On October 20th, Brown University professor of economics Glenn Loury and Columbia University professor of linguistics John McWhorter were joined on Loury’s Bloggingheads podcast The Glenn Show by Shelby and Eli Steele to discuss the new documentary What Killed Michael Brown? The film is written and narrated by Shelby, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and an award-winning writer, and directed by his son, Eli. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of that discussion.
LOURY: What Killed Michael Brown? has already produced a lot of controversy. I hear that Amazon was a little bit reluctant to let you guys put your film up at their streaming service. I don’t know what that’s about, but the reviews that I have read are very positive, including the review that I offered here with John in our last conversation. So where did the idea for making this film come from?
S. STEELE: This film came from the realization that we had a body dead in the street. We felt the whole American racial situation was somehow concretized, brought to life, by the presence of this body in the street. So that’s what got us going. Then what was the reaction? The reaction was hysterical—riots, and they burned down this little nowhereville suburb of St. Louis, and people from all over the world descended on Ferguson, Missouri. So it was a very rich platform to work from.
E. STEELE: Maybe, like 2015, we started talking about an idea for the film and we kept returning to Ferguson and the reason people were calling it the new Selma. They were saying that this was a landmark in American history, but the difference between Ferguson and Selma could not be bigger. I mean, Selma was very real—the oppression was very real. We felt we could do a deeper dive than Eric Holder had done to try to get to the root of the problem. And that’s what attracted us to this film—we thought there was more to the story than the superficial stuff. We thought that there was much more behind the curtain.
LOURY: It started a movement, didn’t it? The events that happened in Ferguson, Missouri had deep political resonance for the country as a whole. If it wasn’t Selma, what was it then? What exactly is the difference in your minds between the classic—the iconic—narrative of African-American struggle against oppression on the one hand, and what unfolded in the wake of Ferguson on the other?
S. STEELE: It’s not like Selma. You and I grew up in segregation. I know about segregation. I lived the civil rights movement, saw those noble fights against an enemy that was everywhere in the world I grew up in. So no one had any doubt about the moral integrity of Selma’s protests. But in Ferguson, Missouri, what was the argument? That because one cop killed a black that somehow racism is systemic? It seems to me that the elephant in the room is that racism is so minimal now, that it couldn’t really, in and of itself, get any movement off the ground. There’s not enough of it around. There’s not enough injustice. And what we had instead was a generation looking for power and looking to see how guilty white America would respond. And, in that sense, the movement was cynical. It mimicked the real movement—Selma and the civil rights movement in the ’50s and the ’60s and so forth. It was mimicry. It was theater. It wasn’t real.
LOURY: And yet there lay Michael Brown for four and a half hours on the street.
S. STEELE: That’s right. In the name of an illusion. There was a real death.
McWHORTER: I’ve always been struck with Ferguson by the hardcore resistance to acknowledging the truth. So, there’s the original “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” story, and that was taken as having a certain meaning. And then it became unassailably clear that Michael Brown’s friend lied. What actually happened is that Michael Brown attacked Darren Wilson several times to the point that Wilson felt that he had no choice but to shoot him. That’s simply the truth. And yet there’s almost a religious approach to the whole thing, and not only among a few hardcore black protesters in Ferguson, but in general. The thinking person is not supposed to say outright that we were hoodwinked about that story, or that although Michael Brown’s death was a very sad thing, it’s not the story of Darren Wilson as this person driven by underlying racism to shoot a guy who’s standing there with his hands up. That simply didn’t happen.
And yet, there’s a tacit sense, I think, among the American intelligentsia—now the American “woke,” and today’s “wokeness” was partly driven by Ferguson and Trayvon Martin—that on some level you’re supposed to believe that Michael Brown died that way. As I’ve said to Glenn a couple of times on this show, you can be sure there’ll be a movie. There’ll be a movie where they get some large young black man to play Michael Brown and when they get to that scene, they’re not going to shoot it straight. They’re not going to show what happened. They’re going to do a Rashomon thing where the idea is that nobody quite knows what happened. But we do. And that’s the big difference. There are no lies involved in Selma. Everybody knows exactly what happened. Whereas Ferguson is this Icelandic saga. And that’s the way it’s going to continue to be, I suspect—this documentary lays out the truth so clearly, but still the idea is going to persist that on some level Michael Brown was senselessly murdered by a bigot. It’s frustrating.
