SHELBY STEELE'S RACE PROBLEM AND MINE
by Tom Lovell
Submitted to the Raleigh Tavern Society
Shelby Steele gained national prominence in 1990 with the publishing of his book "The Content of Our Character: A New Vision of Race in America." Widely reviewed, the book became a Book-of-the Month Club alternate and was quick to win high praise and more than a little criticism. It and its author have remained controversial to this day.
In his early fifties, Steele currently is a fellow at the Hoover Institute, a conservative thinktank located on the campus of Stanford University. For reasons that will be made clear later in this paper, it is important to note that Steele is of mixed-race parentage: his father was a black truck driver and his mother a white social worker. He is married to a psychotherapist who happens also to be white.
A few months ago Steele published his second book on the subject of race, "A Dream Deferred: The Second Betrayal of Black Freedom in America." My task in this essay will be to report on the observations, ideas, and arguments Steele makes in his writings and interviews and try and relate them to some of my own thoughts and experiences in the area of race relations.
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One of Steele's major contributions to the debate over race is to argue that white America -- or at least, its liberal elite -- has quixotically embraced a commitment to racial preferences in order to assuage guilt for historically oppressing blacks, and, in so doing, has inadvertently saddled itself with something it in no way bargained for, namely, the stigmatization of racism. The tables then have been turned; where before blacks suffered the stigma of inferiority by virtue of their skin color, whites must now bear up under the Scarlet Letter of our age, an allegation to which an defense is suspect, namely white racism.
Steele holds that this mea culpa was not foreordained. There was a point in time when whites could have faced up to their moral and intellectual failings, accepted the need to integrate the races, while resolving to seek equal opportunity for blacks. But this would have required demanding the same standards and challenges that had always obtained for whites -- the meeting and mastering of which traditionally determined the extent to which one advanced in America's free market, democratic society.
Clearly, Steele claims, this would have meant expending resources to develop black abilities, particularly in the early school grades where there had been a history of officially-sanctioned deprivation. But this developmental option, Steele laments, was to be the road not taken.
Steele artfully but appropriately designates the Martin Luther King, Jr.-impacted sixties as the time of white America's fall from innocence pertaining to things racial. Already reeling from the sting of acknowledging culpability for a history of racial injustice, whites soon found themselves staring into the scowling, pyromaniacal continence of black power. And white America blinked!
The black power leadership, employing its signature in-your-face condemnation of whites, elicited not only fear -- whites not accustomed to seeing blacks fight back became apprehensive -- but a sense of shame and guilt that all whites knowledgeable of America's color line shared at different levels of palpability.
I remember my own initial reaction to Malcolm X's violent posturing was not only to speculate on how such revenge mongering might narrow the opening King had made to white sensitivities, but to grudgingly admit that the fiery activist's eye-for-an-eye message appealed to a part of me, which said that under similar circumstances, I probably would have reacted in much the same way.
The passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, Steele claims, represented a bow to the original white instinct for a kind of fairness guaranteed by law; but passage of such a laudable measure only triggered black demands for more. "More" was to mean reparations for past wrongs and would lead, after a time of acrid rhetoric and years of bureaucratic and judicial legerdemain, to racial preferences.
To Steele the Civil Rights Act exemplified the recognition on the part of whites of a "contained guilt of genuine concern" but under the brooding and prodding of black intransigence this venting of white guilt was transmogrified into a morbid preoccupation with repentance. This unhealthy pursuit of "innocence," to use Steele's word, has bound the guilty white to the victimized black in an ironic pact of mutual convenience, the sealing of which has send a devastatingly wrong-headed message to much of black America.
This appalling situation has played itself out against the appearance of a newly sophisticated level of white racism that at bottom confirms the base line of the old, namely that blacks are indeed different from whites in that they can't make it on their own but require special treatment. They are, in short, a different species of people form whites, and are to be negotiated with over condign entitlements but never to be seen as fully integrated people like themselves.
