The Benefits of Asset-Based Antiracism over Guilt-Based Antiracism

Presented at the first Convocation of the Unitarian Universalist Multiracial Unity Action Caucus, April 30, 2010.

My goal in the next few minutes is to contrast guilt-based antiracism and asset-based antiracism, and share why I feel asset-based antiracism is the better choice. First a word of introduction.

For seventeen years at Defiance College in Ohio I taught Cultural Diversity classes every semester to a collection of Education majors, Criminal Justice majors, Social Work majors, Religion Majors, and a smattering of others. The student population in my classes, like the college itself, was mostly but not all white. My assigned task was to help prepare these students to work professionally in schools and agencies where they would be working with children and adults from every race, ethnicity, and economic background. I had one semester to make a difference in their lives.

At the beginning of every semester, we began by looking at the history of prejudice, discrimination and oppression in our country. Somewhere in the first several weeks it inevitably became clear that many or most of the Caucasian students in the class were feeling a lot of guilt. Not guilt for things they themselves had done. Rather, guilt for things members of their race had done historically. Or guilt for the advantages they or their racial ancestors enjoyed at others’ expense. This would typically cause them to show signs of shutting down; to parse every response they made in class discussion; to become very unsure of themselves. Open class discussion became more difficult. I could only imagine how tongue-tied they would be at the end of the semester, or when helping a student or client of their own in their chosen profession in later life, if I let this continue.

My response was to share what I observed to be an empowering message. That is, if you actually have done any of the horrible things we were reading about, go ahead and feel guilty. If, on the other hand, you haven’t done them, get angry instead. Get angry at racism and oppression wherever you see it.

Guilt, I explained, is anger directed inward. If you let it build up, it will eventually either eat you up or burst out as anger directed toward others. If, on the other hand, you feel anger instead of guilt when you see injustice or discrimination, that anger can energize you to help build a better world.

The realities of race relations in the UUA present similar challenges. As I read The Arc of the Universe is Long, (1) Soul Work, (2) the study of the Commission on Appraisal titled Unitarian Universalism and the Quest for Racial Justice (3) and other publications, it’s obvious there’s been a rocky history. After much initial conflict, the dominant pattern has separated into two distinct approaches. For people of color, there is a strong emphasis upon and celebration of positive racial and ethnic identities in both adult and youth programming. For Caucasians, on the other hand, there is a strong emphasis on learning about White Privilege and the detrimental effects actions of white people as a group have had on people of color. In short, for Caucasians, this is a guilt-based approach to antiracism.

I want to affirm that all of the actors in the UUA working to do something positive about racism come to the table with good intentions. Nonetheless, there are fundamental choices to be made about how best to bring about equality of both opportunity and outcome. Unfortunately, people who have made different choices, people who have chosen differing strategies, often think the worst of each other. That is human nature.

In all of the disagreements and fighting about these things over these years, through the Crossroads-guided training sessions and tumultuous General Assembly meetings, there is one question I did not see addressed by anyone. That question gets back to the circumstances I described in my classroom at the beginning of this talk. The question is, what do we really know about the psychological effects of collective guilt? What do we really know on the basis of actual research someone has done?

Learning more about the positives and negatives of collective guilt might offer an answer to three more questions. Should our focus be on the collective guilt of the individuals who are part of historic oppressor groups? Or would we gain more by focusing directly on the social and cultural mechanisms of racism and discrimination that need changing? And last but not least, would we best accomplish our goals by working together or working separately?

I went on a search in the social psychological literature for any solid, research-based, information I could find about the effects of emphasizing collective guilt. After following several dead ends, I found a book published in 2004 titled Collective Guilt: International Perspectives. (4) It defines collective guilt and looks in depth at its effects in the Middle East, Northern Ireland, Germany, Australia, and the United States.

I also found several journal articles including a 2007 research report titled Racial attitudes in response to thoughts of white privilege. (5) This is a replicable study of white American college students in Kansas. In the first part of that study, students were asked to reflect in writing on one of three randomly selected topics: the advantages of being white, the disadvantages of being white, or a race-neutral topic. Then all study subjects were asked to fill out a questionnaire on modern racist attitudes. So what were the results? In short, study subjects who were “assigned to think about white privilege expressed [higher levels of] modern racism compared to those assigned to think about white disadvantage or a race-irrelevant topic.”

In the second part of the study the researchers added two more factors: how deeply individuals identify with their race; and their political orientation along a conservative – liberal scale.

What they found is that “increased racism in response to thoughts of white privilege was limited to those who highly identified with their racial category.” In contrast, when individuals did not identify strongly with their own racial category, thoughts of white privilege tended to reduce the level of racism.

Regarding political orientation, subjects who were more liberal tended to be less racist in general compared to subjects who were more conservative. We would expect that. However, and this is very important: even for the more liberal study participants, the degree of modern racism expressed correlated positively with how deeply they identified as white.

A chilling conclusion of the second part of the study is as follows, and I quote: “Efforts to reduce racism often involve highlighting the existence of racial inequality. For whites, however, pointing out their privileged position in the social structure represents a challenge to the status of the ingroup – precisely the context that our data suggest will increase racism.”

So what are the lessons for the UUA out of this study?

