A democratic state can rightfully impose guilt because guilt is focused on bad acts, and this specific focus on behavioral violation can encourage empathy and motivate the guilty to altruistic action. Something different happens when the state seeks to shame its citizens by imposing a lasting stigma on their very identity: it is proclaiming that the person herself or himself is defective. Rather than motivating restitution, shame debilitates and encourages avoidance.
For example, it is reasonable to imprison individuals who break the law, but when former inmates are stripped of the right to vote for the rest of their lives, the state has moved from punishing guilt to imposing shame. Lifetime disfranchisement marks the citizen as defective and unfit for participation in a democracy. The shamed ex-felon is not invited to rejoin the community but instead is forced to the margins.
Though we seldom think of it this way, racism is the act of shaming others based on their identity. Blackness in America is marked by shame. Perhaps more than any other emotion, shame depends on the social context. On an individual level, we feel ashamed because of how we believe people see us or how they would see us if they knew about our hidden transgressions. Shame makes us view our very selves as malignant. But societies also define entire groups as malignant. Historically the United States has done that with African Americans. This collective racial shaming has a disproportionate impact on black women, and black women’s attempts to escape or manage shame are part of what motivates their politics.