Despite disquieting episodes in the ‘90s—the riots in Los Angeles provoked by Rodney King’s arrest and O.J. Simpson’s acquittal being celebrated in many black communities—for three decades I naively assumed race relations were genuinely improving as Americans endorsed the aspirations and policies adumbrated by Martin Luther King, Jr. Giving primacy to the “content of one’s character” rather than the “color of one’s skin” seemed the right recipe for racial justice. But then Barack Obama, (the nation’s first black President who signified racial progress for many of us) helped expose and ignite racial divisions throughout the country. This was evident as Obama defended Trayvon Martin and then helped inflame passions following the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. Thus was born Black Lives Matter, and there was evident (in pronouncements by Obama and his Attorney General Eric Holder) our current and rapidly escalating crisis.
So to re-think what’s happening today I turned to one of the more thoughtful analysts of race in America: Shelby Steele. Three decades ago he published The Content of Our Character: A New Vision of Race in America (New York: St. Martin’s Press, c. 1990), setting forth a position differing from the mainline civil rights establishment and its supportive liberal intelligentsia. In the ‘60s he had been a militant black-power advocate, helping stage demonstrations and demanding instant solutions to racial injustices. But ultimately he wearied of that and began to think more deeply. By 1990, as an English professor at San Jose State University, Steele determined to challenge readers to envision new paths for America’s racial minorities, seeking to discern “the human universals that explain the racial specifics” (p. xi). What’s needed, he thought, is a philosophical realism, thinking about what actually is rather than what ought to be. “What one is after is the right fit of ideal to reality. And reality must always have priority, accepting only those ideas that truly illuminate it” (p. xii). Consequently, Steele thinks carefully and crafts arguments that are most enlightening—as relevant today as when they were when first written.
At the heart of the racial struggle, Steele thinks, is a “struggle for innocence.” Trying to locate and blame others for one’s problems is a way of establishing one’s own purity. Both whites and blacks do it. Their rationales may differ but their ends are identical—to maintain a saintly impeccability. Thus lamenting the legacy of slavery enables blacks to manipulate their past victimization into positions of power. But victims are by definition passive—and the “power” derived from victimization is a social rather than a personal exercise. Blaming others actually empowers them inasmuch as they remain responsible for economic poverty or educational failures. So protesting racism rather than promoting individual responsibility will never actually improve black lives, and promoting affirmative action and racial quotas will forever fail to motivate self-actualization and achievement.
One path Steele rejects is the endless refashioning of politically correct terms in an elusive quest for self-respect. Thus the newly-minted “African-American” label was, he thought, “yet another name to the litany of the names that blacks have given themselves over the past century” (p. 47). While understandable: “This self-conscious reaching for pride through nomenclature suggests nothing so much as a despair over the possibility of gaining the less conspicuous pride that follows real advancement. In its invocation of the glories of a remote African past and its wistful suggestion of homeland, this name denies the doubt black Americans have about their contemporary situation in America” (p. 47). New names change nothing and will never rightly establish one’s identity. (Incidentally, it’s non-Indians who most strongly insist on calling American Indians “Native Americans”).
What’s needed is a new way of acting, Steele says, a new (or is it the old Booker T. Washington strategy of patiently working within the American system?) way of taking the initiative to live creatively and well, of accepting responsibility for one’s actions, successes and failures. In the 1990’s, the antiquated agenda of the 1960’s (appropriate though it was in that decade) no longer suffices. In particular, he argues, it’s time for blacks to stop blaming whites for their problems and get on with the business of personal and cultural achievement. The book’s title, “the content of our character,” comes from a speech of Martin Luther King, Jr. “What made King the most powerful and extraordinary black leader of this century,” Steele says, “was not his race but his morality” (p. 19). What black leaders need today, he believes, is to recover King’s moral stance, to emphasize integrity and responsibility rather than ethnic victimization. King’s message had power because it transcended race, binding men and women of all kinds together in a common endeavor. King’s message had power because it was, in fact, not a “black power” message.
