Shelby Steele’s work stresses the importance of blacks accepting the burdens of freedom—and rejecting narrow racial claims.
For more than three decades, best-selling author and Hoover Institution senior fellow Shelby Steele has illuminated the psychology of race in America. But his rare ability to unmask the individual under the skin has also made him guilty of an unpardonable sin of our time: remembering that racial groups are composed of individual human beings. “The mistake everybody makes when they look at race,” he once explained, “is to look at race.”
The key insight running through Steele’s five books, many essays, and various film projects is that race in America is never what it appears. “I have long believed that race is a mask through which other human needs manifest themselves,” he asserted in his Emmy Award–winning 1990 documentary, Seven Days in Bensonhurst. “I think we often make race an issue as a way of not knowing other things about ourselves.”
Steele’s writing often begins by recounting a personal experience, from which he draws a larger historical and cultural meaning. For instance, his 1990 book, The Content of Our Character: A New Vision of Race in America, opens with the story of a dinner party that went downhill after a comment made by the only other black person in attendance. “I didn’t realize my ambition to get ahead would pull me into a world where my daughter would lose touch with her blackness,” the man said with an air of accusation. “Over the course of the evening,” Steele recalls, “we have talked about money, past and present addictions, child abuse, even politics. . . . But this subject, race, sinks us into one of those shaming silences where eye contact terrorizes. . . . An autopsy of this party might read: Death induced by an abrupt and lethal injection of the American race issue.”
To his critics, Steele’s approach amounts to a form of mind-reading, or, as the critical race theorist Patricia Williams put it in a New York Times review of the book, the “use of psychology as politics,” which risks “substituting limited personal circumstances for broader historical analyses.” There are surely limits to the argumentative use of subjective experience, but Steele strikes an honest balance between private self and public reality. “I don’t tell you that I’m some objective scholar on high and I’ve just evaluated the data and come to this conclusion,” he said on C-SPAN in 2006. “I show you how these thoughts and feelings and ideas evolve out of my own experience because I want to communicate with people on that level: as human beings.”
Resistance to Steele’s work has more to do with his conclusions than with the limits of psychology or personal experience. “Shelby Steele has aptly pointed out that much that is said and done today that makes no sense in itself is a result of a desperate desire of whites to avoid being considered racists and a desperate desire of blacks to avoid being considered inferior,” his longtime friend and fellow commentator Thomas Sowell observes. Following George Floyd’s murder and the unrest that followed it last year, Steele’s ideas have particular urgency.
Born in 1946 in Phoenix, a working-class suburb off Chicago’s South Side, Steele grew up in the crucible of segregation and came of age in the civil rights era. Attending protests form some of his earliest memories. His parents, Shelby Sr. and Ruth Steele, were founding members of the Congress of Racial Equality and schooled their four children in the Gandhian discipline of nonviolent resistance.
Steele’s African-American father was born in Camp Nelson, Kentucky, in 1900—the son of a former slave—before venturing north, where he worked as a truck driver. With only a third-grade education, Shelby Sr. was a gentle, self-taught man, who preferred to persuade others to his position on civil rights through discussion. Though Steele’s mother was white and qualified for the Daughters of the American Revolution, the unwritten rules of northern segregation dictated that the family live on the black side of town. “Their point, as an interracial couple,” Steele writes of his parents, “was that they were not making a point.”
The risks of their parents’ activism meant that the kids would sometimes be sent to stay with friends until things “cooled down.” The Steeles believed that race was a barrier to the individual humanity of all Americans; activism was their patriotism.
Steele never thought much about his multiracial background. If anything, it put the lie to race. But Steele’s family life could not protect him from the indignities of segregation. He didn’t eat in a restaurant until he was an adult because his parents were never sure where it was acceptable for blacks to be and did not want to face the indignity of being kicked out. The only work Steele could find in farm-laden Phoenix was agricultural. “My life had to always be negotiated around my failure to be white.” Even today, when he walks into a hotel or restaurant, Steele has “segregation flashbacks” of how restricted life once was.
