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    There will be no end to despair and no lasting solution to any of our problems until we rely on
    individual effort within the American mainstream--rather than collective action against the
    mainstream--as our means of advancement.
        -Shelby Steele, The Content of Our Character

Despite an over reliance on personal anecdote and pop psychology, which mars his book, Shelby Steele offers one really terrific insight, that "...the racial struggle in America has always been primarily a struggle for innocence" and therefore :

    Guilt is the essence of white anxiety just as inferiority is the essence of black anxiety.

This perception yields an invaluable analytical tool for examining race relations : always look to see who has cloaked themselves in the mantle of innocence.

The great strides in civil rights came when the peaceful demonstrations of the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. were met with violence and even murder.  Clearly whites had much to feel guilty about and blacks properly felt aggrieved, therefore programs were passed.  But then came the riots, some triggered by the assassination of King, and white guilt was replaced by white fear.  Then came the confrontation over use of affirmative action programs and whites, the overwhelming majority of whom had played no part in the oppression of blacks, were able to reclaim title to innocence.  Since then, relations between the races have become much more problematic, with temporary flare ups of white guilt, justified or not, after episodes like the Rodney King beating and the Mark Fuhrman revelations, quickly replaced by white outrage after the King riots and the OJ verdict.  The general trend though is towards a relative lack of guilt, even a lack of sympathy, on the part of whites for the black predicament.  This trend really came to a head in the fight over Welfare Reform, passage of which (with some Democrat support no less) would have been unthinkable just twenty years earlier.

The problem for blacks, as Steele points out, is that blacks have not abandoned the victims role.  "Leaders" like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton continue to make claims for special treatment solely on the basis of skin color and historic bad treatment.  But their claims fall on increasingly deaf ears and unfortunately serve to foster a corrosive atmosphere of black dependence on white largesse.  Helpless victimhood might have some value, though it seems unlikely, if it was still at least winning financial and political concessions from the white majority, but to continue in this beggarly posture even after the spigot has been turned off can not be doing the black community any good.

One interesting newer issue to apply Steele's insight to is the movement for Reparations--compensation to blacks for the economic costs of slavery.  I've stated previously that one reason the idea is worth exploring is because it might help to permanently dispose of this innocence/guilt idea.  A massive cash settlement would in all likelihood both assuage white guilt and buy off black victimhood.  This transaction, no matter what kind of high toned language the actual process was dressed up in, would be exactly as crass, self-serving and distasteful as it sounds here, essentially allowing white America to repurchase the moral high ground for the modern equivalent of forty acres and a mule.  At any rate, you can see how Shelby Steele's way of looking at our racial divide helps to illuminate such an issue and strips away the noble facade to reveal the rather tawdry psychological moorings which really underpin it.  His book is worthwhile for this contribution alone.


Grade: (C+)


See also:

Shelby Steele Links:

-PROFILE: American Humanist: Shelby Steele’s work stresses the importance of blacks accepting the burdens of freedom—and rejecting narrow racial claims. (Samuel Kronen, Autumn 2021, City Journal)

