City Journal contributing editor Howard Husock is joined in the studio by Shelby Steele to discuss the state of race relations in American society, the history of black protest movements, and other subjects.
Steele is the Robert J. and Marion E. Oster Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, specializing in the study of race relations, multiculturalism, and affirmative action. His books include The Content of Our Character: A New Vision of Race in America (1990), which won the National Book Critic’s Circle Award; White Guilt: How Blacks and Whites Together Destroyed the Promise of the Civil Rights Era (2006); and Shame: How America’s Past Sins Have Polarized Our Country (2015). He has been honored with the Bradley Prize and the National Humanities Medal, and his work on the 1991 documentary Seven Days in Bensonhurst was recognized with an Emmy Award.
Read Steele’s latest essay for the Wall Street Journal, “Why the Left Is Consumed With Hate.”
Brian Anderson:Welcome back to the 10 Blocks Podcast. This is your host, Brian Anderson, editor or City Journal. Coming up on the show today, we have a thoughtful conversation between two distinguished writers talking about race in America. Howard Husock, a contributing editor here at City Journal, and Vice President of Research at the Manhattan institute, was joined in the studio by our special guest, author Shelby Steele. Shelby Steele is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution where he’s been since 1994. He’s written widely on race in American society, and the effects that modern social programs have had on race relations. Steele has received the Bradley Prize, a National Humanities Metal, and an Emmy Award in 1991 for his work on the documentary, Seven Days in Bensonhurst. Howard’s interview with Shelby Steele begins after this. We hope you enjoy.
Howard Husock: I am Howard Husock, contributing editor to City Journal. My guest today is Shelby Steele, senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and one of America’s most trenchant writers on the subject of race relations and social programs. He is the Marion and Robert J. Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution. He received the Bradley Prize for his contributions to the study of race in America. He won the National Humanities Medal in 2004. In 1991 his work on the documentary Seven Days in Bensonhurst was recognized with an Emmy Award, so he's a prolific author, writes often for The Wall Street Journal, and when he does I know that I never fail to read closely. Good to have you with us.
Shelby Steele: Good to be here, good to be here.
Howard Husock: You think a lot about protest and the culture of protest, especially as it affects African-Americans. We are suffused in protest today in America, whether it's about Brett Kavanaugh, or police shootings. Why does protest intrigue you so much?
Shelby Steele: Well, it intrigues me because it has been the fate of black Americans – I’m black – from the very beginning of this country because of the injustice that they endured, was inflicted upon them. So automatically began to protest. And protest has been a part of American life and American culture for the last 350, 400 years. It has been the primary way in which blacks advance in American life, the day that in 1964 the Civil Rights Bill passed, and the culmination of the Civil Rights Movement, which was a protest movement, and I think a very valiant one, sort of made protests, for black Americans, a part of their character, part of who they were, a part of the way in which they – we’re somebody who will protest. That's who I am. And so, the qualms I have about it is that it is so entrenched in our very identity that it may often distort the actual circumstances we are in. The problems that we have may not today be accessible through protest. In other words, protest may not be the right tactic or strategy given, for example, the breakdown of the black family. Well, you know, whether you protest or whether you don't, if you don't have a father that's going to be a problem. And so, it has – it seems to me, at any rate, that the argument can be made that we've taken protest too far. We have asked too much of it. Yes, it brought us our rights in 1964, but it's not – it doesn't seem to have any relevance or effect on the problems that we face today.
Howard Husock: Those kind of words would be, as soft-spoken as you are, incendiary for some who would say well, look at these shootings of unarmed black males around the country because of the unconscious racism of authorities, the diminution of the value of black life that allows them to pull the trigger. Is that misplaced protest?
