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Shelby Steele Essays

While there is undoubtedly some truth to Mr. Steele's characterizations as individual psychological models, they do not adequately address the complex reinforcements of group behavior. More dangerous still, they tend to minimize the force of deeply embedded social pathologies. Yet a distinguishing feature of Mr. Steele's message is precisely his use of psychology as politics. As a device, this risks substituting limited personal circumstances for broader historical analyses. In Mr. Steele's case, it has produced a narrative perspective that is relentlessly isolationist, even as it claims to be all-knowing.

In making his case that many middle-class blacks are suffering from ''a kind of race fatigue, a deep weariness with things racial,'' he dredges up a consensus of ''we's'' from his own imagination: ''I have seen the same well-dressed black woman in the supermarket for more than a year now. We do not speak, and we usually pretend not to see each other. But, when we turn a corner suddenly and find ourselves staring squarely into each other's eyes, her face freezes and she moves on. I believe she is insisting that both of us be more than black - that we interact only when we have a reason other than the mere fact of our race. Her chilliness enforces a priority I agree with - individuality over group identity.'' It never occurs to him that maybe she just doesn't like him. Nor does he question whether the unneighborly distance of this encounter is the desirable end of either black or white social development.

Throughout this book, Mr. Steele's claims to ultimate - and intimate - knowledge of others obviates simpler explanations, lost in the murkiness of transferred motivation. What makes this self-aggrandizement so particularly problematic, however, is that when Mr. Steele's inner thoughts become externalized as ''our'' world, some pretty reprehensible character traits get projected on ''us.''

Mr. Steele describes a time when he and a friend gleefully ''race-baited'' a white patron in a men's room with heart-rending sob stories until the man ended up leaving a $20 tip for the old black custodian. Chastened now, he attributes this calculated emotional blackmail to overstimulation from black-power philosophies. It is good that Mr. Steele sees the error of his ways; it is beyond me, however, why this sort of ''sucker, sucker'' game is assigned to to black identity, and not a certain Robin Hood mentality equally attributable to con artists everywhere.

Mr. Steele's philosophy is premised on other disturbingly fallacious equations. At one point he describes a conversation he had as a college student with a group of black classmates in which they probed their feelings about the 1955 murder of Emmett Till, who was tortured and mutilated for supposedly whistling at a white woman. One way to understand what Mr. Steele calls their ''ritual of group identification'' might be the cultivation of the ability to see commonality or feel empathy - the very bedrock of a collective identity forged in compassion; Mr. Steele, however, now sees it as a dishonest indulgence in the innocence of ''entitlement, even license,'' an attempt at ''appropriating an identity that in so many ways was not our own.'' His conclusion can only be understood within the model of private contract law, in which self-interested, right-thinking action becomes the credit limit on the moral claims each person can make on society. Mr. Steele wrongly poses this private contract as the antithesis of black identity: for him, the way out of inner-city ''hearts of darkness'' is to place in opposition the one and the many, so that ''individual effort within the American mainstream - rather than collective action against the mainstream'' becomes ''our means of advancement.''

What he calls racial ''bargaining'' is described in similarly confusing terms: on the one hand, ''a bargainer says I already believe you are innocent (good, fair-minded) and have faith that you will prove it.'' On the other hand, the quintessential racial bargain is one in which blacks purportedly ''[grant] white society its innocence in exchange for entry into the mainstream.'' But these two propositions are not the same: the first is a statement of moral commitment, an article of faith; the second is a statement of contract. By subtly blending one with the other, Mr. Steele ends up espousing an order in which free-market action becomes the measure of one's moral fiber. Furthermore, by extolling market behavior as the exclusive province of values that are ''classically American and universal to the middle class everywhere: hard work, self-reliance, initiative, property ownership, family ties and so on,'' he misleads the reader. Such values are neither exclusively middle-class nor universal to it. It is just as easy to romanticize class values to other ends: hard work, family ties and self-reliance are surely the shining hallmark of the ''lower-class'' American factory worker. And with not much effort the middle class ''everywhere'' could be characterized by a certain indolent country club grandiosity. But such facile characterizations, while provocative, even inspirational, do not deal with sociological realities. They certainly do not address the hard facts of an American middle class - whether black or white - that is largely debt-ridden, divorce-torn, politically apathetic and increasingly without property.

One of the most insidious failures of this book is that Mr. Steele mistakes material conditions for culture, so that the richness of the latter is entirely obscured by the poverty of the former. Pride in African-American heritage, by this measure, is empty pride: it is as though Mr. Steele were saying that as long as most blacks in this country are poor, then the content of ''black identity'' is mere victimhood, at best a mildly sadistic delight in terrorizing whites with the blunt instrument of their own guilt.

