Shelby Steele is an award-winning author whose first book, The Content of Our Character: A New Vision of Race In America, earned the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1990. He won a National Humanities Medal in 2004 and a Bradley Prize in 2006 for his writing on race. Steele also received an Emmy and two television writing awards for his work on the PBS documentary Seven Days in Bensonhurst (1990). He is a senior fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. His numerous other books include A Dream Deferred: The Second Betrayal of Black Freedom in America, White Guilt: How Whites and Blacks Together Destroyed the Promise of the Civil Rights Era, A Bound Man: Why We Are Excited About Obama and Why He Can’t Win, and Shame: How America’s Past Sins Have Polarized Our Country. Steele is currently working on a new book.
Eli Steele is an award-winning American filmmaker. He collaborated with Shelby, his father, to produce his most recent documentary, 2020’s What Killed Michael Brown? Amazon banned the film but reinstated it after public outcry. It ranked as the platform’s top documentary film upon release. The younger Steele’s previous documentary was How Jack Became Black, a film about his children and the effort to overcome racial categories in an increasingly multiethnic America. In 2005, he directed the original screenplay for What’s Bugging Seth, a fictional romantic drama that won numerous film-festival awards. Eli Steele’s writing and news pieces have appeared in the Lose Angeles Times and Commentary.
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Samuel Kronen: Shelby, you write about race in a very human, and humanizing, way. You say, “The mistake we make when we look at race is simply to look at race.” I wonder if either of you considers yourself a “humanist,” and if the word means anything in particular to you?
Shelby Steele: Well, it’s more of an anti-ideological description. When someone’s a humanist they are neither left nor right, so it’s a good move. So yes, I probably would at least loosely come under that category.
Eli Steele: I usually use the word individualist. We’re not primarily interested in groups, racial categories, and all of that. My father and I are trying to put the individual first, the human being first. It’s not that we’re anti-group, we see the value of that. But the emphasis, especially in America, always has to be on the human, on the individual.
Kronen: Shelby, you tend to use the lens of individual psychology when analyzing social issues. I’m curious what made you gravitate toward that way of thinking—I know you have several psychologists in your family.
Shelby Steele: It seemed to me there was nowhere else to go. You can use the economic approach up to a certain point, you can talk about levels of education, and all sorts of things. But my feeling is that all stories are human stories. And human psychology is always in play, powerfully so. The word “psychology” almost narrows it down too much, but everything is, in that sense, psychological, human. You could psychologically analyze the reason we are sitting here now. And it seemed to me that I could get closer to reality by looking in this human direction to understand why people are doing what they’re doing. If you don’t go there, you miss the story. You miss reality. That’s a weakness, I think, in our contemporary discussion. We call this way of thinking “psychobabble,” and we’re dismissive about it. But I think it’s extremely important.
Eli Steele: I would also add that when ideology comes in, there’s no psychology. When you become a follower of an ideology, you lose yourself and become obedient to the group. As outsiders, we use psychology to look at why that may be, and also why it’s important not to do that.
Kronen: Psychology, in this sense, is anti-ideology. A psychological concept you write about, Shelby, is innocence. It struck me when I first read about this theme in The Content of Our Character, because I never thought about innocence in that way—how innocence relates to guilt, and how they both relate to morality and power. I was wondering where that theme came from—you mention Kierkegaard—and what intrigued you about it?
Shelby Steele: It appeared to me to be a huge part of the story of race in America and in the world. It’s a deeply moral issue, involving man’s inhumanity to man. You can’t get to the truth of that story any other way. That’s where I think psychology fills out the picture more—not completely, but a good deal more. I love Albert Camus. I’m writing about him at the moment. It’s the same sort of humanistic look at things. The motivations human beings follow are complex, and involve not just economics and history, but also the impulses that humans have in certain circumstances that fascinate me and are a little scary.
Eli Steele: It’s a great question. If you’re talking about innocence in 1990, that book [The Content of Our Character], it made me think about how what’s going on today is an almost perverted battle for innocence. How powerful it is to certain people to believe in the ideology that gets them that innocence. They’re doing irrational things like lowering standards for black students that they would never do for their own family. Why are they doing that? Because it’s a way to be innocent of the past.
