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Shelby and Eli Steele on Michael Brown, Race, and Amazon

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Shelby and Eli Steele on Michael Brown, Race, and Amazon

10 Blocks podcast October 21, 2020
The Social Order

Howard Husock talks with Shelby and Eli Steele about their new documentary, What Killed Michael Brown?, and Amazon’s refusal to make the film available on its Prime Video streaming platform.

The documentary is written and narrated by Shelby Steele, a scholar at the Hoover Institution, and directed by his filmmaker son, Eli Steele. It is available through their website, whatkilledmichaelbrown.com.

Audio Transcript

Howard Husock: Hello, and welcome to 10 Blocks, the City Journal podcast. I'm your host today, Howard Husock, Senior Fellow at the Manhattan Institute and a contributing editor to City Journal. I'm joined today by one of America's most original and courageous writers and scholars, Shelby Steele, of the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and by Eli Steele, who heads the documentary film production firm, Man of Steele Productions. They're the co-producers of the new film, What Killed Michael Brown, a film that all Americans interested in gaining a clearer understanding of our racial dilemmas should see, but which Amazon Prime has decided you shouldn't see. We'll talk about the film and Amazon's decision with Shelby and Eli Steele.

Shelby Steele came of age in Chicago. He's the author of five books, including How America's Past Sins Have Polarized Our Country, main title, Shame. Two documentary films previously, he's won the National Book Critics Circle Award, Emmy Award, and the Writer's Guild Award for his 1991 Frontline documentary, Seven Days in Bensonhurst.

Eli Steele has produced and directed three films, What's Bugging Seth, Unlucky Lucky, and now, What Killed Michael Brown. What Killed Michael Brown is a tour de force that uses the fact of teenager Michael Brown's death as a result of a confrontation with a Ferguson, Missouri police officer, as the point of departure for a great deal, including the facts of that case, which garnered national and international attention and how it intersects with the effects of progressive politics, the black community, and how it contrasts with Shelby Steele's own life as a black American, and with those of other blacks in the film that he might characterize as being committed to recovering their own personal agency. Welcome, Shelby and Eli.

Shelby Steele: Good to be here.

Eli Steele: Thank you for having us.

Howard Husock: Shelby, let me start with the news that you've made with this film. Amazon Prime, I guess we can't say they've banned your film because it has other outlets, but they've refused to distribute the film. How do you understand that decision? What do you think was going on?

Shelby Steele: Well, I think clearly the film challenged a... It's also important to note that at the same time that I was canceled, they contributed $10 million to Black Lives Matter, Amazon did, and then they canceled me, so it's hard not to conclude that they're protecting, I think, a view of race in America, of systemic racism and black victimization. They're protecting it, as opposed to a more individualistic view of race in America, how we're doing as people, human beings.

I think it fits all the kind of things that I've written about. White guilt, I see it as a sort of white guilt. We're going to prove our innocence of racism by supporting groups like Black Lives Matter and by denouncing groups like Steele's. This is how we gain our legitimacy and credibility in American life. We're on one side, not both sides.

Howard Husock: So you have no doubt that this was related to the content of the film?

Eli Steele: When you go through the whole process, that was the one that was going to be the process. It was probably the most... And you should run the project. Like you get more customer service when you order twenty people from Amazon. I got nothing, I mean I send e-mails, I was trying to figure out what the issue was. And once I realized that this technical aspects of the film were fine. It has to be the content.

Howard Husock: Right.

Eli Steele: There are four criteria in order to go into content review. We didn't meet any of the four criteria. So it has to be something else.

Howard Husock: I didn't [inaudible 00:04:24] any sex in the film, for instance, no nudity.

Eli Steele: Nothing. I mean, there's nothing in the film... If you look at the other purchasing film there on the platform, we use a lot of the same third-party footage. And then was used our own interview. This is just like those films too, it just have a different voice behind those films, and we do. So the point behind our content is different, and maybe that's what they have a problem with.

Howard Husock: I think so. Let me now go back to the film itself. Shelby, why return to the Michael Brown incident five years later?

Shelby Steele: Well, because in many ways the incident, black teenager killed by white cop, has become almost an archetype in America. And it seemed to me that the Michael Brown case sort of had all of the dimensions of this story and of race relations in America today, inherent in it. If we could uncover it.