Steele attended an abysmal all-black elementary school, where a white teacher emotionally and physically terrorized him. His parents then boycotted the school—leading to the first lawsuit of its kind north of the Mason-Dixon line—and eventually got it closed down. Steele was virtually illiterate when he entered an integrated middle school, but one of his new teachers ignited a love for reading by lending him an adventure book. “Out of childhood despair and without any conscious attention, I developed a parallel self—a rather fearless self that wanted to make its own sense of things.” Before long, Steele was penning letters to the editor of the local paper, reading James Baldwin and Richard Wright, and composing love letters on his friends’ behalf.
Steele’s account of his childhood gives the impression of a highly sensitive boy observing his own complex reactions to the upside-down world around him. But Steele says that racial oppression, in his case, didn’t result in low self-esteem or self-hatred. When he was 11 or 12, for instance, Steele tried out for a batboy position with an all-white local baseball team, knowing full well that blacks weren’t allowed to participate. “I was at that age when wanting something very badly involves as much denial as longing.” Eventually, seeing no other competitors for the job, the coach relented. But on the team’s first away game, the coach, who had changed his mind, stopped Steele at the door of the bus. “They don’t allow coloreds,” the coach said. “I can’t use you anymore.”
“It was as though my very insides dropped out and I was utterly hollow,” Steele remembers. “I wanted to cry, felt all the precursors for a collapse into tears, but I did not cry, and I never cried.” Instead, he recalled, “I had what I would much later understand to be an existential experience. This had been an encounter with the absurd, and the world was simply no longer as firm for me as it had been. So my loss of faith was not in myself; it was in the world. Ironically, this put me a little above the world and gave my own judgments a new authority. . . . If anything, this experience was a passage to higher self-esteem.”
By the time Steele entered Coe College, in Cedar Rapids, Iowa (where he met his wife, Rita Silverman), the activism of his parents’ generation had shifted the nation’s moral terrain. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 passed into law during his first year.
Paradoxically, the explosion of Black Power and the ghetto riots of the late 1960s soon followed the unprecedented progress of the early civil rights movement. Among Steele’s key observations is that extreme forms of activism often emerge after a society has begun to transform itself. “There is no determinism between one’s racial wounds and the acting out of black rage—a phrase that came into use only after the 1964 Civil Rights Bill,” Steele writes. “Anger in the oppressed is a response to perceived opportunity, not to injustice. And expressions of anger escalate not with more injustice but with less injustice.”
Steele embodied this paradox. By the mid-1960s, he had “come into a new, uncompromising idea of what it meant to be black.” The leader of multiple student protest groups on campus, he grew disillusioned with the sacrificial moral witness of his parents’ activism. “Suddenly the nonviolence that looked courageous in the face of the mob looks a little obeisant and supplicating when the mob disappears.”
A few months before his senior year, Steele attended a Black Power rally, where comedian and activist Dick Gregory delivered a lecture on a new counterculture consciousness for blacks that was “hip” to the structural determinism of racism in America. The idea that your own country will always hate you might seem like cause for despair, but Steele experienced it as a relief. “Standing there in that church I realized that no one—least of all the government—had the moral authority to tell me to be responsible for much of anything,” he recalls. “Now America had to prove itself to me.”
Still, the opportunities available to Steele after the 1960s were undeniable. His first teaching gig came with higher pay than his parents had ever earned. They were punished for their activism; he was rewarded for his.
Fresh out of college, from the late 1960s to the early 1970s, Steele participated in four Great Society programs, helped develop some of the first black-studies curricula, and took an extended trip to Africa to visit countries newly liberated from colonial rule. But the social programs in which Steele worked were mired in corruption and rapidly descended into chaos. “It was my first experience with the utter thrill of untested good intentions,” he recalls. The programs, asking nothing of recipients, achieved little good. Indeed, despite billions of dollars in federal aid, the black underclass swelled after the 1960s, while the previous generation had made progress during an era of open racism. Likewise, what Steele found in Africa was not a New Jerusalem but woefully underdeveloped societies, filled with people struggling with the challenges of newfound freedoms.
As Steele moved on to become an English professor at the San José State University, where he would spend 20 years, new academic trends—racial and ethnic studies departments, preferential admissions, “diversity” and “multiculturalism” initiatives—seemed only to sink minority students and faculty more deeply in a mind-set of grievance. Steele developed what he would call “race fatigue,” an existential tension emerging from the space between one’s racial mask and one’s human reality. “It came as a disappointment to realize the two could not be the same, that being black in no way spared me the burden of being myself.” Gradually, he retreated from Black Power and returned to his parents’ civil rights traditionalism—except now, such a stance was no longer considered liberal.