Shelby Steele: Innocence is power. In a society like America, with our history, we have this combination of unparalleled greatness and almost unbelievable evil. The pressures of being an American involve grappling with innocence. We have wealth; now we want innocence—that’s where power lies at the moment. So much of our politics and culture really come out of this struggle with innocence. Wokeness is nothing more or less than this struggle for innocence—a way to be innocent, and therefore to have power. This leads to dark things. We have wealth, but we don’t have the legitimacy innocence gives us. It’s politics—“my politics have more innocence than yours.” The Left has an appeal and power on this terrain that the Right does not. The Right is hampered by the fact that they simply have no access to innocence. They’re almost dumbfounded by how powerful the Left is.
Kronen: So, it’s a moral currency.
Shelby Steele: Yes. It legitimizes my struggle for power. I can even come in, as Elon Musk and others do, and say “I’m wealthy, I’ve used capitalism in a positive way.” We say, “Oh, big deal. We’ve seen that for centuries.” The Left comes in and says, “I have a new innocent, sophisticated America that you can be a part of and have a certain moral superiority, moral supremacy.” Those we think of as the elites in society elaborately claim innocence and power.
Eli Steele: If you look at the civil rights movement, innocence was still powerful. In my father’s day, blacks had been oppressed for four centuries and were finally rising up. “All your rationalizations to keep us down are wrong, you are actually evil,” they asserted. That’s a very powerful thing to deal with, to say, “you’re not the great America you thought you were.” So, blacks had innocence. Today, most of the people who want innocence will be whites. They want what the blacks have.
Kronen: Shelby, your book A Dream Deferred: The Second Betrayal of Black Freedom in America is one of my favorites. I find it to be the deepest account of your thought. That must have been a crazy time for you, between your first book and your second. What was going on in your life at that time, and what went into the making of your second book?
Shelby Steele: Well, it was a tough time. The first book put me in a position in which I never thought I would find myself. Like most writers, I started out scratching and clawing, trying to break into the business. So, it was and is still a shock to me. But ultimately what I found after The Content of Our Character is that people wanted more, wanted me to go further. So that became the struggle. As my editor said back then, the second book you publish is the hardest one you’ll ever write. I had to go deeper to get to material and get my own thinking into a different phase. So there was a lot of turmoil. My career at universities basically ended at that point, involuntarily. The campus I taught on for many years sort of canceled me. I brag today that I was one of the first canceled people. So that was new, I hadn’t expected that. I thought we lived in a First Amendment culture, where people could think and say what they wanted. Well, that let me know that I was a little naïve. I had to absorb and understand these things, and it was a difficult, alienating period of my life that now, in retrospect, I’m grateful for.
Kronen: Eli, you’ve been a big part of these books as well. Do you remember that time?
Eli Steele: Yeah, it was like a narrowing of the world. In Native Son, Bigger Thomas might have just committed murder. He feels the world closing in and the skyscrapers coming down—everything’s narrowing on him. After my father committed the act of saying what he wanted in public, a friend of his said to him, “Your ideas are awesome, but you shouldn’t publish them.” So, the fact of publishing them and saying the unsayable meant that he was going to be thrown out of the world he’d been living in for so long, by a lot of people who had called him a role model in the black-militant days. He wasn’t able to go on campus and speak freely anymore. When you have people my age who had never truly experienced oppression shouting down a man who spent the first 21 years of life in segregation, there’s no respect there. They wanted the ideology, they wanted the power. They didn’t want to hear what he had to say. My father would give a speech and afterward, blacks who were arguing with him [in public] would pull him aside and say, “I agree with you,” but they would not say that in public. Ralph Ellison once gave a speech on his book of essays, and he was shocked when some man shouted him down and basically called him an Uncle Tom. So, Ellison experienced that shock in the 1960s. And now the question is: when are black people going to be able to speak freely without causing a firestorm? My father is saying nothing but common sense. Go to work, stay married. He’s not saying anything un-American.