Howard Husock: You talk about kind of how fatigued you were when the news of the Michael Brown incident broke. That you said, "Oh, no, not all this again. All sorts of things are going to happen. I'm going to be dragged into this in certain ways that I'm uncomfortable with." And yet you and your son made an almost two hour film that's based in the Michael Brown incident. Why did you do that?

Shelby Steele: Because I sensed that in America at that time, eight, nine, ten years ago, six years ago for the Michael Brown case. I sensed that black America had, since the sixties, had come to rely on our victimization, our history of victimization, as our source of power in American life. That we felt that by America's own admission, racism had prevailed for centuries. We were victims of it. And in that sense, we had a moral authority over America. We could say to America, you must do this, you must do that, you must give us this. We are entitled because of that history.

And so this narrow focus on victimization as our power, not our... We didn't invent the computer or something. But we were victims. And you know we were, and you've admitted your role in it. And so now America owes us. And that source of power, it seemed to me, what made the Michael Brown case explosive. Because here was an instance of a young man who was shot and killed by a white cop. So obviously the temptation was to say, Well, there it is. That's our chance. That's our opportunity. This poor kid is victimized by a racist, no doubt, racist, white cop, that duplicates American history, that proves our point, our argument that America is still systemically racist and that we're victims and that we therefore are entitled.

Howard Husock: So in the moment, then, when that news breaks, you're anticipating how this is going to be deployed. And you're upset about it. Aren't you?

Shelby Steele: I'm feeling that I've already seen this play, that it's utterly predictable. And yet I'm convinced that America is going to march through it. And we're going to do the whole thing. We're going to have the riots. We're going to have the national television coverage. We're going to have certain personalities that are going to emerge. It's going to be a big drama because all of America, even beyond America, are looking. The same with George Floyd much more recently, are looking at this one and they're asking this question, is victimization of black people still alive? Is it still a profound force? Does it still shame us? Does it rob us of moral authority?

Most whites feel that it does. Most whites feel that, okay, blacks are still subjected to this kind of victimization, and again, therefore their entitlement expands. And that's how you get caught full American corporate world dumping millions of dollars in to demonstrators and so forth. Canceling Shelby Steele at Amazon, because they're trying to prove that they're not racist, that they're innocent of racism.

And that is their power, that is white power and white legitimacy. And they were quite willing to pay for it. A war on poverty, great society, school buses, public housing, expanded welfare payments, so forth. They're quite willing to pay trillions of dollars to win back that innocence that they lost by confessing to racism in the past. It's like we have to pay history's bill. Or we are part of that ugly history. We are racist. So we now have to prove ourselves to be innocent of racism. And we, as blacks, that's our meat and potatoes. That's our... So the flood into a Ferguson was to reinforce that victimization as a source of power.

Howard Husock: And interestingly, the film does go through the findings of the justice department, which clearly exonerated the police officer. And even the attorney general in the United States, then Eric Holder, who was certainly up on his high horse about the incident. No indictments were brought, and he didn't say there should have been. But the film is only partly about the true facts if you will, of the case. You then pivot, don't you? Into something quite a bit broader. Tell me about where the film takes it.

Shelby Steele: One of the places where we do that pivot had a little bit to do with you. We move into the whole, what we thought of as we were working on it, the Pruitt-Igoe section. And here, we sort of see white guilt expanded and taking on this colossal form, this shape.

Howard Husock: And that's a giant public housing project.

Shelby Steele: That's a giant public housing project in St. Louis. But duplicated all across the country and in other cities as well, public housing. And what was fascinating was that in those housing projects was, this wasn't the idea, but this was the result, was that they took away from blacks. Blacks who were, as you pointed out in the film, doing okay in their rather ragged neighborhoods, they were coming up from the South. The families were pretty much intact. They were extremely poor, but they saw low rent as an opportunity, and they were going to move up in American life and so forth. Then came this whole new etiology of liberalism in the sixties. Which is again, based on the sort of white-guilt-black-victim structure. As you talk about, there was a photograph taken of them.

Shelby Steele: And so we see them in this impoverished situation. And we say, we're going to wipe out that by building these massive apartment buildings, and we're going to put all these people in there. And of course, what we do is take away from the people themselves agency over their own fate, over their own life. My parents, I grew up in pretty much in that kind of a neighborhood where everybody was striving upward and so forth. My father was extremely suspicious of public housing, wanted nothing to do with it, and so forth, but many blacks were seduced into it.