Shelby Steele: I think it is. And, you know, Common Sense asked the question: So, what? You know, when we do not live in a world that is completely free of all, you know, vestiges of racism. Racism is a part, I believe, of the human condition. It is an impulse, a dark one. We have other dark impulses, you know? But this is a particularly dangerous one, and as we can see when we look back at history and look at the times that we've given into it. The impulse of racism is something that all human beings I think have to come to terms with, struggle against, learn all sorts of moral lessons from, but it is not, I don't believe at any rate, it is not remotely the problem that Black America faces today. And I think one of the most unrecognized features of American life is the enormous moral progress America has made since the 60s. I grew up in segregation. I know what that was like. And when I look at my life today in America, everything is wide open. I can do anything I want. I can achieve anything I want. I can get the best education. I can – opportunities are abundant everywhere. People would – around the world would do anything to be in the position that I'm in, and so it is time for me as a black American to focus on what I can do, what I can make of myself, what I can contribute to my society, to my community. And protest deflects me from all of that. It in a sense wastes my time. It takes up time. And it achieves – protest has achieved everything it can achieve. I think again, ’64 victory of the Civil Rights Movement. That was it. We were free. A body of legislation came into being that protected us from discrimination. I even in the early days sued – used that body of new law and won. And felt, again, having grown up in segregation, it took me a little while to believe that it had receded, but it has receded. I go anywhere – I don't even think about it anymore. Well, most protests today, it seems to me, seem to be manipulative and hollow. There’s an element of pathos about them because in many cases they don't even know what they're protesting for. If you look at the NFL, for example. What do you want as you make 10 million dollars a year playing professional football? Why wouldn't you say how lucky you are? Why wouldn't you be thankful? Why wouldn't you say I live in the greatest country there is, and give your children a positive view of their native land, a sense of possibility that's open to them in the country they were born into? So, it seems to me that protest has become a real problem, because we identify it with the – we make it – we give it a kind of charisma. We say that what makes you black is your victimization and your protest against it, and when you take that posture toward the world, you are really black, and you're really, you’re really proud. And those who don't, maybe they do very well in life, but they're not really black. They are, in a sense, Uncle Toms. What a self-defeating, sort of, pattern to find ourselves in, after centuries of protest that finally succeeded. We don't want to take advantage of it.
Howard Husock: Is there an element also of protest being a good – dare I say it – business model? You mention the NFL players Colin Kaepernick, former San Francisco 49er, just got a big contract from Nike to endorse their sneakers. Is there a broader cultural audience for blacks as protesters that feeds the protests trope?
Shelby Steele: Well, you said it very well. Absolutely there is. Kaepernick found a market in what I call white guilt. Nike doesn't really care about, you know, about the fate of black Americans. It cares about Nike, and it wants to have a moral profile of innocence around race that will translate into money, that will give them an edge over their competitors. Yes, they're not – they don't just make good shoes, but they're also, they are on the moral high ground. And that's a wonderful thing. And so, when you buy their products, you're buying that moral high ground as well. Now, the point is, who's being used in all this? Black people. You're doing all this in the name of blacks. And in the illusion that blacks are now suffering from some sort of constant, relentless racism. You're lying, to put it bluntly, at the expense of black Americans. Colin Kaepernick, as far as I'm concerned, is – who would he be without his protest? He got more attention for that than he ever did for playing football. Well, this is an outgrowth of American history that we have come to this kind of a circumstance. So, anytime that I see active protests today coming from certain blacks, I know there’s a corruption. I know there is – it’s not about what they say it is. They are manipulating the fear that white Americans have that they're racist. White guilt…
Howard Husock: That the whites are racist?
Shelby Steele: That the whites are racist. White guilt is not a feeling, an actual feeling of guilt – white guilt is the terror, the terror of being seen as a racist. Because whites know if they're seen as racist, they're going to be vaporized. America no longer tolerates even the slightest hint of racism anymore. And so, again, we’re – protest keeps us from taking advantage of that freedom. One of the – as I say elsewhere, I have written about elsewhere – the biggest problem blacks have today is not racism, it is freedom. The one thing our long suffering in America kept us from, but exposed us to every human difficulty except the difficulty of freedom. And we are not as good and sharp. There are individuals who you see every day who are great at freedom, who do well, who look at their opportunities and get to work and take advantage of it, but collectively, as a group, we are challenged by it. And so, we – it scares us, and you don't have anything, anybody to blame anymore, you don't have any excuses. You can't keep using your history of victimization as an excuse. You have got to perform today. So, freedom is a – as the existentialists put it, a burden. It is a difficulty having to define oneself in a free world, a free society.
