I have long believed that race is a mask through which other human needs manifest themselves. I think we often make race an issue to avoid knowing other things about ourselves. ~Shelby Steele, Seven Days In Bensonhurst
Shelby Steele is experiencing a revival. For over 30 years, the controversial black American essayist and culture critic has consistently produced some of the most original insights to be found on the precarious issue of race in America and has been met with reactions that range from reverence to revulsion. Usually, it’s one reaction or the other. To his critics, Steele is a race traitor, a contrarian black conservative who makes a living assuaging the guilty consciences of whites at the expense of his own people. To his admirers, he is a lone voice of clarity in the chaos of America’s racial discourse who, at 74 years of age, continues to speak uncomfortable and disconcerting truths to power. But his greatest strength may turn out to be a knack for anticipation. As the social upheavals inspired by America’s “racial reckoning” rage on, Steele’s work now looks prescient—it identified the underlying forces that would eventually shape our explosive cultural moment, and offers a more honest accounting of our past and present.
* * *
Steele was born in a segregated Chicago suburb in 1946 to a black father and a white mother who were both active in the early civil rights movement. His father, Shelby Sr., was a truck driver who was barred from the Teamsters union until the very end of his career on account of his race, while his mother, Ruth, was a social worker who met Shelby Sr. at the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). To be a miscegenated couple at the time was to live in a taboo, a life apart. But Steele sees his mixed background as an asset, “an absolute gift” that “demystified” race in his young mind. “I could never see white people as just some unified group who hated blacks.” He has two sisters and a twin brother, Claude, who would go on to become his intellectual polar opposite. Shelby was the only sibling to reject the tenets of modern liberalism, and although he and his brother work on the same campus and occasionally pass each other (Shelby is at Stanford’s Hoover Institution), the two are not on speaking terms.
Steele has the unique gift of rendering painful life experiences into digestible moral lessons, and his childhood under Jim Crow was riddled with such literary fodder. While attending an all-black elementary school, a “dumping ground” for mediocre and malicious teachers, he was terrorized by a particularly sadistic ex-marine who took pleasure in attacking what he perceived to be Steele’s stupidity, and punishing him for it. After Steele misspelled a word on his first day of class, mockery of his intelligence became a regular part of the classroom, until “very quickly I in fact became stupid.” The punishments worsened until he was forced to pick broken glass up off the playground with his bare hands and told that, when he gave up, an older student would chase him around the school grounds with a baseball bat. After a while, Steele pretended to pass out from exhaustion and the student couldn’t bring himself to use the bat. “I exited the school yard through an adjoining cornfield and never returned.” It was his brother who eventually told their parents what had happened, which led them to boycott the school and ultimately close it down.1
Steele relates this story not to lament the tragedy of his youth, but to illustrate how self-doubt and the anxiety of being seen as inferior can become a self-fulfilling prophecy, especially when race is used as a proxy. Some time after this episode, the white mother of a boy he befriended at the YMCA would routinely correct his English, triggering inferiority anxiety. “I felt racial shame with this white woman’s fastidious concern with my language.” But rather than addressing that shame, he externalized it and told her son that he thought his mother was a racist. Days later, the woman stormed into the YMCA and took Steele aside, telling him that she didn’t give a “good God damn” about his race and was just trying to help him learn good grammar to improve his prospects in life. “I was shocked to realize that my comment had genuinely hurt her and that her motive in correcting my English had been no more than simple human kindness. If she had been black, I might have seen this more easily.” This was a transformative moment for Steele.2
Steele drew inspiration from his parents’ activism. When he was a boy, his family sought to integrate a park in Downtown Chicago as an act of moral witness and protest. Out of nowhere, a white man came up and punched his father in the jaw. But instead of fighting back, his father just stood staring at the man, quietly holding his ground. Eventually the man apologized, mortified by what he had done. At that time racism was an unconscious reflex arising from social propriety and when that propriety was disrupted, violence usually resulted. The silent dignity and peacefulness of the early civil rights protests were the perfect device to expose the pointless evil of white supremacy. This incident impressed upon Steele the moral power of this kind of protest, and it offers a contrast to today’s protest movements, which he describes as convulsions of “pathos.”
