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Steele, Shelby 1946–

Shelby Steele 1946

At a Glance

College and Graduate Career

Explored Guilt and Innocence

Racism and Victimization

Rejected by the Left

Sources

Author, professor

Shelby Steele is a writer of powerful, introspective, and moving essays on race who has earned a reputation as both hero and iconoclast. He has condemned quota-based affirmative action for stigmatizing its recipients, has censured black leaders for imposing a rigid ideology of self-defeating victimization, and has portrayed blacks as often paralyzed by self-doubt and a fear of mixed-race situations, which he has called integration shock. He explores these themes in his 1990 book The Content of Our Character, a collection of essays that won the National Book Critics Circle Award.

Embraced by the right as a conservative, he told Time magazine, he prefers to call himself a classical liberal focusing on freedom and the power of the individual. His critics have called him a turncoat who is ignorant of the daily indignities most blacks face. Steele counters by explaining that his writings are intensely personal pieces born of his own life as a black man in Americanot all of it pleasant. I never shine a light on anything I havent experienced or write about fears I dont see in myself first. Im my own first target. I spill my own blood first.

Steele was born on January 1, 1946, in Chicago. He was named for his father, a black truck driver, who met his wife Ruth, a white social worker, while both were working for CORE, the Congress of Racial Equality. Being of mixed racial parentage, Steele told People magazine, was an absolute gift, the greatest source of insight and understanding. [Because] race was demystified for me. I could never see white people as just some unified group who hated blacks.

When Steele was two years old, his family, including his identical twin Shelby, moved to the working-class black Chicago suburb of Phoenix. He attended elementary school there, a segregated institution he describes in The Content of Our Character as a dumping ground for teachers with too little competence or mental stability to teach in the white school in our district. In protest, his parents led a boycott against the school, which was subsequently shut down, a lesson that was not lost on their son.

Steeles father was a veteran of the early civil rights movement, and took his children with him to marches

At a Glance

Born January 1, 1946, in Chicago, IL; son of Shelby, Sr. {a truck driver) and Ruth (a social worker); married Rita Steele, two children. Education: Graduated from Coe College, 1968; Southern Illinois University, M.A., 1971; University of Utah, Ph.D., 1974.

Professor of English, San Jose State University, San Jose, CA; published essays in scholarly and influential journals. Author, The Content of Our Character: A New Vision of Race in America, St. Martins Press, 1990.

Selected awards: National Book Critics Circle Award, 1991; San Jose State University Presidents Award.

Addresses: Office San Jose State University, Departme nt of English, 1 Washington Square, San Jose, CA 95192.

and rallies whenever possible. The younger Steeles participation was often grudging at best, as he reminisced in Harpers about a 1959 national campaign to integrate Woolworths lunch counters: My father had made it a point of honor that I join him on the picket line, civil rights being nothing less than the religion of our household. By this time, age 12 or so, I was sick of it I hid from my father and tried to convince myself that if he didnt forget the march he would at least forget me. He forgot nothing. I did my time on the picket line, but not without building up enough resentment to start a fight on the way home. What was so important about integration? We had never even wanted to eat at Woolworths. But he said calmly that he was proud of me for marching and that he knew/knew food wasnt the point.

Steele attended high school in Harvey, Illinois, where he became president of the student council during his senior year, and graduated in 1964. That same year he was recruited by Coe College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Because of the segregation laws that were still in effect at the time, Steeles that his father drove him to the school, unloaded his bags, shook hands, and left immediately on the return trip homedoubting that he could find a hotel that would allow a black to register.

College and Graduate Career

At Coe, Steele was one of 18 black students in his class. He was active in SCOPE, a group linked to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). When he was a junior, Steele met Rita, his future wife (and a clinical psychologist), at an activist meeting. They were soon engaged, an interracial couple whose match her parents approved only reluctantly. I cant say they were happy at first, he told the Boston Globe, but they came to accept it.

Steele graduated from C in 1968, and went on to graduate study at Southern Illinois University. While pursuing his masters degree in sociology, he taught college preparatory classes to poor students in East St. Louis, a teaching experience he claimed as one of his most memorable. He then went on to the University of Utah, where he taught black literature and studied for a Ph.D. But the social atmosphere in Salt Lake City was unsettling: a landlord refused to rent an apartment to Steele and his wife. They fought back: Took his butt to court, he said in the Boston Globe. Again, it was something I learned from my family. You never walk away. The laws are only good if you use them.

Steele earned a Ph.D. in English in 1974. The University offered him a tenured position, but he wanted out. The Steeles had had their first child, and their experiences in Salt Lake City had made them unwilling to raise a family there. He found a position at San Jose State University in California, where he became a professor of English literature.

Over the years, Steele began to hone his skill as a writer of essays, and gave voice to his social and political views, whose evolution he documents in Content.His work began to be published in scholarly and influential venues, such as Harpers, The American Scholar, and the New York Times.In 1990, shortly before Content was published, Steele wrote and reported a PBS Frontline episode called Seven Days in Bensonhurst. The program, praised by the New York Times as uncommonly sophisticated, examined the racially motivated killing of Yusef Hawkins, a 16-year-old black youth who was chased by to his death by white Brooklynites when he strayed into their neighborhood. Steele investigated not only Hawkinss death, but explored the reactions of both whites and blacks, in the media and in private. He also showed how politicians in both camps used the tragic occasion to score political points.

The impetus for The Content of Our Character, he says in its introduction, came when he heard a radio debate on the state of black America that aired on Martin Luther King Day in 1986. The program, which Steele called more a meeting of two postures than two people, crystallized for him the totalitarianism of racial politics: I was tired of my own public/private racial split, the absence of my own being from what I said to people about race. In writing the book, he said, it wasa joy to learn what I think.