LOURY: Why was it so hard for America to see the truth here, even to this day?
S. STEELE: I think the dynamic of the situation is that Michael Brown was in what I call the poetic truth—the truth that serves your politics and your ideology. Michael Brown was a means to power for many people, and the event itself—the shooting of a black teenager—was in itself a potential source of real power and muscle in American life. And particularly for blacks. Right away you saw Black Lives Matter blossom and other groups like it appear. It gave credit to the American Left across all American institutions—the educational system, the universities, all of them were transformed, were changed, modified, by the power inherent in that dead body. So, yes, it was a lie. Michael Brown was not killed by racism. It was just a tragedy, a terrible tragedy. But because it had the look of the ugly American past, racism, there was real power there. I mean, it may elect the president in a few days. It’s not a small thing. When you have that much power in play, everybody’s going to tell whatever story it takes to get some of that power. So the truth was impossible. Michael Brown attacked the policeman and his body was riddled with drugs. This is the truth no one wants, and that no one has any use for. There’s no power in it. The power is in the lie and so the lie went on and on. This is very different than Selma, where everything was straight. But here when you put that much power out there—particularly for people that have none, or have very little—then the truth is the enemy. They’re going to kill off the truth. They’re going to hate the truth. Even Eric Holder and President Obama—they wanted some of that power and they invested in the lie that Michael Brown was a victim of racism. And they went to Ferguson with the power of the United States government behind them to prove that.
LOURY: Help me to understand something because if you can see it and I can see it, everybody can see it. I mean, everybody observing these events has basically got the same information. Now, I can understand why black activists and Black Lives Matter might cling to a certain narrative because it fits with their ideology. But what about the other 300 million Americans? What keeps somebody from coming out and just saying, “This is a fraud. I’m not going to be railroaded by you people. Obviously, the man was a thug. No, I’m not going to apologize for using that word because that’s what he was. You attack an armed police officer? Who are you but a dangerous criminal? I can imagine what else you’re doing when you’re not attacking police officers. I’m not going to lie down prostrate to you people and let you bludgeon me with some guilt trip because I can see the reality. The reality is there’s way too much black crime. If black people and the police weren’t coming into encounters with each other so frequently we wouldn’t have any of these incidents. Almost all of them are guys attacking the cop, so that’s a minstrel show that you’re trying to run on me and I’m not going to play that game.” Why don’t they say that?
S. STEELE: And what would happen if you said that—not hypothetically, but if you just said that. [laughter]
LOURY: I want to underscore that I was doing a hypothetical! [laughter]
McWHORTER: Isn’t it sad that there are so many people who, on a certain level, want Michael Brown to have been killed that way? It’s like they like that story. It’s like they’re not even thinking about the person.
S. STEELE: That’s right. He was a vehicle, a means to power and they needed him to be a victim—a hapless, innocent victim of virulent, unrelenting racism.
McWHORTER: So, Shelby, what killed Michael Brown?
S. STEELE: What killed Michael Brown, we argue, is this liberalism that came out of the 1960s that was also a confession on the part of white America to centuries of collusion with evil. When you confess to something like that, you give people a cudgel to hit you with forever more. And whites have suffered, it seems to me, since the ’60s with this deficit of moral authority that comes from having confessed to evil. This is what I call white guilt—the defensiveness that has developed in white America. And whites have become much more interested in relieving that tension, that guilt, than in seeing to the development of black Americans. And so, in that sense, white guilt makes room for all sorts of machinations. Right away, President Johnson came up with the Great Society, the War on Poverty, school busing, affirmative action, expanded welfare payments and on and on with programs and policies that were designed to relieve guilt in white America, bring back innocence and bring back the moral legitimacy of American government. And, in many ways, it was successful in achieving that, but it didn’t do anything for the development of blacks. We’re farther behind today than we were back in the ‘50s.
McWHORTER: Shelby, you were participating in the Great Society programs and you always say they didn’t work. What was wrong with the programs and why didn’t they work? What happened in the communities that you saw?