Unfortunately, too many black leaders routinely exploit white Americans’ guilt, asking for special treatment, thereby reducing themselves and their followers to inferiors needing a helping hand. Tragically, “the price they pay for this form of ‘politics’ is to keep blacks focused on an illusion of deliverance by others, and no illusion weakens us more. Our leaders must take a risk. They must tell us the truth, tell us of the freedom and opportunity they have discovered in their own lives” (p. 174). Steele himself represents—and seeks to speak for—the growing middle class black community. But what distresses him is the persistence of racial sensitivity even in his own circles. “As a middle-class black I have often felt myself contriving to be ‘black.’ And I have noticed this same contrivance in others—a certain stretching away from the natural flow of one’s life to align oneself with a victim-focused black identity” (p. 106).
In a way, he argues, blacks choose to see themselves as inferiors, internalizing an inferiority rooted in alleged social discrimination rather than genetic factors, because it allows them to escape responsibility for competing and achieving as individuals. Blacks lack power in America not simply because prejudice excludes them but because power comes solely to those who live responsibly. “Personal responsibility is the brick and mortar of power” (p. 33). The longer a group marches to the drumbeat of victimhood, even though it may elicit sympathy and applause and even reparations from the crowd, the longer it remains subservient and impotent. This is not to excuse injustice, which abounds in America. It is to insist that despite obstacles minorities can succeed here. “Whites must guarantee a free and fair society. But blacks must be responsible for actualizing their own lives” (p. 34). Steele nowhere argues American society is fully free and fair! He’s suffered discrimination. Prejudice still stains our national life. But it must be honestly depicted, not exaggerated as an excuse for immobility, not milked to preserve politicians’ positions. We need not deny the injustices of the past to admit that “when today’s black college students—who often enjoy preferential admission and many other special concessions—claim victimization, I think that it too often amounts to a recomposition of denied doubts and anxieties they are unwilling to bear” (p. 61).
Illustrating such preferential treatment, Steele cited Penn State University, which had a program which paid “black students for improving their grades—a C to C+ average brings $550, and anything more brings $1,100” (p. 90). Minority students at Stanford University seized control of the president’s office several years ago, determined to make known their grievances, among which were complaints about their inadequate financial assistance—which for some totaled $15,000 a year! Though he taught in a large state university, Steele appreciated the value of small black colleges. Only 16 percent of black students enrolled in them, but they graduated 37 percent of all black graduates. “Without whites around on campus, the myth of inferiority is in abeyance and, along with it, a great reservoir of culturally imposed self-doubt” (p. 136). Consequently, black students in black colleges take more responsibility for their studies, work harder, and accomplish more.
More broadly, if blacks can move beyond their “racial identity struggle” and begin to live as individuals in American society, Steele thinks this nation offers “a remarkable range of opportunity if we were willing to pursue it” (p. 168). This book is highly personal, both in its style and its interpretations. It clearly reflects the experience of only one black man in America. Yet it’s worth reading, for it makes some important observations and offers some positive suggestions, though they do not lend themselves to political action. Which is Steele’s message: blacks as individuals must take charge of their lives.
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Shelby Steele followed up The Content of Our Character with A Dream Deferred: The Second Betrayal of Black Freedom in America (New York: Harper Perennial, c. 1998), bringing together essays explaining why any society racked by shame will fail. The liberalism that developed in the 1960s embraced as its “all-consuming goal . . . the expiation of American shame rather than the careful and true development of equality between the races. Shame pushed the post-sixties United States into an extravagant, autocratic, socialistic, and interventionist liberalism that often betrayed American’s best principles in order to give whites and American institutions an iconography of racial virtue they could use against the stigma of racial shame” (p. xiii). By this time in his life Steele had become a “black conservative” and found himself subject to various forms of abuse, particularly on colleges campuses. When he would give a lecture addressing racial concerns, “a virtual militia of angry black students would rush to the microphones and begin to scream” (p. 4). They had no reasoned arguments, just irrational exclamations, curses hurled at a despised foe.