Howard Husock: If you take that point of view, you have to believe that American black people can follow the path of upward mobility that other ethnic groups followed, that in effect American blacks are an ethnic group with a very unusual history, because of the previous history of slavery, but today should think of themselves as an ethnic group that should do the things that help all other ethnic groups advance. Is that realistic?
Shelby Steele: You should pursue your own self-interest, whatever that may be. In other words, we are just people. We don't need an idealism to sort of lift us above, and that dignifies our long history of suffering and so forth. That won't help you when you want a bank loan, but if you’ve got a really good financial profile and you've got good plans for the future and so forth, then today you're going to get that loan. And so, the thing is to focus on what it takes to get the loan now, not on, again, protesting against discrimination. You are going to probably run into a little discrimination. So, what? That's not a definition of who you are. That's an occurrence, that's a bad thing that happens to you. Bad things happen to people. Move on. It is – I don’t detect any will in the society, in American society, to oppress blacks anymore. I did. I grew up with it. We were going to oppress you. It's not just to separate you, but we want you – we want to repress your humanity and diminish you as a human being. Well, today that's over with. There's no will to oppress black Americans today, there just isn't. Any hint of wanting something like that would be utterly ruinous to a person, to their reputation. They would pay a terrible price for it. Once again, I'm free and I should – I must be doing what is going to take me ahead as an individual citizen of the United States. I don't need any special attention at all. My favorite quotation on this is from Frederick Douglass back in the 19th century, the first really nationally-recognized black leader, advisor to Abe Lincoln, and throughout the Civil War and so forth. After Emancipation Proclamation they said well, what should we do to help blacks? We have set them free, but now how do we get them uplifted? And Frederick Douglass said leave us alone. Boy we're going to go through a lot. We're going to have a lot of ups and downs throughout history, but we're never going to find a truer statement about our fate. It is so brilliant and filled with such prescience. It is just genius – my God, how right he was. That's the trick. That's the meaningful thing. Leave us alone. Why do I have to calculate what's going on with white people in order to live my life? Why do I have to waste that time? They don't waste it on me. I want to live as an individual. Being black is a part of that. I have no problem with that. That's an advantage in many ways. It has enabled me to see things and know things about the human condition that I might not have otherwise. So, that's an advantage. If I understand freedom, and I'm moving ahead in freedom, then I need all the help I can get, and that's the way life is. And, again, protesting just brings the past back into the present and achieves absolutely nothing. What has the NFL strike achieved? It just basically says we as blacks can irritate the hell out of you if we want to. That is an impotent man looking for a sense of aggrandizement, a sense of power, when on the inside he doesn't know what the hell to do. And that's really what's plaguing him. He doesn't know how to deal with freedom. And so, he won't kneel at the – and won’t kneel for the flag and sort of acts like that is meaningful and important, and, you know, I want to say to you, look, King did that about 60 years ago my friend. I grew up in the Civil Rights Movement myself. I remember my parents were deeply involved and I was on demonstrations and so forth every other week, so I understand what all that was about. It has nothing to do with you in the NFL today with several million dollars in your pocket every year from running a ball up and down a field. You are lucky. You ought to be – you should be grateful.
Howard Husock: Do young black male teenagers dress with hoodies in part because they're also giving up on improving their situation?
