When Amazon rejected my documentary What Killed Michael Brown? from its platform last October, I was stunned by the rejection letter’s finality. The film had failed to meet Amazon’s “content quality expectations,” was “not eligible for publishing,” and there could be no “resubmission of this title and this decision may not be appealed.” After rereading the letter several times, I was left with the eerie feeling that I had done something immoral for which I deserved to be ashamed. Fortunately the film was written, presented, and narrated by my father Shelby Steele whose years as an acclaimed author and op-ed writer for the Wall Street Journal had made him a public intellectual. When I told the writers at the Journal what had happened, they responded with several critical articles, and Amazon promptly reversed its decision and agreed to host my film on their platform, where it remains to this day.
But the initial rejection still bothered me. Was this a form of political persecution? The title of the film is certainly provocative and it offers a scathing critique of the detrimental role that post-1960s liberalism has played in creating the black underclass. Furthermore, although my father’s work has generally been well received in conservative circles, many progressive critics have denounced him as a race traitor for failing to embrace their preferred theory of American race relations. I couldn’t shake the suspicion that Amazon’s curt refusal to platform my film constituted a political statement, as if its suppression in the wake of the summer’s Black Lives Matter unrest was a moral service of some kind. Amazon had chosen to behave like a publisher as opposed to the open and indiscriminate platform it professes to be. They did not appear to care that no-platforming films like mine would inevitably encourage self-censorship in other artists reluctant to see their own films receive the same treatment.
In retrospect, it is surprising that I did not foresee the problems I encountered despite being raised in a family with deep roots in America’s racial history. When I decided to make this film with my father about the death of Michael Brown and the ensuing Ferguson protests, I knew that the arguments we wished to make had become deeply unpopular. The lie that Officer Darren Wilson executed Michael Brown out of racial animus has been embraced by nearly all of America’s universities, institutions, and corporations. If we were to have any success in exposing it in the midst of today’s raging culture wars, we had to strive for integrity in our storytelling.
So, we spent two years in Ferguson interviewing over 40 residents who were black, white, Democrat, Republican, and everything in between. As I edited the film in the bedroom of my small apartment, I made considerable effort to present all interviewees in a fair light. For instance, it would not have taken much effort to portray Reverend Al Sharpton—one of our few nonresident interviewees—as a cynical and incendiary firebrand who had inflamed racial tensions during the Tawana Brawley hoax and whose irresponsible rhetoric arguably contributed to the deaths of seven innocents at Freddy’s Fashion Mart. In the end, I decided to remove these scenes since they seemed to have the effect of discrediting Sharpton’s views on Ferguson as opposed to advancing the story in a meaningful manner.
However, I had yet to properly process just how much the death of George Floyd had changed America. When America exploded after the terrible video of Floyd’s last moments emerged, a collective guilt raged through our land. Millions of Americans, many of whom had never thought very much about race, were suddenly demanding justice and scrambling for any kind of moral absolution they could find. Corporations noticed this violent shift in public consciousness and threw themselves behind the movement for racial justice, eager to reassure their customers that if “silence is violence” then they would be happy to declare their allegiance to the cause. Amazon announced it had donated $10 million “to the NAACP, National Urban League, Thurgood Marshall College Fund, and UNCF, among others, seek to support education and justice for Black communities across the US,” and created “Amplify Black Voices,” an exclusive platform for black filmmakers. This wasn’t just an attempt to protect a brand, it was an attempt to purchase racial innocence.
The progressive narrative of race derives its authority from academic theories which hold that we live in a nation designed by white people who thrived by excluding other races from power. This version of history has accumulated tremendous power and influence in recent years. The progress of countless blacks, including those in my own family, is frequently ignored by true believers who insist that these white systems of power abide in the present day as “systemic racism.” Its adherents point to disparities between whites and blacks in education, crime, wealth, and elsewhere and argue that racism—and only racism—can explain these gaps. But by dismissing merit, individualism, personal responsibility, and capitalism as the racist creations of the Judeo-Christian white male, they have helped to create a world devoid of our greater humanity.
What gives these theorists their enormous reservoir of moral power is the quasi-Marxist belief that the United States can be neatly divided into two discrete categories: racists and antiracists. In a white world plagued by inequality, it is the antiracist’s duty to proactively fight these injustices, even if that means employing racial discrimination to achieve racial equity. And since there is no greater sin than that of racism, moral power lies with the antiracist. Is it any wonder that millions of Americans rushed to declare their solidarity with the antiracist side? Those who hesitated over the wisdom of using racial discrimination to achieve racial equity could soothe their consciences with a cliche: the end justifies the means. And because my father and I refused to endorse these simplistic beliefs, I became a racist in today’s America. Quite the transformation from the days in my youth when I was called a nigger.