Under this aura of white condescension blacks have become as "invisible" as ever to much of white America, at least as regards their basic humanity. Steele claims that this invisibility paradoxically is most evident on college campuses where white liberal administrators, in violation of their egalitarian canons, satisfy their redemptive psyches by caving into black demands for separate dorms, student unions and the like. These same administrators, Steele charges, compound their felonies by failing to demand that black students bring their grades up to par with whites.
Steele fixes the origins of this new redemptive white racism in Lyndon Johnson's widely acclaimed 1965 speech at Howard University in which the president from Texas movingly proclaimed the need to treat blacks with fairness. But Steele argues the "fairness" doctrine announced in LBJ's speech was predicated on whites doing something for blacks rather than blacks being set free to help themselves. Steele calls it a "deflect[ion] from black responsibility to white responsibility" with blacks becoming the "passive recipients of white action."
Blacks (a term Steele prefers over African-American -- the latter suggesting a sellout to the fashionable Eighties' passion for black exceptionalism) he claims, accept these patronizing preferences not only because they stand to be advantaged but because to do so denotes a measure of power over whites that is not easily relinquished. Here he has whites giving up power over the racial agenda in return for a quick fix diminution of their feelings of guilt.
The result is a Faustian bargain whereby both races suffer: working and middle-class whites lose out to less prepared blacks in civil service hires and admission to college and in so doing are all the more willingly to view blacks in a negative light, while blacks learn to work a system right out of Alice in Wonderland where conventional words and meanings are turned on their head. Preference becomes equality while affirmative action, which, in the innocent lexicon of liberal Democrats like Huber Humphrey, once implied only a good faith effort to reach out to qualified blacks and other minorities, becomes a metaphor for mandating racial quotas and setasides.
But the biggest blow to blacks is the inducement to accept advancement via a "color passport" stamped with an endorsement of their putative inferiority. Steele makes this point with elegance, but I found his energies rather redundant.
If common sense ever gains admittance to this debate it will insist on recognizing how all this proffering of preferences simply further entrenches the vision of black inadequacy. And make no mistake about it, blacks, sooner or later, will be held accountable for determining the meritoriousness of all favors, promotions, and perquisties received from guilt-ridden whites. Until this is resolved a burden of doubt will hang heavy upon black shoulders. While in the short run blacks might be inclined to take the goodies and run, over the long haul, the likelihood exists that obtaining any unfair advantage will promote a wave of guilt and self reproach not all that different from the kind experienced in the past by whites.
Such a scenario ends with both whites and blacks questioning black abilities. Indeed, one is allowed to wonder to what extent the black establishment's persistent revisitation of the sins of slavery amounts to an ongoing attempt to justify the undue advantages accruing these days to the black middleclass?
In Steele's first book written is 1990. The Content of Our Character, the reader is introduced to "Henry," one of a handful of Steele's fellow black graduate students at the University of Utah. To Steele's dismay, one day Henry confesses his intention to take advantage of white guilt in order to coast through his graduate studies; even worse, he plans to take the line of least resistance later when pursuing a career as a professor of English. Steele quotes Henry as saying "Let the white boys do all the sweating. I intend to do a lot of fishing!" Steele cites Henry not only to highlight the effect, of what Steele calls, "redemptive white racism" has on undermining black aspirations but to point out how black receptiveness of the poisoned fruit of affirmative action raises the fear of risk taking.
This risk aversion, Steele claims, is an ever present reality whereupon blacks hesitate to venture into uncharted waters in pursuit of academic excellence for fear failure will reaffirm both white allegations of black incompetence and low intelligence as well as their own inner doubts as to their capabilities. The result leads to blacks scoffing at, or else ignoring, things bookish while charging those of their brethren who succeed academically with the offense of "acting white."
Steele usually points out in another context that in areas where blacks fully take responsibility for themselves, including literature, athletics and music, they not only succeed but often dominate, implying that success in other productive fields would likely occur in due course once reliance on white deferential handouts was brought to a close.
