Rawls devised require that any person’s “life plan” be accepted as equal in dignity to anyone else’s. Even a man who wants to spend his life counting blades of grass is not to be reproached. Instead, the just society will arrange itself to maximize everyone’s “primary goods,” the basic resources that are conducive to the pursuit of a whole range of life plans. These include not only what Jencks would call the physical necessities, such as wealth, but psychic necessities that, for Rawls, include a sense of one’s own worth. The counter of grass blades is not only to be spared any harassment; society must act affirmatively to guarantee that his blade counting does not detract from his material wellbeing and that he is accorded the encouragement and respect he needs to pursue his life plan. As Allan Bloom says, the government of such a society is laissez faire with respect to the ends people pursue, but beaucoup faire regarding the means to those ends.

The rise and dogged defense of affirmative action policies displays all the features of the transformed liberal understanding of racial justice: the overriding desire to eliminate every consequence traceable to racial discrimination; the steady trivialization of one of the moral ideals of the civil rights movement, the attainment of a color-blind society; the attempt to declare a controversial topic off-limits, enforced by the ready accusation of racism; and the need for limitless government intervention in the service of operationally hazy and ever-receding goals.

The most remarkable thing about affirmative action is that after twenty years of implementation and debate, it is still impossible to say what it means for an affirmative action program to succeed, or when one has gone too far in discounting the credentials of white school or job applicants. Affirmative action is always defended as a temporary departure from the principle of race-neutrality in the service of the larger goal of racial equity. But the duration and extent of this departure is never firmly fixed. In those places, particularly universities, where affirmative action has been most avidly embraced, the goal of racial equality and harmony is farther away than ever; and the inevitable response to this problem is an even more comprehensive and ambitious departure from the standard of color-blind policies.

Similarly, defenders of affirmative action assert that reasonableness will limit the discrimination practiced against whites. But there is no basis for this reasonableness in the theory of affirmative action and little evidence of it in the practice. If it is desirable for Harvard Law School to reject every white applicant whose credentials fall within a certain range while accepting every similarly qualified black applicant, why not apply this practice to the entire range of applicants, and reject all whites for a period of several years? Wouldn’t this hasten the indemnification of past injustices, the overriding objective of affirmative action? Wouldn’t it constitute a decisive triumph of the moral imperatives of social justice over the allegedly specious claims that meritocratic practices can identify and reward the talented and deserving? Little comfort can be derived from assurances that the proliferation of “Whites Need Not Apply” signs is unthinkable. Many things routinely done today in the name of racial justice would have been unthinkable not long ago. Did the Washington rally that cheered Martin Luther King’s dream that his children would be judged by the content of their character and not the color of their skin suspect that enthusiasm for policies judging by skin color would shortly become the litmus test for devotion to the civil rights cause?

The pre-1965 goal of integration, in the words of Joe Klein in New York magazine, “seems an impossibly romantic notion now. Even to propose it as the solution to the racial morass raises derisive hoots in the black community and patronizing shrugs and smiles from whites.” The case for racial integration incorporated both pragmatic and idealistic elements. The practical argument was that segregation led inevitably to inequality, while integration guaranteed that burdens imposed upon blacks would also afflict whites, and that whites would then find the alleviation of blacks’ problems to be important to their own self-interest. The romantic element was the belief that even as segregation reinforced itself by fortifying racial resentment, ignorance, and antagonism, integration would promote racial tolerance and harmony, evolving steadily from a government policy into a natural inclination.

The sudden rise of black particularism, and the equally sudden white acquiescence in it, extinguished the enthusiasm for integration. Black leaders who stressed the importance of blacks’ pride in their heritage and culture feared, plausibly, that true integration in a society in which blacks were a small minority would subordinate black distinctiveness. The newly acute awareness of white racism undermined the practical argument for integration as well. White guilt, justly reckoned, should provide ample motivation for whites to fulfill their obligations to blacks; the imperative to redress the legacy of racism was compromised by the reliance on white pursuit of self-interest in an integrated society. Above all, integration appeals to the same race-neutral principles that black separatism, like affirmative action, cannot abide. No general rule can justify condemning the idea of white student unions while at the same time applauding the creation of black ones. If the desire to associate solely with members of one’s own race deserves respect and political protection, then the segregationist argument against the measures pursued by the civil rights movement has been vindicated.