Shelby Steele: I was a liberal who grew up in a civil rights family. Everything was about civil rights. I grew up in that milieu, and my family knew people around the country involved in the movement. In high school, I was the president of the local civil rights group, just as [Martin Luther] King was peaking. From there, I went into the Black Power movement, looking for relevance in my generation. Cultural nationalism, Black Panthers, flew to Africa—I did a lot of really “black, black” things. I made the same mistakes my whole race made: I began to think that my identity was my power. It’s taken all these many years to understand the simple truth that you can’t lift up people based on identity. Identity doesn’t learn algebra and history and develop skills. You can satisfy identity by wearing an afro, which I did. So, in A Dream Deferred, I was scratching in that territory for the first time. For someone like me, who grew up in segregation, to go against the black identity—I was seen as giving the back of my hand to black people. That’s how many took it, and many still do. A Dream Deferred really meant something to me, though, and I began to understand the pitfalls of identity. That was a hard book to write, and it took a long time, but I’m grateful for it. I’m tempted to go back and smooth it out a little, but it reflects where I was at that time.
Kronen: On the other side of things, I sense an optimism in your work—an optimism about the country and life itself. You talk about “good faith” a lot, and I think that notion is somehow connected to optimism. So, where does that attitude come from—your parents, family background, something in you, something you observed?
Shelby Steele: One of my beliefs is that we all pretty much know everything, it’s just hard to admit what we know. We want to be innocent. And innocence very often is asserted by ignorance. Yes, I’m essentially optimistic. I had these two parents who were just marvelous, who were just a gift. My father was born in the Deep South, had a third-grade education, was a truck driver, and taught himself to read and write. My mother had a master’s degree from the University of Chicago and came from the middle-upper class around Cleveland, Ohio. Her father was a building contractor. They loved each other. They got married, had children. They met in the civil rights movement and were founding members of the Congress of Racial Equality. They had faith. An interracial couple in the 1940s. They didn’t miss a beat; they were like stars in the neighborhood. People looked up to and admired them. They went to a segregated church and convinced the minister to break off and start a new church. Swept through the community. They closed down my elementary school because it was segregated. They got parents to boycott it in the 1950s before this kind of thing had ever been heard of. So they were activists on a high moral plane, yet very down to earth, very real. With parents like this, I wasn’t afraid of anything. I had the arguments with which to defend what I was doing, to stand on my own. That was my big advantage in life. I was in favor of integration when people were afraid of integration, blacks as much as anyone. I could explain why integration was healthy, was a good thing. These were rare ideas at that time in our history. It was clearly my parents who gave me this sense that you keep the faith and be happy in your resistance. They were happy people. Their belief system was consistent with the life they were living. I could take risks in my thinking that other people feared to take. I never had to conform. It gave me a freedom to look at things and be open to ideas and the world in my own way.
Kronen: I want to ask you about evil. You have an interesting take on evil that is connected to what you talked about with innocence, and captures, I think, the subtlety of evil. Especially today, we have a black-and-white, shallow, cartoonish idea of what evil is. You present a banal, almost Hannah Arendt vision of evil—especially in the way you talk about experiencing segregation as a child. What does evil mean to you?
Shelby Steele: To me, it’s one word: convenience. People defend things like affirmative action under the rationale of diversity, so we’re going to lower standards for blacks and not admit as many Asians. Race is constantly used, in the name of the good, in the act of committing racism. And we’re saying such racism is inclusiveness. How insidious evil is! You’re saying this person gets into school and this person doesn’t because of the color of their skin, and that is diversity, that is inclusiveness? It’s just a convenient way for you to get the innocence and moral authority that gives you power. It’s a hell of a problem in a huge, complex society like America. Evil is everywhere waiting around the corner, advocating for itself as a moral convenience that will make you a better person. Evil fascinates me in that sense; it’s always ironic. It’s sweetly insidious. It makes you feel good and gives you that sense of innocence. “I stood up against Shelby Steele.” So you become a cheerleader for evil, thinking you’re helping. In the long run, we see evil for what it is, but it usually has done a lot of damage by that point.