They revealed the toxic consequences of a “self-esteem” pedagogy promoted in the ‘80s that made them angry and irrational. Designed to enhance their self-esteem, assuming they would perform better once their sense of identity was enhanced, such policies inevitably failed. For self-esteem follows successful performances. Real success entails meeting high expectations. (And it makes sense that blacks have actually excelled in precisely those demanding fields where discipline and hard work establish competence—athletics and music.) But a large segment of the black community is locked into protecting its victimization status. All inequalities, all injustices, must be understood as a result of white privilege and power. Even those who enjoy immense advantages—Ivy League degrees, remunerative jobs, media celebrity—insist they’re victims. As the only important factor worth considering: “It leads us to believe that all suffering is victimization and that all relief comes from the guilty and good-heartedness of others” (p. 10). Conversely, white liberals look “at black difficulties—high crime rates, weak academic performance, illegitimacy rates, and so on—and presume them to be the result of victimizing forces beyond the control of blacks” (p. 13). And rather than try to rectify actual problems in the black community, white liberals relish lamenting their guilt and dispense hand-outs effectively paralyzing the “poor” blacks they love to indulge.
Under the rule of what Steele calls “redemptive liberalism, we blacks lost the first chance we ever had in the United States to truly control our own fate.” Following the abolition of segregation, blacks looked to whites to redeem them. Lyndon B. Johnson’s “Great Society was the first ambitious expression of redemptive liberalism” (p. 47), and Steele observed the impact of its policies first-hand. The rivers of cash flowing into black communities looked so wonderful! But no one envisioned “the price we would pay,” the personal liberty that would be lost. “Welfare without a time limit or an expectation of work may have shown white America as compassionate, but it also took the problem of poverty away from those who suffer it” (p. 47). Sadly enough: “It is not at all an exaggeration to say that the welfare policies of the last thirty years—direct expressions of redemptive liberalism—created the black underclass in America. This class of husbandless homes, fatherless children, and healthy nonworking adults follows the incentive patter of welfare policy perfectly” (p. 78).
Consequently the final decades of the 20th century were “possibly the saddest chapter” in black history. Relying on race rather than accomplishment has sapped the strength of the black Americans, for “to be human is to be responsible. Correspondingly, living without responsibility constitutes a kind of inferiority, even when people are prevented by oppression for carrying responsibility for themselves” (p. 108). Whatever relieves a person of responsibility—be it slavery or welfare or affirmative action—diminishes him. Lowering academic standards in the name of racial justice is “the most dehumanizing and defeating thing that can be done to black Americans” (p. 113). But it’s been done and the results are clear in the failing schools in the nation’s inner cities. Here’s the question that haunts Shelby Steele: “if the Great Society was so good, why did black America produce its first true underclass after it was over?” (p. 124). And that question—not “white supremacy” or “the legacy of slavery”—that should prompt us all to rethink the problem of race in America.
That whites since the ‘60s have facilitated this destructive process—all in the name of racial justice—strikes Steele as a tragic betrayal of this nation’s finest principles. In order to burnish their own sense of righteousness in “helping” blacks they have lost sight of the truly “first things” most desperately needed. Rather than requiring everyone, both black and white, embrace “such timeless American principles as self-reliance, hard work, moral responsibility, sacrifice, and initiative,” whites have resorted to “deference.” Overlook, explain away, make excuses for black failures! Be sufficiently remorseful to affirm one’s own goodness without requiring accountability in a “victimized” racial minority. Treasure empathy and abjure judgment! “And this deference is always a grant of license—relief from the sacrifice, struggle, responsibility, and morality of those demanding principles that healthy communities entirely depend on. And virtually all race-related reform since the sixties has been defined by deference. This reform never raises expectations for blacks with true accountability, never requires that they actually develop as Americans, and absolutely never blames blacks when they don’t develop. It always asks less of blacks and exempts them from the expectations, standards, principles and challenges that are considered demanding but necessary for the development of competence and character in others” (p. 125).
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Current discussions of “white fragility” and “white privilege” make Shelby Steele’s White Guilt: How Blacks and Whites Together Destroyed the Promise of the Civil Rights Era (New York: HarperCollinsPublishers, c. 2006) essential reading for anyone wanting to rightly understand race relations in America. As George Will said, “Steele is America’s clearest thinker about America’s most difficult problem. Braiding family memories with an acute understanding of national policies, he demonstrates what went wrong then whites for their reasons, and blacks for theirs, implanted the idea that white guilt explains black problems and can be the basis of policies for ameliorating them.”