S. STEELE: All those programs I just mentioned stole agency from black people over their own fate. When you protest, you’re basically putting your fate in the hands of the people that you’re protesting. We put our fate in the hands of white people who we said had oppressed us: “Give us freedom.” So responsibility for our fates and our life went into the hands of whites, not us. One of the points we try to make is that blacks were doing much better in the ’40s and ’50s, moving slowly into the postwar world and into the middle class. Then, immediately, at virtually the historical moment when the Civil Rights Bill is passed finally validating our freedom, we begin to decline. We declined because we put our fate in their hands. And they anguish and they fight and argue over whether affirmative action is good or bad, and now it’s policing and all these other false, phony issues. Because we refuse to look at the simple, blatantly obvious issue, which is that we as black Americans have not taken enough responsibility for our own advancement. We keep getting lost in the notion of justice and injustice, and we want justice. To hell with justice. Why not just get ahead? Why not become competitive with everyone else in American life? Until we do that, it won’t happen.
LOURY: Hold on, I gotta push back. To hell with justice? You mean like busing? I mean we’re talking about basic civil rights here. Whatever the socioeconomic, family structure, neighborhood integrity consequences of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, or the Voting Rights Act of 1965, or the Brown decision of ’54 and efforts to implement it by desegregating schools, whatever the knock-on consequences that you might speculate would have flowed from that, the constitution required—and the basic premises of equal citizenship require—strenuous intervention in these years from 1945 to 1970 to transform the legal regime so that equal citizenship was a reality for blacks. That’s what Selma was about.
S. STEELE: That’s absolutely right. That’s great stuff.
LOURY: OK, then I want you to expand on that, but let me put a codicil on it—blacks are not the only people who have to butt into the welfare state. Blacks have never been the majority of the people who were poor in the country. Medicaid is not about black people. Aid to Families with Dependent Children is not about black people. It’s about Americans, some of whom are black. But to read social policy through the lens of race is perhaps a mistake, since the War on Poverty was not just a war on behalf of the black poor. So you have those two points: Civil rights are an imperative regardless of their consequences, and the welfare state in America is not mainly a response to the racial exigency. It’s a response to socioeconomic inequality more broadly.
S. STEELE: And yet we’ve not taken enough responsibility for ourselves to have achieved parity with whites. We didn’t do it.
LOURY: I agree with that.
S. STEELE: That’s the big unsayable thing. I say it because I’m just tired of dancing around it. Yes, we had all this wonderful legislation passed confirming our right to exist as human beings and so forth. But we didn’t say that the number one goal, black America, is to make sure your fourth grader can read at grade level. If he can’t, he’s going to have a tough life. If he can, he’ll do pretty well, no matter whether there’s racism or not. You and I did pretty well. We grew up in segregation. Somebody somewhere asked something of us—demanded it. My father. If I’d told him I’m black and therefore I can’t do well in school…? [laughter] Two houses down, Melvin Van Peebles grew up who invented independent film. Two blocks away Linda Hawkins went on to become a PhD biologist at the University of Michigan. This was a poor black neighborhood. The richest man in the neighborhood was a Pullman car porter. They were black aristocracy, along with the postal workers. Well, soon as we get into the ’60s and ’70s and beyond, all that’s gone. Now the government is going to give us all these programs and all these fascinating concepts, convoluted notions of equality and so forth. And we still wring our hands, but unless we focus on black improvement, it won’t get done. The obvious question here is: Doesn’t that leave white people off the hook? My feeling is the greatest mistake black America has ever made is to try to keep white people on the hook.
E. STEELE: In St. Louis, the north side of the city is black, the south side is white. But in the Pruitt-Igoe housing project, the north half was to be for the white people and the south half was to be for the black people. When they got there, almost all the whites and a lot of the blacks realized this was a trap. So a lot of the more aspirational blacks left. The ones that formed the underclass stayed. It’s interesting to read the oral testimonies of these people. They looked at the housing project as sort of a reparation. They came up from Mississippi, they came up from the south, and they’re given this gleaming tower. You’re left with an underclass who did not have the understanding or the ability to move out. And so that underclass is still there generations later. A lot of black people got out and have made progress, but we still have that population that’s left behind in very dangerous circumstances.