Book-related and General Links:
    -Shelby Steele, Director, the Center for New Black Leadership (Hoover Institute)
    -Citizens' Initiative Commission Members: Shelby Steele
    -ESSAY : War of the Worlds : The West must stop apologizing for the greatness of our civilization. (SHELBY STEELE, September 17, 2001 , Wall Street Journal)
    -ESSAY : Ideology as Identity :  Why doesn't Powell diversify Bush's cabinet? (SHELBY STEELE , January 11, 2001, Wall Street Journal)
    -ESSAY:  The Loneliness of the "Black Conservative": Shelby Steele on the price of his convictions. (Hoover Digest)
    -ESSAY : An Unholy Alliance : When the going gets messy, there's Jesse. (SHELBY STEELE, December 1, 2000, Wall Street Journal)
    -ESSAY : A Dream Deferred:  Why the Black-White Achievement Gap Won't Close (Shelby Steele, Center of the American Experiment)(requires Adobe)
    -ESSAY : A New Front in the Culture War : Since the 1960s liberals have held America's moral high ground. The Bush camp wants to charge the hill. (SHELBY STEELE,  Wednesday, August 2, 2000, Wall Street Journal)
    -ESSAY : Engineering Mediocrity  (Shelby Steele, Hoover Institute)
    -ESSAY : Malcolm X (Shelby Steele)
    -ESSAY : The New Segregation (Shelby Steele, 2/93, Forerunner)
    -ESSAY : Viewpoint: No need to use race for one's convenience  (Shelby Steele, Hoover Institute Newsletter)
    -REVIEW : of BROKEN ALLIANCE The Turbulent Times Between Blacks and Jews in America. By Jonathan Kaufman (Shelby Steele, NY Times Book Review)
    -BOOKNOTES : Author: Shelby Steele Title: A Dream Deferred: The Second Betrayal of Black Freedom in America Air date: December 6, 1998 (CSPAN)
    -INTERVIEW :  A DREAM DEFERRED :  An Interview with Shelby Steele (David Gergen, PBS NewsHour with Jim Lehrer | November 30, 1998)
    -INTERVIEW : Opposing Views : A few weeks ago we presented a series of one-on-one conversations on the issues raised by the conduct and the investigation of President Clinton in the Monica Lewinsky matter. This week we're bringing some of the participants back, this time to debate one another. Margaret Warner is joined by Deborah Tannen and Shelby Steele (Online Newshour, PBS)
    -DISCUSSION : Transcript | PPI | September 26, 1990 :  The Politics of Difference : Diversity or Separatism? (requires Adobe to read)
    -PROFILE :  Author Offers Blacks a Formula for Success (Martin Morse Wooster, The Detroit News, January 13, 1999)
    -PROFILE : Upstream : The New Black Vanguard (Joseph G. Conti & Brad Stetson, Intercollegiate Review, Spring 1993)
    -ESSAY : SHELBY STEELE'S RACE PROBLEM AND MINE (Tom Lovell, The Raleigh Tavern Society)
    -ESSAY : Black Conservatives (Public Eye)
    -REVIEW : of THE CONTENT OF OUR CHARACTER A New Vision of Race in America. By Shelby Steele (Patricia J. Williams, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of Content of Our Character (Rebecca Reads)
    -REVIEW : of A Dream Deferred The Second Betrayal of Black Freedom in America. By Shelby Steele (Michael Anderson, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of A Dream Deferred:  The Second Betrayal of Black Freedom in America by Shelby Steele (Peter Berkowitz, Commentary)
    -REVIEW : of A Dream Deferred: The Second Betrayal of Black Freedom in America  By Shelby Steele (GARY KAMIYA, Salon)
    -REVIEW : of A Dream Deferred (PHILIP KLINKNER, The Nation)

    -ARCHIVE : Affirmative Action (Salon)
    -ARCHIVE : Black History, American History (Atlantic Monthly)
    -INTERVIEW : Black and right :  Thomas Sowell talks about the arrogance of liberal elites and the loneliness of the black conservative (Ray Sawhill, Salon)
    -PROFILE : A "poison" divides us The man (Ward Connerly)  who has made it a personal mission to destroy affirmative action one state at a time explains why the policy is so damaging. (Alicia Montgomery, Salon)
    -PROFILE : of Clarence Thomas : A Question of Fairness (Juan Williams, 1987, Atlantic Monthly)
    -ESSAY : Reverse Racism or How the Pot Got to Call the Kettle Black (Stanley Fish, Atlantic Monthly)
    -ESSAY : Why liberals can't think straight about race (JIM SLEEPER, Salon)
    -ESSAY : Buying false racial peace (JIM SLEEPER, Salon)
    -ESSAY : Black self-sabotage : An African-American scholar says we're holding ourselves back. I say, "Who're you calling 'we'?" (Trey Ellis, Salon)
    -ESSAY : The New Immigration and the Old Civil Rights (Peter H. Schuck, The American Prospect)
    -ESSAY : Muddy Waters (Peter Schrag, The American Prospect)
    -ESSAY : Scolding the Race  (Dori J. Maynard, The American Prospect)
    -ESSAY : So You Want to Be Color-Blind : Alternative Principles For Affirmative Action   (Peter Schrag, The American Prospect)
    -ESSAY : My Race Problem -- And Ours (Randall Kennedy, May,1997, Atlantic Monthly)
    -REVIEW : of America in Black and White by Stephen and Abigail Thernstrom (Glenn Loury, Atlantic Monthly)
    -EXCERPT : from Losing the Race Self-Sabotage in Black America   By JOHN H. McWHORTER
    -REVIEW : of Losing the Race: Self-Sabotage in Black America by John H. McWhorter (Roger Clegg, Weekly Standard)
    -REVIEW : of Guess Who's Coming to Dinner Now? Multicultural Conservatism in America  By ANGELA D. DILLARD (SCOTT L. MALCOMSON, NY Times Book Review)