A major watershed was passed (Steele thinks) circa 1968, when the stigma of “white guilt” replaced the “white racism” that had persisted for nearly four centuries. Subsequently a “vacuum of moral authority that comes from simply knowing that one’s race is associated with racism” enervated whites in America, rendering them impotent in the face of “black power.” Whites decided to rectify past injustices by devising programs of racial preferences, freeing blacks from the task of properly preparing for schools or qualifying for skilled jobs—“clearly implying an inherent and irredeemable black inferiority” (p. 134). Emboldened as victims, blacks seem ironically intent on resurrecting segregation—black churches, black professional associations, a congressional black caucus, black student associations, etc. “Now in the promised land of freedom we reach for the lost Eden of separatism” (p. 26).
As a young collegian Steele embraced black power. Listening to a speech by Dick Gregory, who softly peddled the Marxist notion of social determinism, Steele turned away from the vision of Martin Luther King and his embrace of great American principles, simply asking they be extended to all persons. But Gregory’s rhetoric advocated outrage at the nation’s “systemic” or “structural” or “institutional” racism—something so elusive and toxic that it could never be overcome. King himself would be replaced by “an entirely new kind of black leadership, not selfless men like King who appealed to the nation’s moral character but smaller men, bargainers, bluffers, and haranguers—not moralists but specialists in moral indignation—who could set up a gird with white guilt” (p. 34). Ultimately, Steele realized that Gregory and his companions were “not fighting to end racism as King had always done; he was giving us the ideas we needed to enlarge it” (p. 35). So Jessie Jackson would promote not a color blind society but a “rainbow coalition,” and interpret every racial incident as proof of systemic racism. “This is why one black man being beaten by police in Los Angeles could trigger a massive riot in which some sixty people were killed” (p. 36). White guilt, Steele explains, determined O.J. Simpson’s “innocent” verdict, something that would never have happened 20 years earlier. To black jurors, the race consciousness promulgated by leaders such as Dick Gregory had become more important than judicial fairness. Embracing this illusion enabled most blacks to persuade themselves that individual initiative and responsibility were less powerful than social determinism. If you were a “powerless victim of racial oppression, this new morality of social justice meant you could not be expected to carry the same responsibilities as others” (p. 53). You were also free from “moral constraints, and even the law” (p. 54). Rioting and looting as “social justice!”
Playing the “race card” enabled blacks to propound “an unwritten law more enforceable than many actual laws: that no black problem—whether high crime rates, poor academic performance, or high illegitimacy rates—could be defined as largely a black responsibility, because it was an injustice to make victims responsible for their own problems. To do so would be to ‘blame the victim,’ thereby repeating his victimization. Thus, in the national consciousness after the sixties, individual responsibility became synonymous with injustice when applied to blacks” (p. 55). The outraged response to Daniel Moynihan’s The Negro Family illustrated this phenomenon. It was clear in 1965 that “whites simply could not criticize black life without being seen as racist, no matter what their intentions were. His fine study immediately became an untouchable document in both government and academia. He was made an object lesson for America’s intellectual class: castigation and disregard await all white scholars who see black poverty outside a context of victimization” (p. 121). Thenceforth has transpired an enduring “culture war between two political and moral cultures, one grounded in principle and values, the other in dissociation [i.e. separating personal and social morality]—the former broadly focusing the right, the latter focusing the left” (p. 174).
This, however, was not what Steele and learned as a child. “I had been raised around what might be called the ‘good man’ ethic. A good man was the one you turned to when work got really tough, when quality counted, when deadlines had to be met. A good man always finished what he started. Such men were quiet figures of dignity in my working class neighborhood. And in the name this ethic I had continuously held some sort of job since my sixth-trade paper route” (p. 47). His father was a “good man” who had only a third grade education. But he worked hard at various tasks, taking advantage of economic opportunities, buying and restoring “three ramshackle homes,” making a good living for his family. He looked for opportunities rather than complaining about his circumstances. Young Shelby followed suit, industriously looking for work and trying to get ahead. Propitiously, he was hired by the Chicago Transit Authority as a bus driver, which he did proudly and well. But then, enamored with Dick Gregory’s rhetoric, he abruptly resigned his job in order to marinate in Black Power resentment! In time he came to lament that decision—but in microcosm it demonstrates the misdirection afflicting the civil right movement, preferring to indulge in resentment rather than take advantage of opportunities. Though not in vogue with today’s ruling class, Shelby Steele’s solution to racial strife is the best I know.