But black identity is more than Mr. Steele's reductive emptiness. It is a shared - as well as a diverse - culture; it is a history of literary, artistic, musical, scientific and religious tradition of which Mr. Steele seems either remarkably ignorant or uncommonly willing to ignore. Part of this might be explained by Mr. Steele's relentless ahistoricism; for him, memory of racism is something to be overcome - he even calls it ''the enemy-memory.'' The past and the present are not interconnected, but made one of a series of polarizations explicitly evocative of Christian imagery: he speaks of the ''believing self'' and the ''disbelieving anti-self.'' Whites suffer an ''archetypal Fall'' from racial innocence and then find themselves on the long trail to ''redemption'' from guilt. Blacks wallow in an ''underworld of doubt.'' Race itself is a kind of heathen force that has lost its ''juju, its singular capacity to conjure meaning.'' Freedom is neither a right nor a responsibility but an angry god who ''carries a burden of proof'' and ''makes blacks a brutal proposition: if you're not inferior, prove it.'' If the past was hell, the present is a limbo of delayed gratification and the future is the promised land.

There is even a lower-class Satan, an imaginary character named Sam, the invention of Steele family lore. Sam is a loud, flashy, womanizing drunkard who even Mr. Steele acknowledges ''looked very much like the white racist stereotype of blacks.'' Nevertheless, Mr. Steele embraces this brand of demonizing as merely ''an instrument of self-definition, not of sociological accuracy.'' This ''dissociation from images of lower-class black life'' is rationalized as a necessary referential ''counterpoint'' to the attainment of ''values and patterns of responsibility that are common to the middle class everywhere.'' And in a passage of stunning cynicism, Mr. Steele concludes that ''whether all this got started because the black middle class modeled itself on the white middle class is no longer relevant. For the middle-class black, conditioned by those values from birth, the sense of meaning they provide is as immutable as the color of his skin.'' The point that eludes Mr. Steele here is that black identification with lower-class interests during the 1960's was not, as he proposes, an exercise in group victimization. It was an exercise in not using the black underclass as precisely this sort of counterpoint; it was and still is a group commitment to stop hating those who were not only poorer, but by and large darker-skinned than the traditional black middle class.

A friend of mine once said that yuppie status is less about class than it is a description of someone utterly devoid of ethnicity. Middle-classness, said my friend, is just what happens, automatically, to those who have finally achieved the pure state of ethnic anonymity. If that is true, then ''The Content of Our Character'' is a blueprint for such achievement. Follow it and you will end up in the J. Crew family of man - upper-middle-class, attractively if predictably attired, polished rather than folksy, mild-mannered and soft-spoken, with a quietly Episcopalian sense of humor. There's nothing wrong with this vision in and of itself. But when it is posed as the point from which all other forms of life must be judged deviant, when it is used to disparage the underclass of any group, or as a recipe to ''cure the deficiencies'' of others, then it is a problematic, even colonizing, vision.

If only Mr. Steele had offered this book as a series of autobiographical object lessons - it might have been a fascinating study in self-confrontation - rather than as a prescription for the world. His style is graceful, his rhetoric inspiring, his optimism appealing. But Mr. Steele's naive presentation of hope without history renders the divisions of both race and class forever new, always inexplicable and shrouded in a deathly innocence.


In the early seventies, without realizing it, I made a sort of bargain with the prevailing black identity - I subscribed in a general way to its point of view so that I could be free to get on with my life. Many other blacks I knew made this same bargain, got on with their lives and fellow-traveled with black power. I don't believe this subscription was insincere, but it was convenient since it opened the individual space out of which we could make our lives.

And what were we subscribing to? Generally, I think it was a form of black identity grounded in the spirit of black power. It carried a righteous anger at and mistrust of American society. It believed that blacks continued to be the victims of institutional racism, that we would have to maintain an adversarial stance toward society, and that a tight racial unity was necessary both for survival and advancement. This identity was, and is, predicated on the notion that those who burned you once will burn you again, and it presupposes a deep racist reflex in American life that will forever try to limit black possibility. . . . The space I cleared for myself by loosely subscribing to this identity . . . ultimately put me in conflict.

From ''The Content of Our Character.''

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ED GORDON, host:

From NPR News, this is NEWS AND NOTES. I'm Ed Gordon.

Shelby Steele was born 60 years ago in Chicago, Illinois, to a black truck driver and white social worker. His parents were active in the civil rights movement. As a child, he accompanied his father to numerous marches and rallies. Today, Shelby Steele is an acclaimed author and scholar, and Steele says he considers his mixed heritage, quote, “an amazing gift that served to demystify race” for him. But Steele's provocative theories about race have been controversial, to say the least, and have often put the author at odds with many in the black community.