Black criminal behavior is the issue where liberals have failed most spectacularly to fashion a double standard that can simultaneously propitiate their own guilt and satisfy both logic and the limits of the American electorate’s tolerance. According to Joe Klein:

When aggrievement was proclaimed the central psychic fact of black life, the most aggrieved and alienated—the most amoral, the criminals—became the definers of “true” blackness in the media and also in the streets. White liberals, guilt-ridden (I write from experience), accepted this spurious definition at face value. Far worse, though: For a brief, truly revolting moment, white radicals celebrated the most antisocial blacks as culture heroes. Criminality was romanticized. . . . There was something incredibly careless—and so ironic as to feed the worst black paranoia—about both the white radicals’ celebration of and the liberals’ acceptance of this pathological behavior.

Candor, of course, had to be jettisoned as the limits of the discussable were redrawn to exclude black street crime. But the political cost of making excuses for, or discreetly playing down, a shocking increase in crime that terrified and enraged millions of people was enormous. Liberals could neither adhere to this line of argument, nor, having delivered innumerable admonitions about blaming the victim and treating the “root causes” of crime, could they easily repudiate it.

One response to this problem has been to emphasize the indisputable fact that most crimes committed by blacks are committed against blacks. Casting the discussion in these terms allows liberals to deplore black crime with a clear conscience; the focus on black victims establishes a connection between their new stand against crime and the older excoriation of the effects of white racism.

The situation remains awkward, however. To say that black-on-black crime is particularly regrettable implies that black-on-white crime is somehow more tolerable, an implication that is both morally and politically untenable. A brief exchange in a discussion about the future of the Democratic party suggests that liberals’ hand-wringing about crime is not likely to end soon. The participants included Rep. Barney Frank; Roland Burris, the black comptroller of Illinois; Jack Hitt, an editor of Harper’s Magazine; and Robert Reich, Harvard economist and author of The Resurgent Liberal.

Frank: Democrats have to admit a mistake first. We have intimidated ourselves out of saying that people who hit other people over the head—no matter what their childhood was like—are rotten people who ought to be locked up. Poverty and racism may explain, even predict, violent crime, but they do not excuse it.
Burris: Put the criminals in jail.
Hitt: That’s what the Republicans say.
Reich: Go beyond that. You could say that the black community is suffering more than the white community.
Frank: Don’t say that.
Burris: I can say that.
Frank: You’re right. You can.


There is no need to recount here the well-documented story of how the civil rights movement inspired political activism by other groups with grievances about their status in America and their treatment throughout American history. Whatever the correct assessment about the severity of these grievances, and the exact role played by the heroic example of the civil rights movement, it must be said that the moral and political advantages of victimhood were too great, and too obvious, for others to refrain indefinitely from laying claim to them. Women, Hispanics, American Indians, Asian-Americans, homosexuals, the disabled—within the decade following 1965, each group boasted a political movement seeking the satisfaction of its demands as a matter of moral recompense.

Despite liberalism’s instant and eager embrace of the goals and grievances of all these movements, the politics of victimhood has not flourished by becoming more popular. Some of the problems are clearly caused by this popularity itself. As more and more items are appended, the task of putting forward a perfectly harmonized victims’ agenda becomes increasingly difficult. In particular, those who have already established their victimhood are inevitably wary of new groups claiming the status who might thus dilute the political force of their own claims. The inevitable tensions among the various constituencies—between blacks and Hispanics, for example—create conflicts that not only complicate political activism, but threaten to make the overall political effort look like a collection of interest groups seeking advantages, rather than victims insisting on justice.

The more serious problem, however, is in the theory rather than the practice of the politics of victimhood. Its ultimate message is that weakness equals strength; the more vividly a group can depict its history of subjugation, the stronger its claims to redistributive justice. As it has been absorbed by liberalism, this victimhood argument is meant to put some steel in the liberals’ appeal to compassion as a rationale for paying for the welfare state. We feel compassion for the merely unfortunate, but something deeper for those who are outright victims. Our obligation is even more emphatic if we are the victimizers—or the beneficiaries of past or present victimizing carried out by others—rather than just good Samaritans who tend to the afflicted after the crime has been committed and the perpetrators have fled.

The increased urgency we are meant to feel about alleviating the plight of victims is at odds, however, with the effort to get the people who are going to pay for the welfare state to identify with its beneficiaries. The poor are not, as Hopkins and Jackson insisted, people just like the rest of us. They are set apart from us by the depredations they have endured. The people whom liberals want to pay for the welfare state are no longer encouraged to regard the poor as fellow citizens distinguished only by their misfortune, but as the rightful claimants to the wealth and power they deserve to have redistributed from the prosperous to them.