Eli Steele: The thing about evil is it never presents itself as evil. Like the snake in the garden. The irony is that a lot of people that embrace diversity and inclusiveness don’t know the history. They don’t understand the mistake they are making, which is attaching ideology to race—exactly what America suffered for the last four centuries, making race the most important variable in our culture and organizing society around it. Race is nothing; it’s just skin color. That’s where evil comes in, though they put fancy words on it and make it look good.
Kronen: What is the role of forgiveness in this dynamic? You especially have suffered, Shelby, as a child, at the hands of others. Have you forgiven these people? Is it something you think about?
Shelby Steele: Have I made forgiveness a personal challenge? Yes. It’s something I don’t think I’m very good at. On the other hand, I insist on a certain discipline from myself to be able to forgive. There are certain things people do, and do to you, that are difficult to forgive. It sometimes seems that God is asking you for something almost impossible. For instance, those four students who were stabbed to death in Idaho—what do you do with the person who did that? Is it possible to forgive him? So then that sneaky part of myself says, “’I’ll just look away and go about my business.” And I think that’s a human response. On the other hand, a good life requires an ability to forgive. To accept that because something unjust was done to me does not mean I am allowed to see the world as a nasty, unfair place. Even though terrible things have been done to me, I must keep the faith and forgive in some nominal way, and when I do so, I make the world a better place. A certain selflessness is required, and that’s where faith comes from. That’s a challenge I struggle with. For me, it may be the toughest one. I do believe one has to forgive; otherwise, you can’t move forward. You can’t grow if you’re holding onto something and refusing to forgive. That doesn’t mean you have to go around the person or situation that injured you. But in your heart of hearts, you have to step away from the anger and resentment and insist on having faith.
Eli Steele: In Charleston, when Dylan Roof killed nine people in a church, the relatives of the murdered forgave Roof. And then the writer Ta-Nehisi Coates basically admonished them for forgiving. In other words, he wanted to hold onto the anger. It’s interesting how this Christian community forgave but this intellectual did not.
Shelby Steele: We don’t want to forgive because forgiveness makes us vulnerable. This is a problem that history has given to black Americans specifically. How do you forgive four centuries of oppression? Well, either you do, or you don’t move forward. I think about my own father. He was allowed to go to school only through the third grade. He was a brilliant man, a natural leader. Maybe I can forgive what someone did to me, but it’s hard to forgive all of that. And yet, my father forgave. He moved forward and built a family. God bless him. Both my parents were conscientious objectors, pacifists. That was the basis of their civil rights orientation. When I look back, I think what it was really about was forgiveness. They believed in forgiveness.
Kronen: There’s this quote that forgiveness is like setting a prisoner free and discovering that the prisoner is yourself, so I think that applies. I really wanted to talk about Ralph Ellison. He wrote one of the great novels, of course, Invisible Man, and some of the best essays on American culture and identity and literature. I can’t help but feel Ellison has been forgotten, or at least he is not as big of a figure as we’d expect, based on his original impact—especially when it comes to issues of race. Do you feel like Ellison doesn’t get the credit he deserves today?
Shelby Steele: Absolutely. Which is proof of his greatness. He’ll survive this. But we have a very cloistered, inward-looking, almost gnarled racial politics today that could never understand someone with Ellison’s breadth and depth. It’s a sad thing. I think Invisible Man is the single greatest American novel. I love Ellison, and his vision has helped me understand American society better than that of any other writer. So God bless him.
Kronen: You mentioned teaching, and you said in an interview that you still see your primary identity as a teacher. What did you like most about teaching?
Shelby Steele: My parents were teachers in a broad sense—not literally, in schools, but in the world they occupied. And it made the world a better place, and people understood them. So it seemed to me teaching was a part of living: you live and share what you learn. Perhaps selfishly, my first motivation for teaching is always to understand something myself. I’m thankful for the years I had as an English professor. I got to work my way through whole literary movements and teach myself things about the world. To teach a writer, you must at least have some possession of what he is trying to communicate. As the teacher, you’re responsible for sharing that, and that’s how you grow and learn. I really went to school after I earned my Ph.D. and became an English professor. Nothing made me happier than a graduate seminar with ten or 12 students, no more, and we’re working our way through Dostoevsky, Hemingway, Camus. It doesn’t get much better.