McWHORTER: There’s a difference, though, between poor 1950 and poor 1980. I’ve never fully understood the argument—and, Eli, pardon me if I’m misconstruing—that when poor people all live together and the doctors move away, that there’s necessarily going to be a disaster. I knew somebody who died at almost 100 who had been part of that Pruitt-Igoe story. I didn’t know her well, but I knew her and I knew her daughter who is now septuagenarian. And then there are the generations below, and you see a sea change. The older woman worked cleaning houses until she couldn’t, way past 90. And her daughter is the same way. And then different things happen as you go down the generations. There’s a whole different way of approaching things. And I can’t help thinking that that has something to do with the new cultural shift that there was in these housing projects—the idea that the projects were built too far from the street and the architecture made it so that there’s less of a sense of community. But I’ve never been sure that those things would have been so decisive if it weren’t also for that new mood in there at that time.
LOURY: There’s a book, I wonder if you guys know it. It’s called The World of Patience Gromes by a guy named Scott Davis, published probably about 30 years ago. It tells the story of a princess named Patience Gromes. She’s a black woman born to African American yeoman farmers in the hill country of Virginia who own their own land. She’s a princess because she’s raised in a very privileged environment, relatively speaking, in terms of material circumstances. She’s got the education, she’s playing the piano, and she is held in the highest regard by her parents, who marry her off to a good guy who gets a job with the railroad and makes a decent salary. They move to Richmond, Virginia and buy a little house in a neighborhood that ends up being “model citied” into a big housing development. But in the decades that she’s there—from like 1920 to 1950—and raising her family, the community is solid. It’s not rich, but it’s not poor. It’s got a lot of integrity and strength. But towards the end of her life, she watches this community descend into a ghetto. It happens by degrees—a slow-motion explosion of the Pruitt-Igoe housing complex. The integrity, the moral fiber, the Christian piety, the Victorian work ethic, the sense of morality, the intact families, it was all there in 1930 and it was all gone by 1960.
E. STEELE: There’s also a book called Behind Ghetto Walls by Lee Rainwater. It is fascinating. It’s about Thomas Coolidge who is a young black guy, like 21 years old, and he’s got a wife and babies. He’s trying to do everything that he can do, but they tore down all the factories and all the jobs around him to build these housing projects. And so here he is in Pruitt-Igoe with the poor. He’s not with people of his own choosing. We really should be around people that we want to be and these people don’t have that choice so they’re stuck where the lowest common denominator dominate—whether that be the drug dealers, the gangs, or the pimps. Tommy Coolidge believes they want him to submit. They want him to give up his belief that he could be a productive American citizen. So he becomes a black nationalist. He wants to kill white people. How do you develop like that? That was the energy that there was in these housing projects. It was detrimental. So it’s a whole culture—and it’s not only blacks. Native Americans have actually been targeted by the government in the same way. And we’re the two worst-off groups in the country.
McWHORTER: In Pruitt-Igoe and places like that, everything starts to fall apart always about five years earlier than I would have expected. You start seeing this change in, say, ’61, ’62. Shouldn’t that really have started in say ’67, ’68, after the Great Society legislation kicks in? There’s also this phase-shift difference between Pruitt-Igoe 1961–62, where having a child outside of wedlock is no longer that big a deal but it’s still considered unusual. It’s still a topic of conversation. It’s not the default choice. Where there are knives but no guns. Murder is not default yet. Something clearly—as people in those places often said—went crazy in the early ’70s. But what was going on in 1961? What had happened after the ’50s?
LOURY: Well, remember that Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s report was published in 1965, but it’s looking backwards. He’s talking about what happened between the Second World War and the War on Poverty, and he’s forecasting the debacle that was to come. Shelby, you say placating or assuaging white guilt is now prioritized over promoting black development. That sounds pretty outrageous. If the issue was racial justice, what’s more important: developing black people or making white people feel comfortable and not feel guilty? Well, obviously developing black people is more important and yet it came in second place.
S. STEELE: A distant second place. Again, the biggest mistake we made is to buy into the idea that our victimization by racism was our source of power rather than our self, our skills, our talents, our development. As victims, we had won a great civil rights movement. The downside is it seduced us. That victory was very seductive. It was racial justice and much needed, but it seduced us into adopting the framework of justice as our way ahead, our way out. And so we missed the fact that the real way out is development. This is the difference between blacks and Jews. Jews obviously have endured all manner of abuse, the Holocaust included, but they never gave up responsibility for their own fate. They went to the Middle East. They created one of the great nations of the last century. If they landed in America from Europe and the schools weren’t any good, they opened up yeshivas in somebody’s basement and taught their kids, and their kids became the best educated kids in America. They kept responsibility for their fate. The tragedy of black America is we gave up responsibility for our fate in the name of justice. I hate the word “justice” because it’s a drug. It makes you feel that there’s such a thing as justice. If you really look at the human condition [laughter] this is a very rare phenomenon. Maybe it’s going to be there, maybe it’s not, but you better not count on it. You better focus on what’s in front of you and what you need to get ahead, what can get your family ahead and so forth. People who do that thrive. If racism is systemic or not, you thrive if you keep responsibility for your own fate.