Because of Steele's academic background -- for twenty years he was a professor of English at San Diego State University -- his two books on race relations are dotted with accounts of black manipulation of guilty whites. But I wager that any white academic of the last thirty years can recount similar stories. In my own case two incidents (there have been several) warrant mentioning.
In the early Seventies I combined teaching at the newly-opened Houston Community College with a stint as a doctoral graduate assistant in the University of Houston history department. At HCC I was assigned for two or three years to all-black campuses including one at the old Kashmere Gardens High School on the near northeast side of Houston. My students fared dismally as eighty per cent or more of them were totally unprepared academically. In coping with the situation I was compelled to drop my usual standards at least one full grade level or else fail or give D's
to that eighty percent; not a very politic eventuality then or now.
I soon was assigned to other campuses only to return a year or so later to Kashmere. Upon my reappearance one of my former students bumped into me and rather curtly noted that I had given her a D a year or so ago and since that time she had received only As and Bs, the implication being that, at worst, I probably was racially biased, or, more charitably, some kind of martinet who should be ashamed of demanding such unrealistically high standards from his students. I remember thinking at the time that not only was grade inflation alive and well at that campus but that the student in question was doubtless on her way to a degree or certificate from HCC, which, in reality, would not constitute an accurate reflection of what she had achieved.
If, in a manner of speaking, I held my ground in this case, my resolve was to prove more flexible in an encounter I had with another young black female student at the U of H. My teaching assistant duties required grading some 100 or more tests every six weeks in freshman history while conducting graded discussion groups once a week with the same students. Since I graded both discussion sessions and written tests, including the final, I was responsible for calculating the course grades and turning them in at the end of the semester.
One semester after administering the final exams and hurriedly grading them I was visited in my office by a young black woman, perhaps in her early twenties. She inquired as to whether or not I had completed her final and totaled her grade. Upon looking into my grade book I informed her that she had earned a low D. At this point she implored me to raise her grade to a C, as this would enable her to graduate with a C average overall. This was imperative, she said, because she had been promised a job in industry if this minimum level was reached.
I told her to give me time to think about it and I would call her and let her know my decision. As I remember, my thoughts focused on whether or not she was telling the truth, and, if so, would it be the right thing for me to assist her in getting that job? I didn't lose much sleep over the matter but rather abruptly resolved not to be the one to stand in the way of a young black person having the opportunity to make a decent livelihood. So I picked up a grade change form and sent it through channels.
A week or two later I received a note to call the dean of arts and sciences who happened to be one of my former history professors. Upon returning his call, Dr. Tinsley asked if I had signed off on changing the student's grade, I replied that yes I had, and what, I asked, was all the fuss about? The dean informed me that all four of the student's professors had turned in grade change slips representing grade increases in each instance. To put it mildly, I had been had, as indeed had the other three teachers. We all took the bait and lived up to Shelby Steele's expectations. One can only imagine the artful lesson the student carried away from her last -- if indeed it was her last -- semester at the good old University of Houston. In other words, does any one really believe her conning stopped at that point in her career? I think not!
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Steele's two books represent, at least in part, a compilation of previously written essays. As a result the chapters follow one another episodically, and, in places, are plagued with repetitious overlapping. At times a kind of "ho humnes" sets in as the reader is impelled to believe the nuggets of wisdom the author mined so effectively in chapters one and three have been buried and dug up anew in chapters five, six, and seven. His motherload of ideas simply peters out long before the end of his books -- this is particularly the case in this second volume.
He also must be made to stand in the dock for inventing a host of new locutions that torture both the language and one's partiality for clarity: "specimentation," and "ulterioralty," come to mind in this regard. Indeed, in some respects Steele's writing reminds one of the too-clever-by-half formulations coined by Thorsten Vebien in his assault on high capitalism or the "phrase bites" (my invention) strung together by the pop sociologist of the Fifties and Sixties, Vance Packard -- he of "hidden persuader" and "status seeker" fame. However, sometime this propensity for work play hits paydirt.
