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"Fantasy Moral Capital,"

by Benjamin DeMott January/February 1998 issue of Poverty & Race

The Advisory Board could most usefully begin the process of educating white America about the history of its own retreat from concern with minority problems. Part of that history runs as follows:

Liberal wisdom in the post-Civil Rights era commenced minimizing the impact of the black past — the conditions that made programs of development a necessity. Rearguard racist tirades on black "inferiority" were answered by right-minded whites with assertions, absolute and unqualified, of black-white equality — no acknowledgment of distance resulting from separate caste backgrounds, separate modes of education and training, separate ways of achieving selfhood, separate levels of economic resource. The assertions played well because of the national feeling for the social potency of open-handed, one-on-one warmth. "Personalizing" and sociability were in the American grain: programs of racewide development were not. Wishfulness — the kind borne in such slogans as "we're all in the same boat, all taking our chances as we must" — took command, undermining the ability of the fair-minded to grasp that "decent" denials of difference obliterated caste history and left the largest sector of African America defenseless.

And then movies, sitcoms and ad-man culture took over. The society is ceaselessly distracted nowadays with new episodes of brave white dawnings, endless tales of once oblivious or heartless whites who become civil, find astonishing pleasure in the company of an African American and begin to understand. Now playing virtually nonstop in every medium, our national, self-congratulating epic of amity provides whites with unlimited occasions for contemplating their own sensitive antiracist selves — and no occasion for confronting objective race realities. It also provides the majority culture with huge supplies of fantasy capital — fantasy moral capital. Each story of "improved" white attitudes qualifies as a contribution to solving the "black problem" — a daily deposit in a white goodness savings account.

The weaknesses of official policy built on fantasy capital — fantasy denials — will appear only when questioning and criticism lay bare the flaws in that foundation. Because of its detachment, the Advisory Board can point the way toward this utterly vital questioning and criticism. It's the only route left to real action.

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