Steele’s first book, The Content of Our Character, which earned him the National Book Critics Circle Award, begins with a striking observation: the racial struggle in America has been primarily over moral authority—which is to say, innocence. Since the dawn of American slavery, the distinction of race in American life has been used to sanction the power of one race over another. But given the moral intuitions of human beings, we don’t typically pursue power without believing in our own innocence. Thus, racism stems from the compulsion to use racial difference as validation of our own goodness and superiority. Historically, a claim of white innocence and black guilt grounded white supremacy.
When the United States finally acknowledged its long history of racism against blacks at the height of the civil rights movement, white Americans experienced a loss of innocence, and black Americans gained a degree of moral authority. In Steele’s eyes, this is perhaps the most underappreciated historical shift of the twentieth century. Though the indictment of racism was long overdue, the underlying logic of white supremacy—that race signifies guilt or innocence—lived on in an inverted form. Since the acknowledgment of black victimization and white wrongdoing gave blacks their first experience of power, black power became inseparable from white guilt.
At the very moment that blacks experienced greater freedom, an impulse emerged to identify more deeply with—and even take pride in—the group’s history of victimization. This embrace of past historical suffering as a way forward also opened those blacks choosing assimilation and individualism over group identity to the charge of betraying their race. Meantime, white Americans, feeling guilt over past racism, could regain moral authority and innocence only by assuming responsibility for black advancement—for example, by supporting affirmative action, welfare expansion, public housing, and other programs associated with President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society.
Many white Americans thus began to act guilty in order to appear innocent of racism—especially by contrast with other, less enlightened whites. It didn’t matter whether the policies they supported in adopting this stance really helped blacks. Black power, in turn, increasingly meant using past oppression to extract benefits from a society desperate to overcome racism. And because the essence of black power is morally and politically incoherent—it condemns American society for not fully accepting blacks while also insisting that blacks don’t need the acceptance of morally depraved whites—the result is inertia.
Steele’s key insight has been to recognize this as the underlying racial contract of the post–civil rights era. But the terms of the contract keep redemption forever out of reach. More than a half century after the civil rights movement, whites are more sensitive to racism than ever before, yet blacks still lag behind. Steele argues that the incentives of this alignment interrupted the natural course of development for black Americans: we have confused the racial masks with the human beings beneath them. The need for historical innocence, on the one hand, and moral power, on the other, has reimposed the color line at the very moment that it should be fading away.
The only escape from this trap, in Steele’s view, is to return to the humanism that inspired the civil rights movement: dissolving the union of race and moral authority by emphasizing our common humanity and shared national destiny. Lest we forget, it is evil to judge people by the color of their skin rather than the content of their character, and human beings can’t be trusted to use race for the good.
The potential for prejudice will always exist wherever visibly distinct groups of people live together. It is only through the discipline of democratic principles surrounding individual freedom that multiethnic societies can restrain the impulse toward racial tribalism. A more honest antiracism would not compare our present reality with some quasi-utopia, free of disparity and bias, and blame any gap on whites; it would approach race issues as a two-way street of moral effort to root out what remains of unjust discrimination and develop the human potential of formerly oppressed groups.
After the success of his first book, Steele came to be known as a “black conservative.” In the contorted logic of post-1960s liberalism, a black conservative is not necessarily conservative in the conventional sense; he simply rejects the totalizing framework of black victimization. Black conservatives stand accused of failing to love their own people, but their real sin lies in taking off the mask in front of whites.
In his second book, A Dream Deferred: The Second Betrayal of Black Freedom in America (1998), Steele explores the predicament of the black conservative. When a society is determined to redeem itself from history, it often projects an idealized version of itself. Those who stand in the way of achieving that ideal are then stigmatized. Thus, black conservatives find themselves tarred as “racists” or “Uncle Toms.” In what Steele calls redemptive liberalism, policies about race are pursued less for what they accomplish than for what they represent: recovering lost innocence, the expiation of shame, the feeling of redemption. “Because our truest motivations for using race are always ulterior,” Steele writes, “every race-based policy or program—from segregation to affirmative action—is a duplicity in which what we say merely rationalizes goals that we are unable or unwilling to state.”