To the extent that this characterization of distributive justice is accepted by those who will pay for the welfare state, the power of the argument is undeniable. But gaining that acceptance is hard. It is not only self-interest but the sense of proportion inseparable from any discussion about justice that stands in the way. The politics of victimhood is meant to establish a connection between the vast injustices of the past and specific remedies to be imposed today. “Why should my taxes be raised, or my son rejected by a medical school that would have accepted him if not for its affirmative action program?” Because of the need to atone for the crimes of the slave traders and the rapacious settlers of the West and undo the consequences of those injustices, the liberal tells the prospective welfare state contributor. “But what does that have to do with me? I didn’t commit those acts, I don’t approve of them, and I don’t discriminate against members of minority groups. Why is it fair to penalize me for the sins of others?”

It is at this point that the idea of collective guilt must be invoked in one way or another. We are implicated in these historical crimes, says the liberal, and deserve to be penalized for them, by virtue of the fact (a) that we are the beneficiaries of social arrangements built on the foundations laid by this past exploitation; and (b) that despite our protests, we continue to treat and regard the historically victimized in discriminatory and injurious ways, sometimes knowingly, sometimes unconsciously.

The problem with this argument is that it proves too much rather than too little. It proves too much because the enormity and duration of the historical crimes to be redressed make it impossible to define a proportionate penalty, since they make it impossible to ascertain what a disproportionate penalty would be. Can anything short of the legalization of black ownership of white slaves, the departure of all Europeans from the Western hemisphere, and, for good measure, the expulsion of the Normans from England, rebalance the historical equation?

The collective guilt argument is politically ineffective not because it asks a lot, but because it offers no reason to believe that there are limits beyond which it will ask no more. It is one thing to be called upon to go the extra mile, and quite another to be told to step on a treadmill. Unceasing exhortations about the need to redress the massive injustices of the past produce in time not a sense of urgency but a retreat into cynical indifference. If, for example, the definition of a racist becomes so encompassing that anyone with pink skin and a pulse qualifies, it then becomes impossible both to know what it means not to be a racist, and to see why any particular endeavor to mitigate racism is not ultimately futile. People will not stay on a treadmill for long, once they come to understand that it is a treadmill.

If the politics of victimhood founders on the premise that weakness equals strength, it is served no better by the corollary that strength equals weakness. According special political rights to the victimized inevitably engenders new claims of victimization and the need for a criterion for accepting or rejecting those claims. The logic of the politics of victimhood dictates that this criterion will concern the severity of a group’s aggrievement. The least of the problems with this arrangement is that debates over whether a particular group has been “sufficiently” persecuted are seldom edifying. More troubling is the capriciousness with which the victimhood threshold is emplaced by self-appointed arbiters whose wisdom and impartiality are not obvious. A University of Washington task force on ethnicity declined to confer ethnic group status on Jews or on Italian and Irish-Americans, and it excluded anti-Semitism from a required course on racism in America because “anti-Semitism is not institutionalized in this country.” The attempt to capitalize on the instinctive empathy decent people feel for genuine victims is not enhanced when those claiming to represent these victims callously dismiss the grievances of other groups because they haven’t suffered “enough.”

The contention that strength equals weakness further complicates the politics of victimhood by discouraging—or at the very least rendering morally problematic—efforts by members of victimized groups to better their own circumstances. Victims who refuse to act like victims imperil the identity and prerogatives accorded their group by calling into question the helplessness of the other members. (Black students at inner-city high schools who are conspicuously attentive to their studies have been mocked by their peers for “acting white.”) The guardians of a group’s victimhood status are apprehensive that every instance of demonstrated self-sufficiency will gratify the skeptics who argue, “You see? They don’t need special treatment; they could make it if they tried.”

The effectiveness of the politics of victimhood depends on the acceptance of the belief that victims’ welfare is decisively dependent on the political rectification of their collective grievances. Advancement through individual efforts by members of a particular group, or by some groups markedly faster than others, calls into question the need for governmental allocation of advantages according to the adjudication of the claims of victimhood. The problem is not just that this individual advancement gives nonvictims pause about accepting the argument about the pervasive and crippling effects of victimization. These success stories also show that many victims themselves don’t really embrace this view; instead of agitating for—or despairing over—political deliverance from their plight, they set about changing it through individual, nonpolitical striving. It is not only the success of their efforts, but the very fact that some victims did not consider it futile to make them, that places a large question mark behind the assertions of the politics of victimhood.

