Shelby Steele came to wide public attention with The Content of Our Character (1991), a collection of essays that made it abundantly clear he was not about to let racial politics or part) lines impose “a certain totalitarianism over the maverick thoughts of the individual.” Not surprisingly, the individual in question was none other than Steele himself—and the “maverick thoughts” he offered up came to a devastating critique of the “black agenda” as it currently defines race in America:
Steele freely admits that there are nuggets of truth in these assumptions (given our long, sad history- of racial turmoil, how could there not be?), but their net effect is to undervalue the genuine accomplishments of the Civil Rights Movement and, more important, to “make the black identity an identity of accusation that offers its subscribers a way to recompose their vulnerability into their victimization.” This, Steele argues, is not only to misread the promise of freedom at the very heart of the Civil Rights Movement—for what people such as Steele were fighting for, and what they largely succeeding in winning, was equal opportunity.
. . . that white racism and racial discrimination are still the primary black problems; that blacks should maintain an essential adversarial stance toward the mainstream; that institutional racism is automatically present in the workplace; that political conservatism is by definition anti-black; that blacks are not “given” enough chances to advance; that blacks are exploited economically and otherwise because they are black; that the larger society is basically indifferent to the problems of blacks; that high black crime rates are the outgrowth of victimization; that blacks must work twice as hard to gain recognition as whites; that one should be black first and American second.
By echoing the eloquent words of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, Steele’s title hopes to move the discussion of race in America to a new level, one based on his belief that “it is time for blacks to begin to shift from a wartime to a peacetime identity, from fighting for opportunity to the seizing of it.” Mass action may well have been necessary in the 1960’s; in the 1990’s, however, racial advancement, Steele argues, can only come through “hard work, education, individual initiative, stable family life, property ownership.”
That Steele’s emphasis is on character rather than color, on the individual rather than the group, on integration rather than prolonging Jim Crowism under other names is true enough; that collective efforts on behalf of a better, more enlightened world quickly turned sour is (alas) even truer. Perhaps it was inevitable that the colorblind America King prayed toward would devolve into the backlash of black separatism and the bean-counting of professional do-gooders. But as Steele argues again and again in The Content of Our Character, integration “once stood for a high and admirable set of values. It made a difference second to communality, and it asked members of all races to face whatever fears they inspired in each other.” We have, to our collective discredit, chosen the easier paths of racial politics, with its power-broke ring of black victimization and its white “quick fixes.” What we have not dared to do is move beyond the color line, where individuals become “visible” and where they are held accountable for their successes and failures.
Granted, to build a society worthy of King’s legacy is not easy, just as the discipline and non-violence he preached set a high moral bar for those who followed him. Ironically enough, facing down billyclubs and water cannon turned out to be a walk in the park when compared with delivering straight, unflinching talk about our current racial divide: “If the darkest fear of blacks is inferiority, the darkest fear of whites is that their better lot in life is at least partially the result of their capacity for evil. . . .” Wriggling out of this double bind will not—indeed, cannot— come without considerable psychic cost. But recognizing the problem is often the first step toward seeing the Other as one’s human counterpart, and in this spirit let me simply admit that there were whole sections in The Content of Our Character— particularly when he wrote about militant black college students—where I ticked off my agreement in the margin, knowing full well that I couldn’t have written such sentences myself:
When Steele wrote these lines he was an English professor teaching at San Jose University. He is now a research fellow at the Hoover Institution and a person who no longer disguises his conservative colors. Thus Steele argues that if the first betrayal of black freedom in America was slavery and segregation, the second betrayal comes at the hands of a redemptive (read: liberal) politics that mires blacks in victimization even as it goes about the main business of assuaging white shame:
How many black students demonstrating for black theme dorms— demonstrating in the style of the sixties, when the battle was to win for blacks a place on campus—might be better off spending their time reading and studying? Black students have the highest dropout rate and the lowest grade point average of any group in America. This need not be so. And it is not the result of not having black theme dorms.
* * * *
Black students have not sufficiently helped themselves, and universities, despite all their concessions have not really done much for blacks. If both faced their anxieties, I think they would see the same thing: academic parity with all other groups should be the overriding mission of black students, and it should also be the first goal that universities have for their black students. Blacks can only know they are as good as others when they are, in fact, as good—when their grades are higher and their dropout rate lower. Nothing under the sun will substitute for this, and no amount of concessions will bring it about.
To see blacks as victims, and only as victims, led directly to a misreading of history and the charge that efforts to hold individual blacks accountable were mean-spirited (or in Steele’s case, self-hating) exercises in “blaming the victim.” By contrast, victims, Steele insists, are precisely what feel-good liberalism requires. Something is very wrong with this picture, not only because it (wrongly) assumes that blacks can’t make it in America without an affirmative action boost, but also because it (wrongly) assumes that the racists are in Steele’s camp rather than in their own. After all, to coddle those who have feathered their political nests by turning racial inferiority into a bargaining chip is to give in to their Big Lie at the very moment it needs to be systematically exposed. Steele puts the matter even more sharply: “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.”