In his first book, "The Content of Our Character," Steele's invention of terms such as "race fatigue," "race holding," and "integration shock," do wonders for opening a window into the consciousness of blacks required to live in a white world. As Steele might put it, middleclass blacks, free since the 1960s from a compulsion to immerse themselves in a day-to-day awareness of things racial, discover in the 1990s -- to their dismay -- that they still face a weary, fatiguing search for identity. As an escape from the tension, or perhaps in an attempt to find that identity, not to mention the obvious desire to experience the fruits of upward mobility, they move to white suburbia only to suffer "integration shock".
"Integration shock" is the feeling blacks have that their white neighbors are constantly placing them under a microscope and judging them by the old racial stereotypes to which the color of their skin make them vulnerable. And in seeking to fit into the white world, they experience a sense of guilt that they are, in effect, severing the roots to their black heritage.
From this dilemma they are driven into rushing headlong toward a "race holding" pattern wherein they tenaciously exaggerate the virtues of blackness. "Race holding," Steele argues, is where many of today's blacks now find themselves. Forced into a bunker mentality, they are reduced to "recomposing" a self image constructed out of dubious examples of black superiority: e. g., "coolness," the possession of "soul," etc., in contrast to the reserved "unfeeling, passionateless" whites. Steele considers moving beyond this debilitating stage presents the biggest challenge facing this generation of black Americans.
In reading Steele I'm reminded of the collections of essays written by Eric Hoffer that followed publication of the irascible San Francisco longshoremen's famous 1940s intuitive look a modern mass movements, "The True Believer." Both Hoffer and Steele's essays are marked by introspective reflection drawn from remembered personal experiences, anecdotal evidence gathered from printed sources -- including references from literature -- and what lawyers like to call, thought experiments. Both writers employ these tools in making their case against certain human failings. Hoffer's bete noire, as often as not, was the modern intellectual's habit of arrogantly overreaching for power, which, in his view, tended to produce evil outcomes. For Steele, it's the above-mentioned "conspiracy of convenience" to expunge guilt in exchange for reparations; which, in the case of blacks, has led to a heightening of group consciousness achieved at the price of individual autonomy.
The quest for black individuality runs like the Gulf Stream through these two books, warming what amounts to a chilly, bleak, and pessimistic picture. As Steele put it in an interview last Sunday on C-Span's Book Notes, "What transforms you [blacks] is taking responsibility for your own efforts." And later in the same interview, "The greatest tragedy is to think blacks could not make it without preferences."
Much of the criticism directed at Steele has been meanspirited and even vicious. Launched, as it were, by fellow black academics. The cake taker came in response to Steele's initial book. Adolph Reed, Jr., a professor of political science at Yale and obviously black, blasted "Character" in a review in The Nation. Dripping with ad homenium -- in one piece Reed sees Steele as "the newest act in the perverse carnival: A black person seizes the public stage by ratifying the prejudices of the rich and powerful" -- some of the review replicates, in a negative fashion, my comments regarding the anecdotal and opinionated nature of the writing. Reed, for example, found in "Character" more of psychobabble than science. But one part of Reed's review (it ranged over four pages) is of particular pertinence to this paper. Reed essentially takes Steele on over the oldest of issues to divide black intellectuals, namely, that joined years ago by Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. duBois regarding self-help (Washington and Steele's position) versus state-help (duBois and Reed).
In an important sense Reed is correct. Steele's fixation on black individualism, which, by the way, he claims he acquired from the writings of the great American black novelist Ralph Ellison, demand a "pick-oneself-up-by-one's-bootstraps approach to life, all of which makes Steele an appealing figure to conservatives.
Indeed, the first chapter of "A Dream Deferred" spotlights Steele's coming out as a black conservative, something not exactly on the drawing board eight years previous when he completed "Character." Next to Maytag repairmen and long-distance runners, black conservatives apparently come in a close third for the title of the "loneliest people in town."