Lesson 1: Stop asking Caucasian UUAs who care about racial justice to identify first and foremost as white! I find it hard to escape the conclusion that the Crossroads approach and its successor approaches in the annual conferences of the Allies for Racial Equity and our contemporary Identity Based Ministries do just that. Rather, a much stronger antidote to racism and basis for social justice work is to encourage people to get to know each other and to identify with each other across racial lines fully and completely in all of our hopes and dreams, joys and pains.

I am going to put what I have reported above into my own words. Stressing white guilt and white identity tends to engender either a paralysis or a backlash. The alternative, stressing a common humanity in the face of all of the evils of the past and present, tends to engender both empathy and the motivation to build a better world.

So much for guilt-based antiracism. I promised to say something about asset-based antiracism. That is the real pay dirt.

What do I mean by “asset-based antiracism.” Part of what I mean by the term is, antiracism that works best brings every asset available into the struggles for racial equity. Every asset. For instance, in the fight to stop the slave trade on the high seas in 18th and early 19th centuries, William Wilberforce and John Newton, both white, were the primary driving forces, the primary assets. Wilberforce used his “white privilege” in many ways to build a better world for all.

In the fight against slavery in the United States, both blacks and white were irreplaceably involved. My thoughts go to the Amistad incident, in which a rag-tag group of white church people paid for the first lawyer to represent the incarcerated Africans and later went on to fund and found many high schools and universities that served blacks in the south. John Quincy Adams, the former president and very white, carried the arguments in the US Supreme Court in favor of the Africans.

In the civil rights struggles of the 1950’s and 60’s in the United States under the leadership of Dr. King, a broad collaboration of blacks and whites, all of whom saw injustice and wanted change, won major civil rights battles in many but not all areas. One area missed was criminal justice. Michelle Alexander, author of the recent amazing book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, (6) effectively argues that our current criminal justice system, and particularly the War On Drugs, is a social control system rather than a crime control system. I had not realized the ubiquitous extent to which the Supreme Court has legitimated racial bias and racial discrimination in policing and prosecution. Alexander argues that a very broad-based civil rights movement is urgently needed. It will take all of us, Caucasians and People of Color, seeing each other as assets in the struggle to accomplish that.

Last but not least, I want to share where the term “asset-based antiracism” came from. It is a takeoff from the term, Asset-Based Community Development. (7) “ABCD” This has become a hot topic amongst community developers generally. They say, rather than looking at the problems a community has, look at its assets. Is there garbage all over? Start a recycling program. It can make money and clean up the neighborhood. Do older people in the community have a lot of health problems? Start a home health care agency. Insurance and governmental subsidies are available. Do seniors and youth need more to do? Start tutoring and mentoring programs. Are jobs in short supply? Start an aggressive job agency that supports job training and on the job mentoring. Not enough affordable housing? Mortgage your church to buy a dilapidated, multi-family housing structure and utilize volunteer labor to rehabilitate it.

I’ll bet you were with me up to the church mortgaging its property. That was the beginning point in 1979 of Bethel New Life, an effort on the west side of Chicago. Bethel Lutheran Church, an aging white congregation in a black neighborhood, asked, “What can we do to increase affordable housing in our community?” They identified a run down, three unit structure to buy and rehabilitate. No one would give them a loan. So they utilized their only property asset. These aging white people mortgaged their church building to buy the dilapidated structure and found volunteer workers and trainers to do the actual work of rehabilitation. By 30 years later, in 2009, they had rehabilitated over 1,000 housing units. With a staff of over 250, assets now worth $40 million, and a current annual budget of $13.5 million, Bethel New Life runs a recycling program; a full service job agency; a home health care agency; a health clinic serving on average over 1,000 people per week; a school serving 215 K-8 students; an intervention program to help public schools on Chicago’s west side; independent living and assisted living facilities for seniors; and several other program sites. These things have clearly been built on the base of community assets. And everything accomplished has helped to alleviate one or more of the effects of racism. Whites and blacks have worked together on these projects over the years. The current leadership, incubated in the community, is integrated and mostly black.

Coming back to asset-based antiracism in general, I think this approach deserves a hearing. I think it has a lot to offer over guilt-based antiracism. Whether the goal is ending racism in the criminal justice system, or in school systems, or in housing or health care or jobs, we need all of the assets we can bring to bear on the situation. And we need them actively involved, not burdened by guilt.

A key point is where we focus. If we each focus on our identities, we don’t have much in common. If, on the other hand, we see each other as positive assets rather than guilt-laden liabilities, we can maximize our positive impact.


1. Boston. Skinner House. 2009. ISBN 978-1-55896-548-5
2. Boston. Skinner House. 2003. ISBN: 978-1-55896-445-2
3. Boston. Unitarian Universalist Association. 1993. ISBN: 1-55896-318-9
4. Edited by Nyla R. Branscombe and Bertjan Doosje. Cambridge University Press: 2004. ISBN 978-0521520836.
5. Branscombe, Nyla R., Michael T. Schmitt and Kristin Schiffhauer. European Journal of Social Psychology. 37, 203-215 (2007).
6. New York. The New Press. 2010. ISBN: 978-1-59588-103-7
7. See Kretzmann, John P., and John L. McNight. Building Communities from the Inside Out: A Path Toward Finding and Mobilizing a Community’s Assets. Asset-Based Community Development Institute, School of Social Policy, Northwestern University. 1993. ISBN: 978-0-87946-108-9.