Steele is a research fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution, a conservative think-tank. His new book, 'White Guilt: How Blacks and Whites Together Destroyed the Promise of the Civil Rights Era' takes a hard critical look at race, moral authority and black victimization.

Mr. SHELBY STEELE (Author, White Guilt: How Blacks and Whites Together Destroyed the Promise of the Civil Rights Era; Professor of English, ): Well, the premise of the book is that one of the sort of, I suppose, unintended consequences of the civil rights victories in the mid-60's was what I call white guilt. By that, specifically, what I mean is that when America had to acknowledge the wrongs of the past--that for four centuries it had, in fact, oppressed black Americans, anytime you acknowledge a wrong, one of the prices you pay for that is a loss of moral authority.

So white guilt is not a guilt of conscience; it's not something that you get up in the morning and say, my God, I feel guilty about what happened to black Americans. Rather it is the fact that in relation to black Americans you lack moral authority. You are, in fact, stigmatized as a racist, because, after all, you have know acknowledged that your nation practiced racism explicitly for four centuries. And, now, since the '60s, white Americans have been grappling with the stigma, trying prove that they are not racist, to prove the negative.

A good example is when people say one of my best friends is black. Well, why do you say that? You say that because you're really trying to say I'm not a racist. I'm not what I'm stigmatized as. And the point of the book is that this pressure that comes to whites from this stigmatization has had a tremendous impact on our culture, our politics, our public policy in many, many ways.

GORDON: Do you believe that with the passing of decades, each generation feels less and less of that guilt?

Mr. STEELE: It's interesting. I think whites don't really feel guilty per se. But I think whites still are stigmatized. For example, we have never had a President of the United States since the civil rights victories, you know, Democrat or Republican, who has been able to look at black America and say we talk now about the responsibilities that white America has to make up for the past, but here are some things that black Americans have to do.

So we've never had a President of the United States ask anything of black citizens. And I think the reason for that is they've all felt that if they presume to do that, that they would be stigmatized as racist. They don't feel they have the moral authority to speak to us. And that's, I think, one instance where white guilt has worked against us, because it's important for a nation to speak freely and honestly with all of its citizens.

GORDON: You also believe that this has, in turn, created an interesting dance, if you will, between the races the idea, the idea that this guilt has allowed African-Americans and African-American leadership, in particular, to play, for instance, the race card.

Mr. STEELE: Exactly. I think one of the great mistakes black Americans have made in our long history here in America was to begin, in the mid-60s, to sort of rely on the manipulation of white guilt, the manipulation of this stigma; and our leadership has basically been a leadership that's applied this stigma. We call it different things, the race card and so forth.

But what were really saying is that if you want to not be seen as racist, you have to do thus and so. And so it's a kind of manipulation of the moral power that blacks have over whites.

GORDON: How do you go beyond human nature? Take the Duke scandal, for instance; you know, most whites will give the benefit of the doubt until, you know--blacks will automatically say, yep, it's a clear case of race here. That seems to be human nature just in general.

Mr. STEELE: It certainly is habit. You know, again, why are we, as blacks, so quick to see racism in so many places; and, again, as you rightly say, whites say, well, let's hold out and let's see what the evidence is. Obviously, whites are saying if it is racism, that's going to make their situations worse. Then they're going to be even more vulnerable to the stigma of being racist. And they're going to even have to work harder to prove the negative that they're not racist.

Blacks, on the other hand, are very quick to see racism in situations, even many where it's not there, because racism is our power over whites. And so we tend to embrace it and see it. And if you want to make many of our black leaders angry, just tell them that racism is not the number problem that black Americans face.

Because racism is the very essence of black power at this point; it's the power we have that comes to us from the moral capital of our history.

GORDON: Newly appointed White House spokesperson Tony Snow suggested not long ago that racism isn't the problem that it was in the 1960's and the like. And really that the country was pretty much devoid of racism, today. Do you buy that?

Mr. STEELE: I certainly buy that racism is no longer a barrier to anyone's life.

GORDON: You believe that fully?

Mr. STEELE: I absolutely, 100 percent believe that if you want to do something in American society, whatever it may be--I'm not saying you will not encounter any racism, but racism will not stop you. When I grew up in segregation, racism cruelly constricted our lives and our opportunities, and you could not do things that might want to do.

Today, that's over. One of the most remarkable things is how little we've appreciated the degree of freedom we have as blacks.