Steele recounts being interviewed by a young black female reporter at a fashionable restaurant during which the reporter, instead of seeking out his views, spent much of the interview taking issue with the interviewee. The woman, Steele explains, was passionate in the belief that white racism was still the top priority facing black America. After concluding the interview, Steele reports, the woman drove off in her rented Lincoln Town Car.
Steele claims that unlike most blacks who get a pass when it comes to criticism, particularly from whites, black conservatives who dissent from black group authority are an "unprotected" species. In the C-Span interview conducted by Brian Lamb, Steele tells of the verbal abuse he routinely receives when invited to speak on college campuses; abuse, he adds, which comes from both white and black students -- abuse which almost always includes jibes thrown by faculty members and abuse which regularly goes uncontested by liberal white administrators seated in the front rows of the auditoriums.
Coincidentally, Tuesday morning I was listening to Lamb's Washington Journal when a Jamaican-American called to attack the Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee only to break off in mid-sentence in order to lambaste Steele's Booknotes' appearance. Among other things, the caller questioned Steele's academic credentials (he has a political science BA from Coe College, a small, prestigious liberal arts school in Iowa; a masters in sociology from the University of Chicago. But mostly he kept repeating that Steele was a phony because his mother and wife were white; ergo, or so he implied, he must not be authentically black. I couldn't help notice the smile that broke across Lamb's face as the caller persisted. I intuited this as Lamb getting a kick out of how well the caller's crudity substantiated Steele's charges.
I myself wondered whether the caller, with all those impressive degrees, had ever puzzled over the bloodlines of Frederick Douglass, not to mention Booker Washington, or, for that matter, duBois, all of whom surely qualify for the American Mulatto Hall of Fame.
The length to which Steele has moved to the right since his first book was made clear by the fact that he has appeared as a guest on Rush Limbaugh's radio show and been interviewed by the popular conservative for the latter's newsletter. But for me, what signified the extent of his apostasy was the fact that in his second book he openly parts company with two right-of-center black Ivy League academics, Orlando Patterson and Glenn Loury, both of whom
he accuses of not sufficiently breaking with "redemptive liberalism." In so doing he implicitly joins the ranks of Dinesh D'Souza in targeting black culture as the major impediment in the road to black renewal and advancement. With a decision of this magnitude we know we're in the presence of a true Rubicon crosser.
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At this juncture I would like to return to Steele's texts for a somewhat deeper look. "The Content of Our Character" is composed mostly of insightful aphorisms derived from first hand experiences of a black man coping in a white world. And it's this feature of Steele's writing that must infuriate his enemies while endearing him to his admirers. Critics like Reed have to become apoplectic upon reading lines like, "Freedom presents blacks with a 'brutal proposition; "if you're not inferior, prove it!" Or "the quality that earns us preferential treatment is an implied inferiority"; and "Diversity is a term that applies democratic principles to races and cultures rather than to citizenship, despite the fact that there is nothing to indicate that real diversity is the same thing as proportionate representation."
Steele's "Dream Deferred" while a sequel in both spirit and kind to "Character," and while continuing to reveal the paradoxes of the black-white conditions, turns out to be a significantly different piece of work. Where the first book was oriented more toward peering behind the mask of blacks in order to pinpoint failings, the second opts for excoriating the white establishment for its collaboration with the black "grievance elite." And where the first book was didactic and preachy, the second is generally more theoretical and condemnatory of a liberalism gone wrong.
Indeed, if the first book replays the struggle for the black soul fought in the past by Washington and duBois, the second draws a bright line between what Steele clearly sees as a Rousseauean version of liberalism, where, in the former's version, the General Will is replaced by redemptive liberalism's "idea of the good". In both cases of course draconian measures are required for societal institutions to enforce uplift, equality, and the creation of perfectible men and women cleansed of racism of any kind. In today's world where the victim calls at least part of the shots the liberalism of freedom, rights, and responsibilities must make way for planning, social engineering, and entitlement.