For instance, it’s hard to think of a policy that could possibly be worse for a group of people after four centuries of oppression than lowering standards for them in the precise areas they need to develop most, such as education. Following 50 years of affirmative action, black Americans today have among the highest dropout rates and lowest GPAs of any student group. But if the real purpose of preferential treatment is not to develop black potential but to liberate the larger society from the stigma of racism, this persistent policy failure is easier to understand.
When we identify an issue or policy by race, we look past its human source—whether it’s poor math skills or broken families or violent crime. As Steele puts it: “Wherever we self-consciously use race—whether out of hate or love—as a tool, a convenience, a proxy for disadvantage, a currency of entitlement, a means to power, a basis for group preferences, then we are using it precisely to gain the license to break the normal human and democratic principles we live by for some ulterior reason.”
An important theme underlying Steele’s work is what Jean-Paul Sartre called the “burden of freedom.” The experience of freedom can be painful, even humiliating, if we lack the individual agency needed to thrive. Freedom is not deliverance but possibility. To be free is to be responsible for one’s choices—including the suffering that can sometimes follow. The interplay between suffering and responsibility is the very basis of individual development. Non-freedom can offer comfort because it spares us the shame of failing to live up to our potential. To escape the burden of freedom, we can insist that we are victims of larger forces.
Black Americans long ago conceived of freedom as “the promised land.” When they finally arrived at it, they discovered that it entailed a new accountability. It was only then that racism became the singular cultural explanation for black America’s fate. Yet if racism has so completely defined the black experience, how does one explain the world-changing contemporary force of black American culture in music, literature, style, language, and sports? For Steele, the greatest challenge facing black Americans today is accepting the burden of freedom. “I’m free,” he declares. “When I was born I wasn’t.”
In his 2006 book, White Guilt: How Black and White Together Destroyed the Promise of the Civil Rights Era, Steele elaborates further on these themes. Describing how, on a long drive back from Los Angeles in 1998, he had listened to news of President Bill Clinton’s scandal involving Monica Lewinsky, Steele recalls that President Dwight Eisenhower, in the 1950s, was rumored to use the word “nigger” on the golf course occasionally. He wonders at how each scandal, if switched in time, would have ruined these presidents. How can the country have evolved so much on social issues like race and gender and yet decline in terms of personal morality?
When the hypocrisy of an established order comes to light—such as the distance between America’s commitment to republican freedoms and its historical denial of rights to millions of people because of their skin color—the protest against that order attains moral legitimacy, often with an accompanying fearlessness. The battle against racism eventually opened the floodgates to other forms of social protest and group activism—from the women’s and gay rights movements to the sexual revolution, the antiwar movement, and environmentalism. Each movement framed its grievance against the country in similar terms of oppressor and oppressed; each condemned America as structurally unjust. The new Left that emerged from the counterculture was less concerned with correcting obvious and addressable problems, however, than in establishing a new historical innocence in relation to America’s past sins. By dissociating itself from the past, the counterculture would seek to restore moral authority to the nation.
Though much of the counterculture, Steele believes, was inevitable, it came at the cost of stigmatizing the principles that made the country flourish and that had inspired the civil rights movement itself: individual (not group) rights, equality under the law, due process, meritocracy, free speech. If the nation’s principles were merely about protecting the privileges of straight white men, as the counterculture maintained, why not suspend those principles to benefit minorities? The shift from negative rights to positive rights—from individual freedom to privileges based on group identity—shifted the goalposts, from equality between individuals to equity between groups, from freedom to social justice. Just as America moved closer to living up to its ideals, it recommitted its original sin: the use of group identity as a means to power.
In his most recent book, Shame: How America’s Past Sins Have Polarized Our Country (2015), Steele contends that the same crisis of moral legitimacy that fueled the counterculture also led to today’s culture war. A new American “Other” emerged as the presumed enemy not just of blacks but of all excluded groups: the unreconstructed, straight, white, conservative, Christian male. America descended into perpetual symbolic warfare between two national identities: one committed to dissociating the country from historical shame, the other to maintaining some semblance of historical continuity.