GORDON: Yet, in your book, Mr. Steele, you talk about a sense of entitlement; I believe you call it a divine right felt by white America. And its my contention that while that white guilt may, in fact, still be there, there are certain levels of power, I think, where the guilt is thrown out of the window and African-Americans have never been, as you put in the book, seen as a victim. So they've never been allowed in large numbers in this world. If you agree with that premise, how can race not be a problem in terms of it stopping you?

Mr. STEELE: I wouldn't agree with the premise. My feeling is, again, that the real fact is--and I think if you talk to many blacks, their experience would sort of verify this. What I've encountered in my life, most often in the white world, is good will, is people have who have wanted to help me. When I was younger and starting a career, people who mentored me, who really felt it was important to give me the best opportunity to pursue my dreams. And my sense is that that's really been an experience for most blacks who have tried to venture out and develop themselves.

GORDON: You're talking about the good will of whites at this point?

Mr. STEELE: The good will of whites, yes, absolutely.

GORDON: Mm-hmm.

Mr. STEELE: One of the most remarkable things in all of human history is the degree of moral evolutions, of moral evolution, that white Americans have made from the mid-60s to this day. No group of people in history have morally evolved away from a social evil that quickly and to that degree in this sort of short span of time. And very often, in our calculations in thinking about race, we don't give whites credit for that.

We keep wanting to sort of keep them on the hook as racist. But the fact is that whites see racism as a disgrace and something that they would do almost anything not to be identified with.

GORDON: Here is the catch-22 though. In the book you talk about the idea of how African-Americans are viewed often with a sense of victimization, if you will. You talk about going from a master to slave, to oppressor to oppressed, to magnanimous patron and needy child. If, in fact, you look at that, are you ever seen as an equal at that point?

Mr. STEELE: Well, one of the reasons for that is that we have--there's this sort of symbiosis between white guilt and the black power is that we've just--we've demanded, we have looked to whites so much in the last 40 years, in terms of doing things to help us advance in American life, that we inadvertently put ourselves back in the position of being dependent on the very people who oppressed us in the first place. One of my arguments in the book is that's the dependency that we need to try very hard to break and, again, rely much more on our own abilities and talents, which I think are considerable.

GORDON: You said something interesting in an online interview. You said freedom has just terrorized African-Americans. We're just scared to death of it, and rather than admit it, we say we're still living in a racist society or that government isn't doing its job.

Mr. STEELE: Right. Well, if you think about it, as ingenious as we are as a people who were able to survive slavery and segregation and thrive, really, under circumstances that maybe others might not have been able to, the one thing oppression did not prepare us for was how to live in freedom. And if you don't know how to live in freedom, you don't have any history with that, then freedom becomes a humiliation. It embarrasses you. It makes you feel your inadequacy. So just because you become free, doesn't mean you know how to handle it.

GORDON: You use affirmative action as the model. There are those on the left who will say that you are either naïve or ignorant to the idea of how much racism still affects African-Americans, and they'll point to affirmative action. They'll say, without it, it won't be guilt or altruism that makes whites accept blacks in certain positions; it's simply that they have to comply legislatively.

Mr. STEELE: Again, the one thing about affirmative action is we don't have any control studies, because affirmative action has been imposed on black America. Just by virtue of your black skin, if you move ahead in American life, you're going to be tarred with affirmative action, even if it's something that you didn't need. The real goal ought to be to become competitive, personal development, education, development of skills and so forth, that are going to put you in a position to compete in that society. If we do that, you can't keep a people down like that.

GORDON: So here's what's interesting. Counter to your ideology, they are now touting the covenant with black America, and that is specifically what you're talking about, the idea of individuals taking control of their destiny, if one can do so.

Mr. STEELE: Mm-hmm. I'm all for it.

GORDON: So if there can be a meeting of the minds, if you will, at that, and the idea…

Mr. STEELE: Oh. Oh, yes.

GORDON: …that it is so very important to do that.

Mr. STEELE: Yes. I mean, one of the saddest things I experience is that, you know, there is so much common ground. One of the easiest groups for me to communicate with is blacks, because they do understand these things, and they do understand the importance of individual responsibility and that that really is going to be the force, the power that moves us into the future. And it's something that we certainly share in common.

GORDON: All right. Well, the book is White Guilt: How Blacks and Whites Together Destroyed the Promise of the Civil Rights Era. The author is Shelby Steele, and we thank you.

Mr. STEELE: Well, thanks so much for having me.

(Soundbite of music)

GORDON: Coming up, a federal investigation of a Louisiana Congressman intensifies. We'll discuss this topic and more on our roundtable.

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