Eli Steele: You asked about Ellison and why he’s forgotten. I think that’s what happens to black figures who get too close to the truth. The sequence of Invisible Man almost perfectly mirrors today. So why are people not reading that book to understand today? Well, maybe they don’t want you to understand it today. They’re repeating the same old nonsense. If you look at Ellison, if you look at my father, you often can’t find their books in bookstores today. They won’t be published in the New York Times. That’s why it’s interesting to see that the anti-woke movement is mostly white people—but if you look back, it was mostly black people that got canceled first. That’s the story of America; that’s why Ellison has his protagonist in the bottom of the basement who knows everything that’s going on. That’s been the fate of black America. We are canaries in the coalmine.
Kronen: Eli, you brought up how Ellison was castigated by a Black Power activist, and he was deeply hurt by that. It bothered him to be called an Uncle Tom, after being so much a part of the civil rights movement and black American culture. The main point you are making, Shelby, it seems to me, is that racism is no longer the main obstacle for blacks, and that the main problem today when it comes to race is this symbiosis between white guilt and black victimhood. You say that white guilt is black victimhood—it’s two sides of the same coin. How do we break out of that psychodrama?
Shelby Steele: On the shallowest level, it might be different, but it’s the same for everybody, I think. It’s the fate of America that our history has put us in this situation, where America is guilty for having oppressed black people for four centuries. Now, finally realizing that it’s wrong and wanting to repair and redeem the nation from that shame—that’s a fate visited on us. We’re not doing a very good job. The fact that a society is guilty about what it did in the past gives me, as a victim of that—segregated schools and so forth—an opening to shake down the larger society. That dynamic is killing us. The truth is, after four centuries of oppression, blacks have survived and, in some ways, flourished, but if you go through that history, you’re not going to come out on equal terms with everybody else.
Our problem is one word: underdevelopment. Four centuries of oppression made blacks an undeveloped people in the most developed country in the world. Instead of taking on that challenge, we say that racism is systemic. Racism, racism, racism—we are afraid to tackle our problem of underdevelopment. Blacks are behind in every single category. It’s not going to serve us anymore to wallow in the fact of injustice. It brought us the victories of the civil rights movement, but today it is an avoidance. We keep using the past to retard ourselves in the present. The federal government spent trillions of dollars on public housing—and we get worse.
And whites have to understand that they, too, were born into a society that committed one of the greatest acts of ’man’s inhumanity to man ever in the relatively modern world, fighting wars to preserve racism. If whites want moral authority, they will have to understand that they are capable of evil. I understand human beings are capable of evil. Germans were capable of evil. Africans are capable of it right at this very moment. The blessing in America is that we have enough wealth and distance to be able to see it for what it is. The message to black people is simple: we were truly injured by the oppression we endured, and that injury is a problem only we can overcome through development, through education, and after education, more education. Do whites get off clean? No. Whites have the obligation to live as moral citizens of a free democracy, and be responsible, and never commit genocide again. The point is for blacks that we don’t need to join the white world. We need to join the modern world. We need to join modernity itself.
Kronen: So it’s a slightly different challenge for the races, but it’s basically the same effort to be more honest about this stuff. For blacks, it’s more about development. And for whites, it’s more about loosening our grip on innocence?
Shelby Steele: Yes. Well said.
Kronen: What do you think about racial humor? Can it be a tension-cutter in a multiethnic society or is it generally to be avoided?