Howard Husock: And so you're seeing Michael Brown who went through, as you point out in the film, four different high schools, was a troubled person, apparently, although we don't get to know him well as an individual, as you also point out in the film. You see him as kind of a culmination or his neighborhood, neighborhoods like it, as a culmination of this misplaced benevolence of liberal progressivism. Am I putting words in your mouth?

Shelby Steele: No, that's right. Liberalism built a new society for blacks, a different kind of society, with different rules. They, again, there was the man can't live in the house, can't be a part of the family. So they erected a whole different set of... And you should believe in the government as your savior. It's probably the worst idea that came out of this liberalism. Our public are giving you public housing is a precursor. We're going to give you a new life after centuries of oppressing you, where you're do something, and we're going to give it to you. And that's going to be your deliverance into modernity, into the modern world.

And so you should have faith in us, not in yourself, we're going to do it. And this was duplicated in its form all across America. Very soon, we began to create a black underclass for the first time. In the neighborhood I was growing up in, everybody had a father. In these public housing, certain situations, nobody, or very few people, had fathers. You destroy the family. Well, liberalism became, in its blind hunger to win back moral authority for white America, to remove that stain of white America. They once again exploited black America.

Howard Husock: You're turning it on its head so much, right? That what was cast as help for blacks was help for whites.

Shelby Steele: Yes. Again, my feeling is that most of social reform since the sixties is driven not by black development or under development, but by white guilt. Whites have had lost their moral confidence in the sixties. When they had the [inaudible 00:15:58] passed civil rights bill and so forth. We had to confess to this horrible racism that we had and indulged in. And I don't think whites have recovered their moral confidence since.

I think they'd been preoccupied with it. It has driven social reform in America more than anything else. Transformed our universities, our educational system, now even affecting the corporate world. But it comes from that. You can't do what America did for four centuries, finally, thence, bravely, honorably, confess it, without you putting a weapon in the hands of those people that you victimized. And the tragedy is those people then they believe their victimization is their power, rather than their abilities, their principles, their hard work, so forth. To this day, we are still, in black America, fighting, desperate for victimization to be our power.

Howard Husock: And people are just keep playing the same role over and over again. And that's what you saw right in that moment. Eli, let me ask you as a filmmaker, as the producer, director, I'm struck by the fact of the range of interviewees, including the Reverend Al Sharpton. And I wonder, I'm just imagining the challenge of getting access to Reverend Al Sharpton and how you approached that task. Could you share that with us?

Shelby Steele: I'll give a lot of [inaudible 00:17:47]. Al Sharpton, he answered the e-mail right away. He's not afraid of talking. He really believed in... I can't say the same for some other people, but Al Sharpton, he really believes in what he's doing. And he presented a compelling case. I mean, maybe we disagree with you, but I think it's better for you to hear the argument. Because it's a valid point and we make our own argument and then the audience can decide.

Howard Husock: Right. And sharp Sharpton was not shy. He said, "Protest works. We have to keep protesting." And you contrasted that. What struck me though, Shelby, was the different sorts of black voices that come to take over the film in it's last third, let's say. And I would characterize these as voices that were pointing black culture in a quite different direction. It was almost as if they were just sick of all of this dependency. And you end up featuring them a great deal. Tell me about how you experienced those encounters and whether it gives you hope.

Shelby Steele: Well, it definitely gives us hope. Those people were... They were just amazing. They did all of our work for us, toward the end of the film.

Howard Husock: Tell us who they are just real quickly.

Shelby Steele: Well, there are a bunch of people. One was a woman called Ms. Queen, who actually during the riots in Ferguson would go out and she's a very motherly, nurturing type, she would go out and actually feed the young people who were there. But then she would give of herself and her faith in God, and she would try to talk sense to them. And remind them of what reality was. And that one of her main focuses was simply to the bring the black family back together. So we show a scene of her at the end, visiting a black family with several children. And again, tragically, no father. But she starts down at that level, where everything really begins and works with those kids and builds a sense of neighborhood.

Shelby Steele: We had a fascinating character, Barney Voker, who was in Chicago and Woodlawn area, who was there. Had been a drug dealer. And at 15, 16 years of age was making thousands...

Howard Husock: Not just a small time drug dealer.