E. STEELE: I live in Los Angeles, and we have the second largest school district—about 200,000 students in high school. We allow these students to graduate with a 1.0 Grade Point Average—I mean, we’re practically grading on a curve so 1.0 is basically a zero these days. Why are we doing that? And most of the students who graduate with a 1.0 GPA are what we call the brown-black belt—mostly Hispanic or black students. About 20–25,000 students per year. We are dumping these kids into society with no skills, with nothing. We’re not developing these people, yet the school board will send out a letter every May bragging about the graduation rate. So the school board looks good and it looks like they are doing a great job. I cannot publish an op-ed on this in the LA Times. Nobody cares. They don’t care. They march for some guy that was brutally murdered in Minnesota, but they don’t care about those 20–25,000 students.
McWHORTER: That’s partly because there’s this tacit sense that to embrace school to that extent is somehow inauthentic to the race. But if you say that, you’re told that the studies don’t support it. In fact, they demonstrate it very clearly, but academics insist on interpreting them in what I think of as rather magic ways. That means that George Floyd’s death, as tragic as that was, and Michael Brown’s are more important than thousands of kids getting a good education. That is a priority that would look weird if we rolled the tape back and played it again and had a lot of people look. It’s not the way it’s supposed to be. It’s not the way it would have been if black people had their own yeshivas, so to speak, 100 years ago and even 75 years ago. Something happens after about 1960 and here we are today.
LOURY: The slaves who were emancipated in 1863 were largely illiterate. They owned almost no land. They had virtually nothing. By the time you get to 1910, we see one of the historically most impressive transformations of literacy in a population that have been observed in the modern world. Go to south-eastern Europe and find some population of poor white people and you can’t find anything comparable to that. We actually made ourselves—this is Booker T. Washington’s language, but it’s actually accurate—”fit for citizenship.” The newly emancipated slaves were a very disadvantaged and underdeveloped population. By the time you get to 1910, you’ve got a wholly different profile of the African American population, although there’s still a long way to go. We faced up to the challenge of emancipation because we actually had something to prove. There were a lot of doubters who said black folks are not going to make it in the modern world, the European immigrants are going to outcompete them and marginalize them, they’re going to die off from disease, et cetera. And that was all proved to be wrong. In fact, that population gave rise to a sufficiently robust intellectual and artisan and small business class that we could mount a civil rights movement in the south of the United States and change the politics of the country.
It seems to me that the present-day situation has some similarities. I’m very impressed by Herbert Storing’s 1963 essay “The School of Slavery” in which he extols the Booker T. Washington program as a development program that seizes the nettle in distinction to the W.E.B. Du Bois program. We have to develop ourselves. We have something to prove. They’re sitting there like this wondering what the negro is going to do and we’re going to show them that we’re fit for citizenship. The attitude today is: You owe me citizenship and if you have any doubts about my fitness—if you say my crime rate is high, my school failure rate is high, my out-of-wedlock birthrate is high, my incarceration rate is high—then you’re a racist. And it strikes me that there’s a deep irony in that—it leaves us in this position of appealing to the moral sensibility of a structure of power that our very argument denounces as immoral and incapable of recognizing our humanity. I mean, nobody is coming to save us.
S. STEELE: That’s right, nobody is. We keep appealing to white guilt. One of the things that is so insidious in all this is that, because whites are trying to get out from under this accusation of evil, of racism, they have learned to show deference to blacks. Whatever blacks say is meaningful; it is the truth. And so deference has become a high value in American life. You see the mayor of Minneapolis give his police station over to the rioters. They give up the center of Seattle. They tolerate riots all over the country! To show deference; to show that they are innocent; to dissociate themselves from America’s ugly racist past. We live off of white deference. That’s what we keep appealing to. So the University of California cancels the SAT exam, the ACT exam, because of inequality and so forth. In other words, it lowers the standards—wipes out the standards—when we need the standards raised! If anything, you ought to make blacks meet a higher standard than others. Make us better. Help us develop. Help us achieve more. Ask more of us. We have further to go. But everything is orchestrated to lower standards for us. We demand deference now as justice. We define justice as deference. And it’s symbiotic—they bring out the worst in us and we bring out the worst in them and that’s where America is today.
