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White Americans Should Not Be Held Collectively Guilty for Racism

White Americans Should Not Be Held Collectively Guilty for Racism

An Insight into Personal Responsibility from the Holocaust 

By Josh Beaudoin 

Following the end of the Second World War, there was a great discussion around the idea of collective guilt. I.e., should the citizens of Germany and its accomplices be held collectively responsible for the atrocities that took place in the concentration camps. Victor Frankl argued that they shouldn’t. 

Frankl was a psychologist and holocaust survivor. He spent years in the concentration camps where he both witnessed and was the recipient of unspeakable conditions. He watched his father die before him in the camps, and lost his parents, wife, and many others close to him. 

After he was liberated from the camps in 1945, he went on to write several books. The most famous of his books is “Man’s Search for Meaning,” which has sold over 16 million copies since its release in 1946. [1] 

At the center of his argument is the idea that at any moment, people choose what will give their life meaning. What is in the past is done—it cannot be reversed, and people only have control over what actions they take in the present to create a meaningful future. 

From his observations, no matter the circumstances, people have the choice to rise above them and act with dignity and morality. He concluded that “guilt can in any case only be personal—the guilt for something I have done—or may have failed to do! But I cannot be guilty of something that other people have done, even if it is my parents or grandparents.” [2] 

You only have control over your own actions, and you can do what is right when faced with challenging circumstances. As seen in the concentration camps, it is possible, but it requires strength that few are willing to develop.  

There is often talk about collective guilt when it comes to actions of the past in respect to racism. To what degree are white Americans today guilty for the atrocities of their ancestors over slavery. Using Frankl’s reasoning, the answer is simple: they aren’t. White Americans are only responsible for the actions they take. “In the past, nothing is irretrievably lost, but rather, on the contrary, everything is irrevocably stored,” said Frankl. [3] 

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Just like Germans today cannot be blamed for the holocaust, white Americans today should not be blamed for what happened in the past with slavery. To be sure, there are racist white Americans, just like there are white Americans who chose to treat others with love and respect. “In reality there are only two races, namely the ‘race’ of decent people and the ‘race’ of people who are not decent,” said Frankl. [4] 


1. Frankl, V. (2014). Man’s Search for Meaning. Beacon Press. (Original work published 1946) 

2-4. Ibid.

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