Shelby Steele: He was a big time drug dealer, but because he was disciplined and he ran a big business, and he was an enforcer, but he also knew how to build relations with the community. This guy was amazing. He set up car washes in the neighborhood and gave free car washes to people to be seen as a good guy, a godfather. And the skill, the genius of this man. He also then was finally caught, did 11 years in prison, came out, looked as though he might go back to the streets, but ran into this other, the pastor Corey Brooks, who we interviewed. And transformed his life, gave up that criminal world. And now applies those principles and works with the young people and so forth in a healthy way, and tries to turn them around.

The main thing we loved about him and the group that we met there was their faith that's social reform required personal transformation. Personal evolution, personal development. It's not about your race or your identity. It's about who you are, and how you develop yourself, how you give to others, so forth. You create a sort of a positive self-fulfilling sort of arrangement with yourself. But you don't expect the world out there to deliver you, and give you a great life. You have to make that life yourself. And it hearkens a little bit to WB Dubois and others who had Malcolm X, who had a sharp focus on self-help.

Howard Husock: He really did. People think of him as, mainly as a confrontation enlist, and as anti-white, if you will, but he was profoundly into self-help wasn't he?

Shelby Steele: Oh, he was into to the point of openly rejecting any offers of help from outside of the black community. I mean, he said, "You cannot expect, it'll be all about them." Malcolm X is sort of one of my role models. I admired him, the later Malcolm, the one who moved beyond race. And who focused on these positive, this faith in self-help, that was, I think so important to him.

Shelby Steele: It's always been a theme in black life, but we've lost it. We began to really lose it in the sixties. When white guilt began to define our world and whites were giving us entitlements. And, we in a sense got bought off. And we sold off. And you look at the politics of race today, and it's still about what kind of program can we give them? How can we take over their life here? How can we take over their life there? Rather than as a...

Howard Husock: My colleague, Jason Riley, has a title of his book, Please Stop Helping Us.

Shelby Steele: Yeah. Frederick Douglas, leave us alone. Leave us alone. The longer I live with that idea, the richer and more powerful and more meaningful it becomes to me. It is not a cold, negative thing. It is an empowering thing. The way successful societies work is... You've known anybody who is starting out in life and wants to build a career. And their attitude usually is leave me alone. I want to go here. I want to go there. And, I'm going to make a lot of mistakes, but I'm going to keep going. There's no other way. So we try to touch a little bit of that.

Howard Husock: Yeah. Nathan Glazer, who I admire, and I'm sure you know his work very well too, said, "It's not really fair to ask blacks to advance as we've asked other ethnic groups to advance, but there's not really any alternate route."

Shelby Steele: He's absolutely right. I would add to that. The worst idea that blacks have entertained since the sixties is the idea of justice. The idea that we're going to somehow get justice. The idea that we should pursue justice. Justice is something you can only get from other people. Here's the biggest, one of the biggest challenges of black life. You're never going to get justice, not ever. It ain't going to happen. The sooner you realize that, the sooner you accept that, and allow yourself to be informed by that, the happier you will be. Justice is the worst delusion to ever come into the black community. You can see why, given our history. It ties us back, it pulls us backward, not forward. And that, I think Corey Brooks at the end of the film is somebody who not worrying about justice, he's worried about getting those kids to read, to learn how to read and to write, and to do well in school and to build a life and make a career and so forth.

Howard Husock: Corey Brooks, pastor in Chicago. You know, one of the things that really struck me as an unusual insight, I'll go on a tangent with a personal story for just a minute that will get to my question. I had a colleague once when I was a young newspaper writer who worked for a newspaper called the Boston Record-American. And Record-American was a tabloid. It really just existed to publish the late horse race numbers. That was their business model.

Howard Husock: But he was their crime reporter. And he would have to call in if there was a shooting. And they would ask him, "Dave, is it dark out there?" And if he answered that, "Yes, it was really dark out there." That meant that one black man had shot another black man. And it was not going to be in the newspaper. And you talk about that at some great length in the film because of the hundreds of black deaths that don't seem to matter. Tell me about why that gets you so upset and why those murders you think are happening.

Shelby Steele: Well, I think the problem with those murders... We don't stop. We don't look at them. We don't pay attention to them because the trigger finger, the finger that pulls the trigger that kills the other teenager, is black. If the trigger finger was white, we'd be in Michael Brown territory. The whole world would dissent because it would become an opportunism. Black victimization. Power, your opportunity for power. These kids who get shot on the South side of Chicago in the thousands every year, there's no, there's nothing, there's no power, nothing to it. I can't turn that to power because it's black on black crime. There's no echo of history, of injustice. And so I can't squeeze out a white guilt, any power.