In 2007, Steele published a short, lesser known, book, A Bound Man: Why We Are Excited About Obama and Why He Can’t Win. Despite the book’s ill-judged subtitle, many of its arguments proved prescient. Like Steele, Barack Obama was born to a black father and a white mother, but unlike him, Obama lived an integrated and cosmopolitan life with the white side of his family, with his black father largely absent. Obama self-consciously sought out an authentic black identity, as though in search of a father. Steele was among the first to identify a tension in Obama’s character between his appeal to whites as a candidate who could transcend race and relieve white guilt and his conformity to a black identity that feeds off white guilt. “What gave Barack Obama the idea that he could plausibly run for the presidency of the United States?” Steele asks. “Was it that he had evolved a compelling vision for the nation grounded in deeply held personal convictions? Or was it that he had simply become aware of his power to enthrall whites?”
During Obama’s presidency, the percentage of white and black Americans reporting positive race relations plummeted. When Black Lives Matter became a national movement in 2014 after the police shooting of Michael Brown, Attorney General Eric Holder traveled to Ferguson, Missouri, to investigate—both as a government official and, he said, “as a black man.” While the investigation concluded that the shooting was justified, it also reportedly uncovered evidence of systemic police racism: blacks were stopped by police at a greater rate in Ferguson than their percentage of the population would suggest.
To get a deeper sense of what really happened, Eli Steele, Shelby’s filmmaker son, enlisted his father to help produce the 2020 documentary What Killed Michael Brown? What they found in Ferguson was an ordinary suburb of St. Louis that stood out previously only for its relatively high levels of diversity; after the Brown incident, it was made to serve a larger narrative of black victimization and white racism. Yet multiple credible (black) witnesses report that Brown repeatedly attacked police officer Darren Wilson before the officer shot him. The charge of systemic racism in traffic stops was also off base: the areas surrounding Ferguson are mostly black, and drivers would regularly come to the city to shop, skewing the race percentages used by Holder’s investigation.
The reaction to Brown’s death illustrated what Steele calls “poetic truth.” In the same way that poetic license allows a writer to bend the rules of language for effect, poetic truth enables someone to bend facts to suggest a larger truth about society. It is a poetic truth, for example, that a racist police officer killed Michael Brown because America hates blacks. A broad acceptance of poetic truth can even make the real truth taboo: Amazon initially banned the film.
The distance between narrative and fact in Ferguson mirrored a pattern that Steele had identified nearly 30 years earlier in Seven Days in Bensonhurst, which described how Yusef Hawkins’s death at the hands of a gang of white teenagers in Brooklyn was leveraged by Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson for political power, while the deeper issues went unaddressed. So when Derek Chauvin killed George Floyd in Minneapolis last summer, Steele was uniquely positioned to identify the system of meaning through which the event would be interpreted. The poetic truth of systemic police racism hid the actual truth: that violent crime in black communities is a much bigger problem than police violence.
Critics often charge that Steele and others like him don’t care about racism. But one of the unintended consequences of expanding the meaning of racism to include any statistical disparity between whites and blacks, Steele maintains, is that it leaves no incentive to deal with racist behavior on an individual level. If racism is everywhere, it is also nowhere. It’s worth noting that Steele filed the first housing discrimination lawsuit in Salt Lake City back in the 1970s and won. He has even advocated jail time for individual acts of racism—for example, provable racial discrimination, for which no other plausible explanation exists—in American institutions. Meantime, modern antiracist scholars like Ibram X. Kendi seem to have no idea what racism even is.
Indeed, of all the charges laid against Steele, inauthenticity is the most off base. He would be just as comfortable holding court on African and African-American literature at a historically black college as he would be taking in the scene at a blues bar or jazz club. As far back as 1976, he published a paper for a black-studies journal on the parallels between his literary hero Ralph Ellison’s classic Invisible Man and the existentialist structure of the blues. What makes Steele’s approach different from that of some other black intellectuals is that, much like Ellison, he wants the uniqueness of black American culture to reflect the human condition and the American story. “No group in this country has struggled harder to earn its humanity despite its race than blacks. To now insist so fiercely on racial recognition is to sell our birthright for a pot of porridge.” As the United States moves beyond the old divisions of white and black into a new multiethnic majority, Steele’s vision of a new American humanism is a hopeful one. But to make it a reality, the mask of race must come off.
Top Photo: Shelby Steele’s 1990 book, The Content of Our Character: A New Vision of Race in America, won him the National Book Critics Circle Award. (HOOVER INSTITUTION/GETTY IMAGES)
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