The writer Shelby Steele gets emotional telling a story about his father getting punched by a white man while integrating a park in the 1950s.
"It was a human, moral statement that we want to move beyond race and identity as a means to power."
— Samuel Kronen (@SalmonKromeDome) September 15, 2020
His father’s unshakable faith in the United States was also instructive. The son of a man born into slavery, Shelby Sr. never turned his back on the country even as he suffered at its hands. He later recalled his father telling him, “You know, you shouldn’t underestimate America… You can’t imagine the change I’ve seen in my own lifetime.”3 But the idealism of his parents began to wane through his high school and college years as the new black power consciousness developed and provided him with an outlet for personal insecurities and grievances. The summer before his senior year of high school, Steele, a star swimmer on the team, was excluded from attending a summer vacation at the coach’s family home on Lake Michigan because the coach’s mother disliked blacks. He decided to quit the team (though for unrelated reasons), which led to a confrontation with his coach.
In a heated exchange, he was accused of being “hung up on race,” of using his blackness to avoid his responsibilities as a student athlete. “Well coach,” he exclaimed, “the truth is that you did go along with your racist mother, didn’t you? She said no blacks, and you made sure there were no blacks. And you knew me… personally. We spent time together. I babysat your son. And you did it anyway.” As he left the office, he turned to the coach and said, “You and everybody on this team are racists.” Meanwhile, the rest of the team had been listening from outside the office and flocked around Shelby for consolation afterwards. He ignored them and walked home. “It is often the victim’s fate,” he says of the experience, “to be victimized a second time by the moral neediness of his former victimizer.”4
* * *
At university, Steele became involved in the black power movement. He grew tired of the moral loftiness of the civil rights struggle and sought a more worldly political identity. He quit his summer job as a bus driver, a lucrative post for blacks in the 1960s, out of defiance. As a leader of a black political organization on campus, Steele remembers barging into the dean’s office with a list of demands, only to realize that he was still holding a lit cigarette that he had been smoking outside when he entered the building. Although accidental, Steele thought it was the perfect symbol of impiety. He recalls seeing the dean notice the cigarette and start to lift himself out of his seat in anger, only to stop himself out of some inner recognition. “In that instant we witnessed his transformation from a figure of implacable authority to a negotiator empathetic with the cause of those who challenged him—from a traditional to a modern college president.”5 To Steele’s regret, many of those demands were met. The nation’s failings around race had shifted the moral dynamics of the culture, and the dean, a staunch supporter of the civil rights movement who had donated to Martin Luther King Jr.’s organization, had no ground upon which to stand. “At this odd moment in history,” he later wrote, “the universe was aligned to facilitate my immaturity.”6
In the late ’60s, Steele went on to work in a slew of poverty programs as a part of President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society. The chaos he witnessed firsthand awakened his skepticism about the degree to which liberal policies could correct historical injustices. One program in East St. Louis was particularly egregious. The poverty workers were completely incapable of managing the problems they encountered, and the organization quickly devolved into power- and status-jockeying. Steele tells stories of staff meetings at which people showed up with guns outlined under their clothes, of boys returning from juvenile detention with lipstick and earrings, of men shot dead in the streets in alligator suits, of an attractive female “psychologist” who provided “rather noisy closed-door sessions to several of our students.” But because the workers were black, it was assumed their experiences would make up for any knowledge gaps. The government money that poured in was flagrantly wasted—“all we needed was more money, always more money.”7 What he saw, in effect, was the merging of two worlds of corruption: the street world of gangs and drug lords and the poverty-program world of abundant government money. The lack of responsibility or agency assigned to the program recipients made their efforts a guaranteed failure in his view.
