The right wing uses the term to put down white liberals, who are pictured as helping blacks to ease their own sense of guilt.
They are wrong about white liberals: at best liberals are just trying to help those who voted for them so they can win re-election, like anyone else with any sense. As it is, white liberals mostly take the black vote for granted and do little to help them. As for the right, they just want a way to bad mouth any reason against cutting taxes.
That is white guilt at the public level. It is just a bit of cheap political rhetoric, part of the right’s bag of tricks.
The more interesting level is the psychological, what goes on in the hearts and minds of white people. Here is how I make sense of it:
Most white Americans seem to think racism is a thing of the past. Black people are either living in the past or making a big deal out of nothing. Whites only notice the more extreme cases of white racism, like the Klan. Whatever troubles blacks have is their own fault. So from this point of view there is absolutely nothing to feel any guilt or shame about.
Case closed, right?
Wrong. There is more to it than that. You can tell because whenever you point out cases of racism, like how poor blacks in the city go to bad schools, the defences spring right up. Too quickly. They take it too personally, more personally than it makes sense to, and their most common defence is to shift blame in one way or another.
You have touched some nerve. The blame-shifting shows that they know it is true and are trying to avoid a sense of guilt.
It seems that most whites have had the experience of taking a wrong turn and winding up in some black ghetto. So they know full well how unequal American society is, that their material comfort and safety comes at a cost to black people.
They will deny it, but deep down they know full well what is going on and what their part in it is. They know they are turning a blind eye to it and benefiting while others suffer for no reason other than the colour of their skin. Deep down they know. Not even the sweet lies at night of Rented Negroes on cable news can make it go away.
Thus the guilt and shame, the quick defensiveness, the blame-shifting.
It is why they do not like to talk about race, why they do not like to think of themselves as “white”, why they are afraid to squarely face up to their own racism. And why they fear black men: no matter how many they lock up they still do not feel safe.