Shelby Steele: Oh, the humor is unbelievable. We have produced a disproportionate number of comedians. I remember in college watching the Ed Sullivan Show, which came on every Sunday night, and the show featured a young comic named Richard Pryor, who remains to me the funniest comedian I’ve ever seen. He came out one night and was introduced as a new poet, and he goes through the motions, and he’s going to deliver his poem and he gets up there and says, “Blaaaaaaaack.” Dark humor. Blacks have the darkest humor; we had the darkest situation, and humor always comes out of tragedy and human pain. It’s one of the ways we survived; another way is music. Look at the innovation blacks brought to music, from the blues on up. We had no money, but music was something we had. As my friend Thomas Sowell says, segregation had a squeeze theory, where because it wouldn’t let blacks do this or that, it squeezed them into certain tracks.
Eli Steele: You hear that phrase over and over: we either laugh or cry. Those are the only human responses we have. Humor is a way out. Crying gets you nowhere. Laughter is the way of overcoming. You are kind of sticking it to the other person, but then you laugh and move on. It’s a way to move forward.
Kronen: Laughter as transcendence. Shelby, you touch on this in a paper you wrote about 50 years ago called “Ralph Ellison’s Blues.” That’s what the blues is about: transcendence. When you can laugh in the face of something, you can move past it.
Shelby Steele: Writing that paper taught me about Ellison and what he was trying to say. He’s our greatest talent among many others, and unappreciated.
Kronen: I get the sense that all of this talk about race is really an attempt to find a larger cultural identity that we can be bound by, most of it unconsciously. The way we talk about race seems like a conversation about who we are underneath the surface. Do you agree?
Shelby Steele: Absolutely. Race was always a convenience, a way to avoid our universality—which is scary. Human beings like to divide up into groups and have leaders and ideologies and so forth, and race has been a vicious part of that. Race has nothing to do with your character. You give it the meaning you want to give it.
Kronen: Just to follow up, do you consider yourselves American before you consider yourselves black?
Shelby Steele: Yes. Absolutely. I’m an American and part of the unfolding thing that is America. My grandchildren have five different racial bloods in their veins: Mexican, black, American, Jewish, white. And when they go to school, they have to check a box. What do they check? American. That’s the absolutely lovely promise of America, where there’s this conglomeration. Europe failed to do that. They took identity too importantly. Because we have so much mixture within our country, maybe we are in a better position to achieve unity. But we’re a long way from understanding that. We still love the illusory convenience of racial difference.
Kronen: It imposes an order onto the chaos of American culture.
Shelby Steele: It’s just so convenient. Whites say, “Well, if I don’t support a black position like affirmative action, then I’m a racist.” So we blackmail each other racially.
Eli Steele: When George Floyd was killed, one of the fascinating things was that we had that Proposition 16 in California to remove the civil rights wording from the California constitution in order for us to become antiracist. Other racial groups stepped up to fight it, including Asians, so when you talk about the national character, that’s a very important development—we’re seeing people of other races now getting into the fight. That’s why you see the Left say, “No, you’re white-adjacent.” Which is great! Because they don’t have the white guilt or the ties with history. If people from Africa are part of the black culture, then Chinese immigrants can argue that they were affected by the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. But they only care about being American. I think that’s growing every day. In Virginia, it’s immigrants from other countries who are leading the fight—because whites and blacks are messing it up!
Shelby Steele: I’d add one huge thing that is going to make all the difference in the world, and that is that racism is over with. It has no legitimacy. For you publicly to announce a racist attitude is to be self-destructive. Wow. This is another new challenge to America. What do you do when there is no more enemy left? When the enemy gives up, says we were wrong, we want you to do well? As my father used to put it, I don’t want you to wallow in guilt forevermore. I want you to let me in. It’s time for us to move into modernity. We’re just beginning to see what happens when racism is not systemic, is not structural. Our old enemy is gone. To fight him now is to avoid our real challenges. People don’t like to hear that. It’s frightening to think race and racism don’t mean anything.
Eli Steele: If all racism is gone, people invent a whole new one. The Left is standing on a house of cards. But if you look at what’s happening in Chicago, that’s not segregation or white supremacy. That’s post-1960s liberalism.
Kronen: It’s almost like without race and racism we are having a moral identity crisis in America. That’s a good place to leave it. Thank you both so much for the time.
Top Photo: Eli (left) and Shelby Steele in 2023 (Photo: Man of Steele Productions)