By 1970, Steele’s doubts about the counterculture were growing. To test its claims about the scope of American evil, he and his young wife Rita took a trip to Africa to visit countries newly liberated from colonial rule. If America is really so bad, these other places should be better. They were not. Wandering the city of Oran in Algeria—where everywhere clusters of men “stood around aimlessly” in the middle of the day—they ran into a couple of Black Panthers in exile from the States. The momentary excitement of meeting fellow Americans this far from home was short-lived. Their eyes betrayed desperation and cunning. Steele “was suddenly struck with the obvious: how vulnerable we were in this house with these men on the run, guns no doubt just out of sight, and in a country that was openly hostile to America. I knew that I was simply in the company of thugs.” It wasn’t until he left Algeria that Steele and his wife discovered these men had been on the run for murder.8
The trip clarified another major theme of his later work: the burden of freedom. Once a group of formerly oppressed people finally win concessions from the larger society, it can be experienced as a shock, trauma, or shame that throws its members back on their own inadequacies. The energies spent in pursuit of freedom are useless once it is obtained. There arises instead a powerful impulse to use identity as a means to power. If a newly liberated group convinces itself that it is still oppressed, the demands of freedom can be evaded with a clear conscience. This is why revolutionary sentiment is not necessarily correlated with the degree of oppression a group of people experience but with the diminishing legitimacy and power of the larger society. Ironically, “anger in the oppressed is a response to perceived opportunity, not to injustice. And expressions of anger escalate not with more injustice but with less injustice.”9 Why else would the black power movement have expanded only after the victories of the civil rights movement? And why else would Black Lives Matter arise only after the election of the first black president? Progress is often met with an expanded notion of what real progress would mean.
By the early 1980s, Steele, now a tenured professor of English Lit, grew weary of the public positions he was expected to adopt on account of his racial identity. He calls this phenomenon “race fatigue.” At a meeting with a group of professors held to determine whether a new “ethnic literature” program would be introduced, his weariness boiled over. Each member of the committee was asked to comment on the proposal, but when Steele’s turn came around, the white woman proposing the program took his vote for granted. “I think we can all agree that it’s not necessary to hear from Shelby. He’ll be with me.” she said. In fact, Steele was not “with her”:
“So you think I’m an automatic vote because I’m black?” he asked.
“Well, doesn’t you being black make you an automatic on this?”
“I suppose you don’t see anything racist in what you’re saying?”
“Come on, Shelby. Don’t give me a hard time. How in God’s name are you going to be anything but in favor of an ethnic literature class?”
Steele demanded an apology and then voted against the proposal. The woman reluctantly apologized. The proposal passed anyway.10
* * *
Steele began to write out his thoughts in an effort to close the gap between his public and private selves. His efforts culminated in the award-winning 1990 book of essays The Content of Our Character A New Vision of Race in America. The collection takes on the moral and social psychology of race to address the question of why America’s racial discourse has been more or less stunted since the 1960s. While racism has been in drastic and measurable decline, racial gaps between whites and blacks have persisted, and even increased in some respects. “For some years,” Steele wrote, “I have noticed that I can walk into any of my classes on the first day of the semester, identify the black students, and be sadly confident that on the last day of the semester a disproportionate number of them will be at the bottom of the class, far behind any number of white students of equal or lesser ability.”11
The progressive response has been to expand the concept of racism to describe an all-pervasive system that produces unequal outcomes whether there’s evidence of bias or not. Steele, however, has argued that the greatest barrier to black advancement is the deficiency in human capital that emerged from past racism—the cultural and economic underdevelopment left over from 400 years of oppression. Likewise, the undying focus on white racism and black victimology precludes an honest assessment of these underlying issues. It’s not racism.
In Steele’s view, the explanation of black underachievement has its origins in the moral fall from grace of the 1960s when racism was first stigmatized out of polite society. For the first time, a critical mass of whites became conscious of their historic privilege and complicity in racism in ways that transformed the larger culture, while a critical mass of blacks came to identify with their historic victimization. It can be difficult for modern sensibilities to appreciate just how new this development was at the time. It started a perpetual motion machine of white guilt and black power politics that set the terms of America’s implicit racial contract. Ever since, both whites and blacks have developed unconscious patterns to guard their sense of racial innocence. A significant strand of white American culture projects a sense of guilt about the plight of blacks to dissociate themselves from the stigma of racism, and a significant strand of black American culture compels an angry militant pose to win concessions from white society and dissociate from the stigma of inferiority. White guilt is black power; they are the same phenomenon.