Howard Husock: And you say in the film, this struck me that they don't value not only the other guy's life, they don't value their own life.

Shelby Steele: Well, they don't. They don't because it's not in any reference to anything. I value my life because my father loved me. He loved me. My mother loved me. They punished me when I did things wrong. They rewarded me when I did things well. They taught me about the world. That kind of kid is not going to go out there and sit and hang around and shoot people, shoot his buddies. These kids have no love. They have no connection. That's the wonderful thing that Ms. Queen does that we interviewed at the end of the film. She understands that if... It breaks you down, when you see her, that human beings respond to love. You look somebody in the eye and there's real affection, real concern. Interest in their life.

They come to life. The fact that we have these desolate areas in every major city now. Millions of blacks living in a kind of neolistic world is that we as an oppressed people have now begun to sell ourselves out, to trade ourselves for the illusion. We don't get anything real, but the illusion that we're getting another public housing unit or something, and that's going to mean something. We had to start down at the bottom. You know, where pastor Brooks does. Personal transformation. We've got to love ourselves and we've got to love each other, and we've got to encourage each other. And this is an area that goes beyond social science and so forth. We need some inspiring leadership. King was a wonderful example. Malcolm X was a wonderful example. Leadership that that encourages us to transform ourselves, to take responsibility for ourselves, to develop our sense of agency.

We make life happen. That's a kind of work now. That's what oppression takes out of the people. They don't believe in themselves. They believe in the oppressor. Now this is real tough to hear, but they believe in the oppressor. They believe that he calls the tune. We have to learn to believe in ourselves. We are our only hope. And that's a good thing. That's not a bad thing. That's a good thing. And we should seize it and run with it, encourage it in every way. But we have a little ways to go with it. I hope the blacks we interviewed come across in that context.

Howard Husock: Well, it was really interesting. What I got out of that is that just when we think that it's all about Black Lives Matter, and it's all about those slogans, and it's all about, you know, reparations, that something might be brewing at the grass roots that says, "Enough of this dependency and enough of this politics, enough of protest. I just want to go and go to work and build something." That's what I got out of those interviews. And maybe it'll just take us by surprise.

Shelby Steele: I hope so. I think there's a crack is opening up in black America, because since the sixties there's been so much failure, all these ideas. Well, we just get that there'll be... If we just get that we'll... If our schools don't have resources, you know, if you've got chalk and a Blackboard, you got enough resources. You can teach, you can work with that. But we don't. And we make excuses. And we say we're victims. And you know, the children, we have to teach it. That's what's got to change. We have to stop worrying about white America, whether they're racist or not, you know, it's against the law to be racist. That's what we need to know. And move forward. And, stop the, just to be blunt about it, the excuse making that is taking us down, keeps us down.

Howard Husock: Shelby, tell us where can people watch this film?

Shelby Steele: You can watch this film right now at whatkilledmichaelbrown.com. And that's the best place, but also Vimeo. V-I-M-E-O, Vimeo. You can also watch it there. And we're still in the process right now of looking for other platforms. So hopefully soon there'll be two or three others, places that you can see it. We want it as widely distributed as possible. I do say maybe even Amazon.

Howard Husock: Yeah. Well maybe they'll get the message they have not shown tolerance, actually. You know, I know that there was a time when you produced a Emmy award winning film for Frontline. I used to work for WGBH myself. They're the producers of Frontline. I could see this as a Frontline. I don't know if something like that could happen, but it's certainly of the same quality that was integral to you're getting the awards that you received for the film about Bensonhurst.

Howard Husock: So we'll see. Whatkilledmichaelbrown.com. Go there. Watch it, watch it twice. I did. I got more out of it the second time. Eli Steele, Shelby Steel, Man of Steele Productions. What Killed Michael Brown. Not who killed him. Although it answers that question. What killed him? That's the depths that the film explores. I'm Howard Husock for City Journal. Thank you so much, Shelby Steele and Eli Steele.

Shelby Steele: Thank you. Thanks for having us. I enjoyed it. And thanks for your contribution to the film. You were wonderful. You were very lucid.

Howard Husock: I have to say this. I've felt honored to be in this film. Thank you so much.

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