After the sixties, when American politics became openly accountable to the legacy of racial victimization, the acceptance or rejection of victimization as a totalism came to imply either a liberal or conservative politics. In response to the sixties American liberalism realigned itself around victimization not as a fact or as an ongoing problem but as a totalistic explanation of black difficulty. Conservatism during this period belatedly admitted to the fact of black victimization but never accepted it as a totalism.
By assuming that blacks can compete, thank you very much, and moreover, that they need to depend upon themselves far more than upon self-righteous white liberals, Steele changes the intellectual playing field. No longer can militant blacks play “Mirror, mirror, on the wall/Who’s the blackest of us all?” and then go on to insist that they are the only authentic blacks in town. We know far too much about the spectrum of black opinion to get suckered into such arithmetic. Steele, in short, may not be as “lonely” as he sometimes thinks he is when campus militants shout him down because he is opposed to affirmative action policies or when journalists roll their eyeballs as he goes about thoughtfully answering their questions. The truth of the matter is that the black middle class is growing even as I keyboard this sentence, and many of them surely understand what Steele has in mind when he calls for self-reliance, discipline, solid family structures, and a strong moral fiber. These things sustained the bulk of the black community even when segregation was, as black vaudevillian Bert Wheeler once put it, “mighty inconvenient.”
Steele does not mean to minimize the damage that slavery and segregation have done, but he also doesn’t want to join those mushheaded liberals who worry that middle-class success is something blacks should fear rather than embrace, or to support those blacks who angrily call for a separatism that looks for all the world like Jim Crowism reestablished. His concern, again and again, is the choices that come with the territory of a genuine freedom, and how that freedom has been sold down the river by those, white and black, who make groupthink their specialty and who make sure to turn up the heat on any maverick intellectuals daring (or foolish) enough to call a wide range of assumptions and entitlements into question.
The four essays collected in A Dream Deferred have a way of circling back on themselves, repeating our nation’s troubled racial history in some spots or Steele’s no-nonsense remedies in others. No matter, because there are times, as George Orwell once pointed out, when it is the “first duty of intelligent men to restate the obvious.” Race in America is not only such an occasion, but it is also one in which a bit of repetition is welcome—especially if the ideas presented are as thoughtful and penetrating as are Steele’s.
Most of the time Steele wears an embattled face as he goes about the business of patiently explaining what he means by “contingency triggers” and how the race card is shamelessly being played by whites and blacks alike. His terms may or may not catch on, but the arguments undergirding them should sharpen our ongoing national debate. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that Steele packs more sound sense into A Dream Deferred than can be found in anything President Clinton’s Commission on Race did, or did not do, during their high priced year of town meetings and rancorous private discussions.
Thus far I have made Steele sound as if he were something of a pinchface, but there are delicious spots when he displays a flair for the bitingly satirical. At one point, for example, he wonders (tongue fully in cheek) what would happen if a young Charlie Parker were the recipient of interventionist programs out to give him a leg up on music. As Steele imagines it,
The point of Steele’s story is meant to sting, and it does, for if the real Charlie Parker had a good deal in his family history and in his restricted culture that we would all wish otherwise, he triumphed over circumstances that would render his marvelous saxophone mute.. By contrast, the contemporary young Charlie Parker that Steele fantasizes about never had a chance—not with redemptive liberals running the show. Unlike the Charlie Parker who changed the direction of American jazz, he would not only be left with a mess of worthless pottage called “self esteem” but also gradually convinced that this, in the final analysis, is better than accomplishment. One hardly needs the eye of an eagle to see how insidious, how racist, the redemptive liberalism that flourished in the wake of the Civil Rights Movement in fact is.
The tutor learns that Parker’s father drank too much and abandoned the family, and that his mother has had an affair with a married man. Young Charlie is often late to his tutorial sessions. Secretly the tutor comes to feel that probably his purpose is therapeutic, since the terrible circumstances of Charlie’s life make it highly unlikely that he will ever be focused enough to master the complex keying system of the saxophone or learn to read music competently. . . .
Charlie smiles politely at his tutor but secretly feels that the tutor’s pained attentions are evidence that he, Charlie, must be inadequate in some way. He finds it harder to pay attention during his lessons. He has also heard from many that the saxophone—a European instrument—really has little to do with who he is. He tells this to the tutor one day, after a particularly poor practice session. The tutor is sympathetic because he, too, has recently learned that it is not exactly esteem building to impose a European instrument on an African-American child.
Small wonder that Steele returns again and again to the democratic principles that, by definition, stand four-square against favoritism by race, class, or gender. It is time, Steele concludes, “for those who seek identity and power through grievance groups to fashion identities apart from grievance, to grant themselves the widest range of freedom, and to assume responsibility for that freedom.” Like Martin Luther King, Jr. before him, Steele asks those entangled in the narcissism of victimhood to break out of their chains, just as he asks white Americans to face the new blacks they will discover when paternalism and condescension no longer drive the ship of our racially divided state.