Shelby Steele: Yes. They are advertising their alienation. They're saying we are - what makes us hip and cool is our alienation, is that we are – this goes way – it goes back far. We are hipper than the society that oppresses us. Our oppression has given us a certain knowingness about the world that other people don't have and that's what – that’s the essence of our hipness. We know, and it's very dark, we know fundamentally the impossibility of good faith. We know that that is what makes white people so happy dappy, and so forth. They believe in good faith. We know better. And, in fact, oppressed people around the world have this struggle with bad faith when they come out, they don't – you see when countries around the world get wind of freedom, first thing that happens is they’ll try an idealism for a few minutes, socialism or something, and then they just immediately go into corruption, comfortable. They were -oppression marked them, has marked us with a certain – how could you have good faith if you are a slave, or if you're living in an utterly discriminating world? That's what – that’s the real damage that oppression did. It destroyed our good faith. Let me – that’s too strong. It undermined our good faith. It weakened it. It made it harder for us to find – to access that source of real power and energy that good faith brings. I know that if I work really hard and – things are going to work out for me. I'm not worried. That's good faith. Bad faith is I'm still going to be a n-word at the end of the day, because…
Howard Husock: And I’m a chump for trying.
Shelby Steele: And a chump – a fool. Only a fool tries. And so, we – we get – it’s – we do things like this the strike, and like protests around the – you know it's almost as though – this whole thing fascinates me. When some – when a black kid is shot by a white policeman there’s just almost a kind of jubilation of people running in and giving witness to this, and are rallies, and there are riots, and so forth. Yet, in the last few years, thousands of black kids have been shot to death just on the southside of Chicago. Where's the protest? We don't protest when there's no possibility of jacking whites up for power. That's stupid. We want to keep them on the hook, we want to keep them scared of us, we want to keep them thinking that they're still racist and have to buy their redemption through us, and so you have this – this is a kind of symbiotic, after freedom this is the sort of symbiotic bond that blacks and whites have at the moment that is unspeakable and we don't want to hear about it, but it's – so, what are our race relations, blacks and whites? They are about one thing – leverage. I'm not after truth when a problem comes up, I'm after what kind of leverage I'm going to have with whites. And so, if Trayvon Martin is shot, or Eric Green is killed, I'm interested in that because white people pulled the trigger, or did the chokehold, and therefore I can evoke all of three centuries of victimization in this one little single event where I'm being – particularly with police – I can invite – this is oppression again. Here it is. You said it was gone but we knew better. That's why we have bad faith and don't trust you, and so, that's where we are and you owe us.
Howard Husock: So, here's my last thing, because this is already longer than walking ten blocks. So, I recently became aware of an organization in Shreveport, Louisiana. It is called Shreveport Community Renewal, and it works in very impoverished black neighborhoods, violent, and one of the things that happens there is black married couples move into this neighborhood and live in a house, and they open their house to the neighborhood kids, and the young woman who was actually a middle-aged woman was one of the people there who opens her house, and she told me these hair-raising stories like eight-year-old black kid walked in and said only white people get married. And she said well, no, my husband's right here. I'm married. So, she's self-consciously working to change some of the difficulties with freedom that you're talking about. So, she and I got to talking, because I was very interested in what she’s doing, and I was talking about just different strategies she might pursue and we had a long conversation. And the next day she comes up to me and she was in tears. I go why are you crying? Because I was thinking about our conversation yesterday. Well, why did that you make you cry? And she said these words, I’d like your reaction to them – she said: It wasn't weird. What do you think she could have meant?
Shelby Steele: Probably that it was honest, that she didn't have the feeling that you were wearing a mask. And that she therefore had to wear a mask, and you sort of had to read each other and have a conversation – manipulate your conversation around that, and all the politics between you, between blacks and whites today are unbelievable, and the anxieties that each brings to an encounter like that, and so she probably is saying, God bless her, I'm a human being and I was talking to a human being. That's all. Hard to get.
Howard Husock: Well, I thank this human being for talking to this human being. Thank you, Shelby Steele.
Shelby Steele: Thank you so much for having me.
Photo by Adam Bettcher / Stringer