Complicit in constructing this state of affairs, Steele believes, is the attraction of "structuralism," a post-modern idea that surfaced first in Europe, which posits that societal evil is the result of bad and immoral structures or institutions; thus, to improve society one needs to "intervene" in order to change these bad structures into good structures which over time will eliminate victims, racism, and the like. Blacks, you see, are caught up in this structure of evil and are helpless victims. But in our new enlightened age, you can bet this will change by forcing a structural change.
In the final analysis "A Dream Deferred" is a paean to recent neo-conservative thought and criticism that bemoan the success enjoyed by the Left in today's culture wars. As such it is depressing, particularly for a conservative like myself, to be reminded of a seeming unending string of victories for the other side. The latter chapters of this book chronicle the progress of a juggernaut at work.
We even are offered a Steele version of why the eminent sociologist and antediluvian critic of affirmative action, Nathan Glazer, turned his coat recently to sanction admitting less qualified black students into Ivy League colleges. Steele quotes Glazer as saying that a denial of such a policy "would constitute a rejection of blacks" and thus further insinuate their inferiority. Steele labels this a surrender to "propriety and iconography" and claims it constitutes what he calls the "Glazer trap," which, he sardonically concludes, is really the "American trap" designed to guarantee white redemption.
Steele shows that even the awesome moral authority of Ronald Reagan was insufficient in stand long in the gale of "shame" that commenced buffeting his administration when it appeared to remain intransigent against affirmative action, et al. Ditto the recent cave in of the Congressional Republicans in backing away from their original endorsement of the anti-preference propositions in California.
If this is not bad enough there remains the dreary tale of corporate America, which, at one level anyway, has swallowed the "diversity" mantra, hook, line and sinker. In Steele's eyes the Texaco fiasco is an instructive paradigm. Texaco, as you might recall, a few years back settled an alleged racial insensitivity lawsuit to the tune of $176 million of which $35 million was designated for compulsory "diversity training." Texaco also was impelled to hire more black employees and to give Company managers a bonus to do so. Finally it was agreed the company would make contributions to black magazines.
Steele concludes that none of this "was done because Texaco had been convicted of discrimination: it was done because Texaco had been stigmatized, [and] the company plunged headlong into a series of reforms that allowed it to iconographically signal its racial virtuousness." In essence, Texaco taught the business world that it could "buy immunity" form the stigma.
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In these two books Steele has painted a picture of an America stuck in a cul-de-sac of her own making with blacks and whites circling each other in a dreary dance of deception, mockery, anxiety, and fear. And make no mistake about it the fear is real. Anyone who says that political correctness is not a reality is a liar. And the extent to which it continues to hold sway testifies to how far our moral stock has plunged yea these past decades.
Shelby Steele, a kindred spirit, I'm sorry to report, does not appear to have the definitive answer to the appalling problems he has so well documented in his writings. His diagnosis -- albeit an intuitive, impressionistic one -- has about it the ring of truth, which, I suspect, is why his critics are so up in arms.
His solutions, however, lack precision and direction. They basically boil down to three imperatives. Two of which are included in the following rather long quote: . . .we need social policies that are committed to . . . the educational and economic development of disadvantaged people, regardless of their race, and the eradication from our society -- through close monitoring and severe sanctions -- racial, ethnic, or gender discrimination. Preferences will not deliver us to either of these goals, since they tend to benefit those who are not disadvantaged.
In summary, develop (a term never quite made clear) the people at the bottom regardless of race and purge the last vestige of discrimination. His other solution, as suggested in the above paper, is to build, coax, induce, promote, a sense of individuality, self-help, call it what you will, particularly within our black community. Tough love and high expectations must take the place of warm and fuzzy deceptiveness and preferential treatment. For black America to achieve these ends, Steele insists, they must face up to their doubts and learn to live with them, confront them, and rise above them.
And for white America to cut loose from its gurney of guilt and admit the inexorable presence of its own complicit and ulterior motives for playing the guilt game. Accept a measure of guilt that goes with being white, regardless of those whites who say they don't feel guilty; Steele insists that they really do. And rise above that as well.
Finally, Steele concludes in a host of entries, directly and implied -- integrate!