LOURY: But it’s corrupt at its core. Everybody’s lying to everybody. You think white people don’t know mediocrity when they see it? You think they don’t know they’re deferring to undeveloped people out of some kind of etiquette or hope of absolution? What do you think they really think? You think they don’t know thuggery when they see it? You think what’s going on in Philadelphia right now, that people are not sitting there seeing this is barbarity? You think they don’t know barbarity when they see it?
S. STEELE: I say to blacks, “Keep it up. Just keep it up.” Because, at some point, white people are going to regain their moral confidence and they will have had it with you. There’s going to be a backlash. That’s just the way of nature. Whites have been shrunken. Their moral authority has been undermined and they’re going to get tired of that and they’re going to say, “Hey, we’ve given you everything under the sun. You haven’t done anything yourself. You don’t ask anything of your own people. You don’t judge people. You have an 80 percent illegitimacy rate and you want to blame us? With an illegitimacy rate like that you’re destined to forever more be at the very bottom.”
McWHORTER: That backlash isn’t coming anytime soon. Do you know Ibram Kendi gets $20,000 for 45 minutes, during which he sits and tells adoring white people complete nonsense? In his book he says that school is racist because black kids don’t tend to do as well, so we need to abolish grades and start evaluating students on things like their desire to know. What the hell is that? And yet that’s being treated as wisdom because Kendi is black and has dreadlocks and he’s cool and he happens to have taken this moment. I’m not saying that he’s supposed to turn down the money, but the fact is he’s being asked to do this and people are taking him seriously—or pretending to take him seriously—and that includes teenagers. White guilt is such a drug that careers like that can be started, and I wish I could see the end of it coming but I don’t.
S. STEELE: Do you think that white guilt is fading at all?
McWHORTER: I think there’s going to be a backlash against the extremes of 2020. I think that hard Left “wokeness” is so ridiculous in so many ways and so nasty that I think there’s going to be a backlash against that. But the general sense that we are not full human beings, the general sense that what makes you a good white person is to basically listen to anything people like Kendi, etc. say, I don’t think that’s going to go away. That’s become established as their way of evaluating themselves as good moral actors. I’m not sure what would stop it.
LOURY: Don’t you want to take account of the diversity of the country? I mean, you could say that Donald Trump is in part an indication of a leading edge of a backlash that might do it. I mean, he will come and he will go. He might lose this election and he’ll be gone, but the sentiment that Black Lives Matter is a Marxist organization and that the politically correct catechism of the campuses and the elite newsrooms is anathema to the basis of what makes America a great country, that sentiment is not going to go away. It’s out there, man.
S. STEELE: Trump has a certain charisma in the black community precisely because he has no white guilt. He’s a white man with no guilt who looks at blacks and says, “What have you got to lose? Get with it.” [laughter] That’s good and he’s beginning to peel off considerable black voters. Obviously, that’s going to be very important in this election and he looks like he may do very well.
LOURY: We’ll see, but the reaction of those rappers does give some indication that there’s something to what you’re saying.
E. STEELE: Black Lives Matter had formed after Trayvon Martin and the George Zimmerman case, and they were ready for another case to come along. And Michael Brown was the case. That’s part of why it was so hard to see the truth. They had an agenda and they wanted to go in. What is very interesting—and unfortunately because the documentary is already about almost two hours long, we couldn’t put this in there—but I interviewed people in the Salvation Army who have set up shop in the location where a store was burned down on the Sunday after Michael Brown was shot and killed. And what they said was, “We have been wrong about how we address the black underclass, how we address poverty and so forth. We used to think that we should measure success by how many beds we filled every night, how many meals we gave away. And we used to see perpetuated poverty. So what we decided to do is to look at each individual.” Now this is very interesting because Black Lives Matter is not individual-based. It’s more anti-capitalist and anti-merit. But the people on the ground, they really have to look for the “spark” in each individual. So if this little girl wants to be a writer, let’s find her a mentor. Let’s get her on that track. Let’s inspire her. So that’s what they’re doing right now—they’re selecting people. They understand they have limited resources, so they’re looking for the people with the abilities to succeed. And so they’re cherry-picking. It’s a very interesting development in the black community and it’s a race to break that ugly symbiosis between white guilt and black development. And I think people are coming to understand the larger truth and that’s a gift. I mean, it’s tragic but that’s really the gift that the shooting has given that community. It brought them down to reality.