Steele argued that this mutual need to feel innocent of history keeps Americans stuck in the past and prevents race relations from making real progress. The guilt-complex of many whites prevents a frank conversation about issues afflicting segments of the black community, reflexively blaming racism for everything from homicide rates to fatherless homes to academic achievement gaps. Meanwhile, Affirmative Action and other diversity programs are introduced, not to help their ostensible beneficiaries, but to dissociate institutions from the stigma of racism. It’s about innocence, not uplift. On the other hand, the victim-complex of many blacks encourages them to keep whites “on the hook” for racism and ultimately mitigates the need for personal responsibility or cultural change. If racism is everywhere, always, what’s the point of trying? It’s an excuse for failure. The upshot is that both groups have a vested interest in the continuing existence of racism to justify their own moral identities. This helps explain the fanatical obsession with elevating any incident or event that carries the whiff of racism into the national spotlight.
To move beyond this racial impasse in our culture, Steele contends, race must be rejected as a means to innocence and power. Indeed, the whole effort of the civil rights movement was to reject identity as a means to power. What passes for anti-racism today accepts the basic premises of white supremacy by injecting melanin with moral meaning. What we need, according to Steele, is a revitalization of individualism in our society—an emphasis on black autonomy as against the historical determinism of the cultural Left, and an American humanism that appreciates our common bonds as citizens over racial and ethnic differences. This means discarding all forms of race essentialism and separatism.
The Content of Our Character had a major ripple effect in the culture and influenced a whole generation of so-called “black conservatives”—in other words, blacks who reject the progressive narrative on race. In the lead-up to the book, Steele produced an Emmy-winning documentary for Frontline called Seven Days In Bensonhurst about the killing of Yusef Hawkins in Brooklyn. It touched on themes that would be echoed following the death of George Floyd 30 years later. Almost overnight, Steele became a leading commentator on race, as well as a figure of scorn in progressive circles. In his 1998 book, A Dream Deferred, he recalls the ritualistic shaming that would take place whenever he gave lectures on campus. “I realized, finally, that I was a black conservative when I found myself standing on stages being publicly shamed.”12
* * *
In 2006, Steele wrote his much-lauded book White Guilt: How Blacks And Whites Together Destroyed The Promise Of The Civil Rights Era. In 1955, a young black boy named Emmett Till was brutally lynched in Mississippi for saying something innocuous to a white woman. The white men who killed him were acquitted. In 1995, OJ Simpson killed two people and walked free, in part because an investigator had lied about his use of racial slurs. White Guilt is a meditation on what changed in the culture between these two events. Similarly, while president Bill Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky neither destroyed his legacy nor ended his presidency, rumors that President Eisenhower occasionally used the word “nigger” on the golf course would surely destroy the reputation and legacy of a modern presidency. What explains the shift in focus from private to public morality? Steele’s answer to both of these questions is the emergence of the psycho-social phenomenon of white guilt after the 1960s. White guilt is not genuine guilt or a feeling of remorse but the stigma of collective guilt that activates the moral terror of being seen as a racist. It is the vacuum of moral authority on issues related to race that comes from the association of white skin with historical racism. This is how the counterculture became culture.
With America’s past now tainted by the sin of racism, traditionalism itself could be swiftly demonized. This broke an important cultural continuity between past, present, and future necessary to the flourishing of a functioning democracy. In this way, the counterculture replaced mainstream culture but without acknowledging its newfound power. The ugliness of the past could now be used as a springboard to justify the overreach of the new order in perpetuity.
Steele’s most recent book Shame: How America’s Past Sins Have Polarized Our Country, published in 2014, expands on some of the ideas in his earlier works but applies his framework to the issue of political and cultural polarization. How did we get to the point where the political parties see each other as enemies battling over territorial dominance rather than working together to improve the state of the country? Steele attributes this to the same societal transformation that he watched unfold when American society finally acknowledged its past racial sins at the height of the civil rights movement.