The last time a racial order enjoyed a near-monopoly on morality in America was during the days of slavery and segregation when white supremacy prevailed. Whites were widely believed to be superior to blacks and that hierarchy was maintained by social theories and constructs—the drop of black blood rule, for instance—that imposed its beliefs on all Americans. This racial order did not survive for centuries by believing that it was an immoral power; its every move, even the violent ones, were justified by belief in its fundamental virtue. The adherents of white supremacy used the Bible to justify slavery and apartheid, and they often spoke of a benevolent duty to help what they saw as wild and inferior blacks. Consequently, many of America’s institutions sided with this version of moral goodness.
When my grandparents started marching for their rights in the early 1940s, they were demonized by this moral power as un-Christian instigators and inciters. The white man who broke my grandfather’s jaw while he was protesting in a Chicago park did so because he felt that moral authority was on his side. So strong was this perverted sense of morality that most of my grandparents’ black neighbors refused to join their protests because they feared they were “just stirring up trouble.” My grandparents marched even so and persisted through those rough years because of their belief in freedom of speech and the right to peaceably assemble. They believed in the United States’ Constitution because they believed that the rights it conferred belonged not to one race or political party, but to all humanity. It was these rights and not the racial order of their time that provided them with their true moral compass.
One may object that these rights were far from moral because they were not extended to all Americans during the time of Jim Crow. Nevertheless, my grandparents were prescient enough to understand that these were human failures that could be corrected—the ideals enshrined in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution remained untainted, awaiting the day when they could be enjoyed by all Americans equally. My grandparents marched for that day, and in so doing, proved themselves to be better Americans than the white supremacists who draped themselves in an illusory moral superiority. What makes the struggle of my grandparents and their fellow foot soldiers so remarkable is that they could not see the light at the end of the tunnel. Unshakeable faith in a better world was all they had in Jim Crow America.
Then, slowly America began to awaken. The photos and newsreel footage of Emmett Till’s mutilated body, the Montgomery bus boycott, the violence at Selma, the lunch counter beatdowns, and grown men and women having their clothes and flesh torn by police dogs finally became too much to stomach for a majority of Americans, and they summoned the moral courage required to strip white supremacy of its false moral authority.
I was born 10 years after the Civil Rights victories—the first male on my father’s side of the family not to be born into some kind of bondage. The America in which I grew up was an America determined to fix racial inequities after centuries of barbaric oppression. The battle over how to move forward was roughly divided into two camps: those who believed in individual development as the best way to improve the lives of blacks, and those who believed that racial preferences and quotas could be used to re-engineer our society. I chose the path of individual development. My grandparents and my father had grown up under the unrelenting accusation that they were inferior people so why would I perpetuate that stigma by demanding special dispensations on account of my race that were denied to my fellow citizens on account of theirs? I also chose the path of development because I believe that the stronger an individual is, the more he or she is an asset to society.
Sadly, America’s institutional powers opted to take the path of racial engineering instead. It is often forgotten that the original purpose of Affirmative Action was not racial preferences but development. Poor blacks would receive better teachers, better schools, and more funds. However, these efforts were not populating university campuses with black students fast enough so university presidents embraced racial preferences, a move that freed them from the stigma of racism and granted them the moral authority they craved. This early shift foreshadowed the subsequent emergence of critical race theory and its seductively simplistic analysis proved irresistible to those who yearned to escape the sins of America’s past. It takes no talent or woodshedding, just the rote repetition of its claims in the name of justice, for which adherents are rewarded with the membership of the virtuous.
What would have happened to my film had my father not been involved? Would I have spent two years of my life on a project only to end up showing the film on platforms that most people have never heard of? We live in an America where the lie is often embraced over the truth, where identity is becoming inseparable from race, and where the issue of morality is once again controlled by a new racial power. The struggle to break free will not be an easy one. After all, if a racial order derives its power from race, then what incentive is there to ever move beyond it?
My grandparents marched not for themselves or their race, but for all Americans. They understood that one group’s monopoly of what is moral in our society leads to exclusion, corruption, and division, the very things we see today. They had the fortitude and discipline to know that their fight would not be won on the lowly grounds of political or racial gutter fights. They knew the only chance to defeat the racial order of their time was to hold onto their morals, their beliefs in the bedrock principles of America, and their sense of what was right and just. Their fight is now ours today.
Photo by Keith Helfrich on Unsplash