LOURY: The footage that you did use is extraordinarily powerful. These are ministers and politicians, business people, African American voices, but they are a little bit dissonant with the “woke” narrative. They’re asking questions that you don’t ordinarily hear African American leaders ask. How did you come to that? How did you find these people? What’s the backstory on your interaction with the real African American community on the ground in St. Louis and Ferguson?
E. STEELE: In Ferguson you have to remember one thing, though. We went to make a documentary but the people in Ferguson said, “Oh, gee, another one?” They were tired and jaded and I don’t blame them. I used to live around the corner from where O.J. Simpson murdered Nicole. Every anniversary there would be a news truck there. So in Ferguson, we started knocking on doors to get people to talk to us, but my father and I didn’t approach them from a politically biased point of view. We’re not the media and we don’t ask the same questions. Usually, that’s what they know, and it’s why you get the same answers out of Al Sharpton and all these people all the time. But we came in and asked different questions and we got different answers. And we pushed them. What was shocking was how little they knew about the history of Pruitt-Igoe. They did not know the history of the ground that they were standing on. But I don’t think that’s a black thing, I think it’s an American thing. This “systemic” argument about racism has been so pervasive that it’s influenced everybody and disconnected us from our history. I tell people about our family in Kentucky—after slavery they started night school; they were actually working in the field and attending night school. That’s what black people did, and it’s a very proud history to be connected to. And the worst thing about “systemic racism” is that you’re forcing people to abandon that history to prove that racism is everywhere and they are powerless. No. But unfortunately a lot of people in the area have been corrupted by that. Not just that area, but the United States.
McWHORTER: All four of us know that in any black community there is the ex-con who takes young boys into his hands and teaches them some things and tries to keep them out of trouble. That’s a noble type and there’s been that guy for a good 40 years. And the woman, Miss Whoever, who opens up her house to kids and shows them a different way. Those figures are standard and they’re always doing great work. I wonder if what you were saying was that there needs to be more of them. Is that how the black community is going to save itself or does the government have some role but just not the one that it’s played in the past? Do there need to be more Miss Johnsons and the guy who comes out from prison and tries to make a difference? What is the solution?
S. STEELE: I think that’s exactly the solution. How you do this, I have to admit, is difficult to see at this point given the way the modern world is. But we’re looking for those old values where you inspire people; you give them a sense of hope by identifying what’s possible. If you do this and you do that then you won’t be stuck here. You will be on this track instead. You’ll be moving ahead. The same thing that motivates you, motivates me, and motivates us all is that we want to do better—we want to get more, we want to achieve, we want to do well and so forth, and we don’t want to do badly. We show someone who’s not been responsible for themselves and who we don’t want to be like. That’s self-responsibility and self-help. Malcolm X is my great heroic leader of all time and his message of self-help still stands. Self-help is the way ahead and we should honor it, we should reward it, we should cherish it, we should celebrate it, we should just let the whole world see it, and make it our centerpiece. And a future of self-help compensates for our history of victimization. There’s a moral system implied there.
LOURY: Shelby, I’m with you, man. That’s my sermon also, but I just have to ask you this. I mean is there not a kind of romanticism or nostalgia here?
S. STEELE: I hope so!
LOURY: If I’ve got a garment, I can pull on a loose thread and I can unravel the whole garment, but I can’t push on that thread and put the integrity of the garment back together again. The program you’re advocating, which I believe in very much as a moral position, requires institutions. Does it not? It requires a means by which you could mobilize the insights and the kind of quest to do better and get it infiltrated into people’s lives. It requires I don’t know what, a church—?
S. STEELE: Charter schools.
LOURY: OK. Again, I’m with you. Innovation in educational delivery that brings 1,000 flowers blooming and has creative people coming in, being able to reach these kids in ways that really empower them and give them a vision of what’s possible in this great country that we live in.