A fracturing of the national identity led to a realignment of the political parties and a shift from individual to group rights, which in turn set the tone for what we now know as the culture wars. Before this point, it was quite common for Democrats and Republicans to agree on many important things, but the new moral mandate to dissociate from the past generated a rift between socially conservative whites and the upcoming post-civil rights consensus. “This makes for a great irony in contemporary American life,” Steele observes, “although we have come very far in overcoming old sins, such as racism and sexism, we are in many ways more sharply divided than when those sins went largely unchallenged.”13
Towards the end of the book, Steele predicts a conservative counterculture in reaction to the cultural hegemony of the Left, grounded in an appreciation of our social progress and a renewed working class politics of individual and collective responsibility as a nation.
* * *
It can sometimes feel like Steele is beating the same old drum or otherwise preaching to the choir. Meanwhile, the problems he discusses have only got worse. Polarization is spiraling out of control, the politics of guilt and victimology have exploded, the cultural power of the Left seems immovable. Notwithstanding his appeals to nonpartisanship, his association with the Right—whether it be with his tenure at the Hoover Institution or his regular interviews on Fox News—suggests otherwise. Moreover, his constant return to free market economics and personal responsibility politics as a retort to the Left can seem like an anachronistic hangover of Reaganism in a rapidly changing political climate. This alignment has proved to be an obstacle to effecting changes in the mainstream narrative on race on the Left that has become increasingly suspicious of conservatives on this topic. But this hardly reflects negatively on the universalist arguments of Shelby Steele and others, who were forced to form alliances with the Right because they were demonized by the Left, not vice versa. But as more liberals and centrists grow skeptical of contemporary anti-racism, the political tide may change.
Steele’s focus on cultural development and his criticism of today’s racial and political activism might ring with the self-help rhetoric of Booker T. Washington, but it was actually a former student at Washington’s famous Tuskegee University that most influenced Steele: Ralph Ellison, the author of the great American novel Invisible Man. Ellison ultimately rejected Washington’s warning to “go slow” on civil rights, but likewise rejected the black power movement that arose in its wake. Invisible Man is about the need for the individual to define himself apart from the group. In his first book, Steele quotes Ellison describing the problem for blacks as “not actually one of creating the uncreated conscience of our race but creating the uncreated features of our face. Our task is that of making ourselves individuals. We create the race by creating ourselves and then to our great astonishment we will have created something far more important: we will have created a culture.”14
Ellison, like Steele, believed in the greatness of America and the essential place of blacks in the story of American culture, extolled in his excellent book of essays Shadow and Act. His vision was of an America in which whites know they are part-black and blacks know they are part-white, and where culture is no longer confused with sterile notions of race. Although the chasm in black American political thought is often reduced to a crude binary between black progressives and conservatives, Ellison’s influence on Steele shows how much more complex the story really is.
* * *
A great writer shows us how to think rather than telling us what to think. By taking us on a journey through their own thoughts, experiences, and revelations, we come to see, step by step, how they arrived at their own conclusions. There’s nothing mystical about it. It’s a matter of clarification, of revealing reality rather than coercing or intimidating the reader into accepting certain premises, of bringing to our conscious mind that which we already knew in our depths but hadn’t yet recognized. Shelby Steele is such a writer. His ability to state obvious but politically unfashionable truths resonates in an era when moral courage is a scarce resource. “This is not rocket science,” he has said of his work, “it is just common sense, applied in a social way. Anyone can see these things.” And yet common sense is not so common at the moment. At a time of intense political and racial division, Steele’s work is invaluable. If only his warnings had been heeded 30 years ago.
Samuel Kronen is an independent writer interested in culture, politics, and identity. You can follow him on Twitter @SalmonKromeDome.
1 The Content Of Our Character, pp 40–41
2 Ibid. pp 58–59
3 Shame, p 123
4 Ibid. pp 48–51
5 White Guilt, p 23
6 The Content of Our Character, p 3
7 White Guilt, pp 119–120
8 Shame, p 97
9 White Guilt, pp 20–21
10 Ibid. p 158
11 The Content of Our Character, pp 26–27
12 A Dream Deferred, p 3
13 Shame, p 12
14 The Content of Our Character, p 30