There is something strange about a political movement that is scandalized by the well-being of its own constituents. And there is something pernicious about the facile equation of poverty with victimization; doing so condescendingly and harmfully excuses the poor from complying with the moral and practical imperatives that govern the lives of everyone else. It simultaneously demeans the poor by telling them that we expect less of them than we do from others, and affronts the millions of Americans who have escaped from poverty through their own efforts, disparaging their success as a sell-out to a morally contemptible system rather than the honorable pursuit of legitimate opportunities.

The liberal instinct is to blame human misery on environmental factors, and tell those affected that they have nothing to be ashamed of. (There are no bad boys, Eleanor Roosevelt said, only bad schools.) But it is impossible to keep the logic from working in both directions: People who have nothing to be ashamed of are left with nothing to be proud of. If living irresponsibly is not really our fault, then a conscientious, disciplined life is not really to our credit. We may explain the former as a result of social conditions rather than individual character and conduct, but we cannot then explain the latter in any other terms.

This attitude forfeits any moral leverage that we might wish to exert on people living in poverty, especially young people. It’s pointless to exhort people to be luckier, and better luck is the most benign characterization of how liberalism explains the distinction between prosperity and poverty. The least benign characterization alleges that the prosperous are prosperous because of their greed, their callousness, and their connivance in the victimization of the poor. Not only is it impossible to urge the poor to emulate the middle class, it is undesirable. If anything, social justice requires the middle class to emulate the poor, to be less driven, less eager to take advantage of opportunities that ultimately require taking advantage of others.

The voracious reductionism that undergirds the politics of victimhood can vindicate neither the honor of the poor nor the government’s redress of their grievances through the endless rearrangement of social advantages and conditions. The exact assessment of the relative importance of luck and pluck in determining how our lives unfold will always elude us. But the harshness we risk by overestimating the role of individual effort can be more easily tolerated and remedied than the paralysis created by exaggerating the power of social circumstance. If the effects of our environment are truly pervasive, then not only do the poor have a solid excuse for spurning a life of exertion and deferred gratification, but the prosperous are entitled to rationalize indifference to the poor as a result of their social conditioning rather than any moral failings.

No political arrangement can be truly cohesive among people who deny responsibility for their own beliefs and actions. But liberal democracy’s susceptibility to this determinism is especially acute. Resigned passivity may be appropriate, even necessary, for the many in a regime consisting of rulers and subjects. A republic of citizens, however, all of whom bear the responsibilities of both rulers and subjects, cannot govern itself unless these citizens believe in the potency of their own decisions.

In its embrace of the politics of victimhood liberalism does a disservice both to the interests of the poor and the preservation of democracy. Neither is served by the division of Americans into two classes, victims and victimizers, those with negligible and those with infinite social obligations. There is no basis in logic or experience for believing that the journey to reverse the effects of history’s iniquities takes place on any terrain except a very slippery slope. No discernible foothold can avert the descent of the whole endeavor into endless and bitter feuding over how to allocate every type of advantage and burden.

Liberals are right when they insist that regarding the poor as the equals of all other citizens is essential to the incorporation of a viable welfare state within a robust democracy. But equal rights are inseparable from equal responsibilities, including the responsibility for one’s own actions and the life determined by them. The goal of a truly humane social policy will be to provide the poor with opportunities for escaping poverty, not excuses for remaining impoverished. The perpetuation of self-government requires that we halt all discriminatory practices left over from harsher times. But American democracy will be crushed by the burden of reconstructing itself to cancel every effect of history’s sins.

Common sense must impose a statute of limitations on collective guilt. It is imperative not because America’s conscience needs to be salved, but because American democracy cannot reckon and honor claims of the past on the future that are infinite in their duration and scope. To construct a nation that irrevocably rejects the long, sad history of human exploitation would be a great triumph. To construct one that wipes away every consequence of this history would be a miracle requiring prodigies of wisdom, virtue, and steadfastness. Such miracles may define our hopes, but they should not be the premise of our policy agendas. To summon the strength we need for effecting the progress that really is within our power, we must let the past be the past. If liberalism is serious about helping the poor, it must jettison the dead-end politics of victimhood.

William Voegeli, a staff member at the John M. Olin Foundation in New York City, is the author of Good Intentions: A Critique of the Liberal Argument (Transaction), from which this article is adapted.

00 Days
00 Hours
00 Minutes
00 Seconds
Dear Reader,

Your charitable support for First Things is urgently needed before the clock above hits zero.

First Things is proud to be a reader-supported enterprise, and the Spring Campaign is one of only two major reader giving drives each year. It ends on June 30 at 11:59 p.m.

Your gift will fortify First Things to speak boldly on behalf of religious voices in the public square ahead of a pivotal season for our nation and the church.

Please give now.

Make My Gift