S. STEELE: Charter schools are the greatest institution in black American life today. They teach all the right values, and they focus on the individual and on choice.
LOURY: I’m with you, but this is the question that John raised when we were talking about this last time: Can we get to scale as an African American community to affect enough of the many hundreds of thousands of youngsters who need to be redirected that we can really make a material difference in the course of events going forward?
S. STEELE: Yes, we can do it over time. You and I won’t be around to see it, but there isn’t any other option. There isn’t any other way. We will have to take responsibility. We’ve avoided it. We’ve thought that the injustice we endured would somehow lift us forward. It won’t do that. So we’re going to have to retreat to self-help. Or people will leave the group. Many American Indians have left the group and they’re thriving. They’re assimilated. They don’t live as the reservation Indians live anymore, but they’re happy and successful and they’ve moved on. Blacks are going to do the same thing. They’re going to say, “Enough of that—the whole mishigas—I don’t want it. I’m going to move on and I’m out. Nothing unpleasant, but I’m going to go my own way.” And they’ll peel off. And they’ll do that and they’ll succeed and others will see them do that and succeed and then they will peel off. People say, “What am I going to do about the black neighborhood and so forth?” And my answer is always: move.
E. STEELE: There’s a woman who’s from a military family and she cleans homes. She’s black and she’s got a big problem with the black community because she’s very aspirational. She’s working and she wants to build a massive cleaning business in LA—do a lot of industrial business and stuff like that, which she is more than capable of doing. But she has to reject a lot of what she hears in the black community to move forward. She can’t be around it. She can’t listen to them say, “Why are you doing this? Why are you working this hard? Why are you pushing yourself like that?” And she said, “Why would I not do that?” But she has to endure the questions. Most people, most groups don’t do that. Most people say, “Oh, great. Good for you. Keep on, how can I help you?” These are not her family. These are just friends and associates. She loves being around them, but they grind down on her and other people really don’t have that issue. So I asked her, “Why did you not fall into that trap?” And she just said very simply, “There’s nothing there.”
LOURY: There’s nothing there?
E. STEELE: She said, “There’s nothing there. I mean, I could sit around all day.” That’s what the option is. I mean, look at me. I was born deaf. The government in the late ’70s put forth a new policy called IDEA—the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act—which basically allows people with disabilities to be mainstreamed into the classroom. So I was one of the first students. This was a very positive government experience because they paid for someone to teach you from first grade all the way to 12th grade. She came in for probably 15 or 20 hours a week. That’s a lot of government federal money or state money coming in. And every semester or quarter, my parents had to go meet with the superintendent and they would review my grades and my parents would come back and say, “The superintendent’s unhappy with you. Your grades are too low. They’re going to pull the services unless you perform.” So I had that force in my life. By the time I got to high school I gave up all the fooling around, but I’d had my parents coming home and putting that fear—a positive fear—into me and that made me realize that these people are helping me. These people are doing everything. They’re taking resources that they could use for other children and they’re giving them to me. So I thought I’d better get my head together and make it right.
LOURY: We’re getting toward the end of our time here, and I’d like to invite you to reflect a little bit, if you don’t mind, on your collaboration on this film. I’m sure it wasn’t every day you wake up on the same page and you’re agreeing about everything, but I’m also sure at the end that the feeling of satisfaction must have been amazing.
S. STEELE: Absolutely. I look at it as a privilege and an honor. It just sort of evolved and Eli has made other films before this and I sort of wanted to. He did 70 percent of this film, I did maybe 20–30 percent. I mean, this is work to go to a little place like Ferguson, to knock on doors, to type all of that up, to find out who’s going to give us the best interview. It took about two and a half years to get all this together. So it was a blessing in my life to work with my own son that way. He’s a grown man now with his own point of view that I have to respect. It wasn’t easy every day. [laughter] And we learned to fight pretty well. We learned to fight to a point and then move on. And to make the project the goal. So I love him and I feel blessed and I think of myself as a lucky man.
E. STEELE: I feel the same way. It was awesome. I mean, I know my father’s books pretty well so I would push him a little bit in a certain direction, make him interview people that he may not want to interview. The most difficult thing was that these people would fall in love with him and even though they may be on the other end of the political spectrum. But it was a blessing to work with him and to make this film together. I mean we can’t ask for anything more than that.
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