Explored Guilt and Innocence

The book portrays whites and blacks as groups competing with each other for power and innocence, a term he defines in Con ten t as a feeling of essential goodness in relation to others and, therefore, superiority to others In this sense, innocence is power. With innocence (and its corollary, the moral high ground) at stake, both groupshave a hidden investment in racism and racial disharmony despite their good intentions to the contrary.

The civil rights movement, Steele posits, forced whites to confront their guilt in the oppression of blacks, leading to a loss of innocence. Although he believes this guilt is justified, given Americas historical treatment of its black citizens, whites search for a quick and easy redemption is a problem. Affirmative action is one area, Steele told Newsweek, where social redress has deteriorated into guilt palliation: [Affirmative action is] the use of social policy on race and poverty more to display virtue than to solve social problems This policy of compensatory deference was driven more by the needs of those who devised it than by those it was supposed to help. It did not train or educate the poor, or end the discrimination that minorities faced. It simply showed deference to them in compensation for their sufferinga maneuver that made deference synonymous with social virtue.

For their part, Steele says, many blacks use their past subjugation and oppression to claim innocence and pursue power. This embrace of victimization, which he calls the primary black problem in Content, is perpetuated by black leaders whose livelihood depends on a constantly victimized flock whose members are convinced that their individual efforts will avail nothing against the intrinsically racist society in which they live. This is an abdication of initiative, Steele claims, that has contributed to the depressing statistics on illegitimate births, poverty levels, dropout rates, and crime that define the lives of too many black Americans.

These social ills, Steele contends, also stem from the celebration of underclass standards and valuesadopted in the pursuit of black identitythat do nothing but perpetuate self-destructive behavior. [T]he higher someone moves in society, he pointed out in People magazine, the less black they become. This becomes so absurd that I frequently hear Colin Powells blackness questioned by other blacks. I never hear the blackness of the crack dealer in Harlem questioned.

Blacks who have made their way into the middle or upper class, he says, have done so by education, hard work, and a determination to succeed. [T]he first thing that most of them have done, he told Mother Jones magazine, is left situations where their children have to dodge bullets, where the schools are bad, where there are drug dealers on every corner, where there is no family life, where most families are single-parent, where everyone is on welfare.

Racism and Victimization

According to Steele racism, both de jure and de facto (legal and social), has dwindled to the point that it has lost its power, yet the memory of past injustice and oppression makes many blacks afraid to grasp the opportunities that await them. [T]he barriers to black progress in America today are clearly as much psychological as they are social or economic, he states in Content, emphasizing that it is up to blacks themselves to overcome them. He asserts that individual efforts, not group gains, hold the promise for black Americas future. [O]ur common good will be best served by the determined pursuit of our most personal aspirations.

Steele also calls for a return to an integrationist agenda, like that proposed by Martin Luther King, and for the abandonment of government-sponsored racial preferences, set-asides, and affirmative-action programs that rely on numerical quotas instead of merit. Despite their apparently benign intentions, he stated in Fortune magazine, when you move into preferences you get secondary effects that stigmatize the very population youre trying to help. The stigma, which melds almost perfectly with white racism, is that if youre in a job because of an affirmative action program, then you must be less competent than the rest of us. Preferential treatment is really shaking hands with the devil.

Rejected by the Left

His writings have made Steele a pariah among liberals, and particularly reviled by many blacks in academia. He was booed during a speech at Howard University. And when his work was honored with a Presidents Award by San Jose State University, the school at which he teaches, it was the white facultynot the blackthat gave him a standing ovation.

Steele has remained unmoved. This rejection, he believes, is based on a vision of blacks as helpless victims. What liberals say is if you dont see your people as victims, you are an Uncle Tom and selling out, he told the Boston Globe. Well, I think my people have been victimized but I dont think victimization is the sum total of our identity. Given the social and economic gaps between whites and blacks that have stubbornly persisted, and even widened, since the advent of Great Society and affirmative-action programs, he pointed out, we have declined in the face of freedom rather than advance.

Despite his critics assertions to the contrary, Steele recognizes the reality of racism, and has known the pain of bigotry since childhood. I dont say racism in America has ended, he told the Boston Globe. I was called a non Christmas Day night right here outside the 7-Eleven. But, he contends in Mother Jones magazine, the days when blacks lives were rigidly confined are over. I believe we are freer than we think, and that the white man is nowhere as omnipotent as he used to be. Can he hurt us? Of course. Can he stop us for long? No way. Will it be as easy for us to advance as it is for him? No. Can we advance anyway? Yes. Is this fair? Not at all. It this reality? Absolutely.

In the years since Contents publication Steele has continued to write, with essays and interviews appearing in such publications as Time, Fortune, Newsweek, and American Legion.He continues to explore themes of innocence, power, and the necessity of individual initiative. But most importantly, perhaps, he calls for integration, not separation, of all Americans. His words in a 1992 Harpers essay are a clear statement of his vision: Integration is quite simply the most democratic principle America has evolved Our mistake has been to think of integration only as a utopian vision of perfect racial harmony If we can understand integration as an absence of barriers that has the effect of integrating all citizens into the same sphere of rights, then it can serve as a principle of democratic conduct. Anything that pushes anybody of this sphere is undemocratic and must be checked, no matter the good intentions that seem to justify it.

Sources

The American Legion, June 1992, p. 20.

Boston Globe, November 22, 1990, p. A64; June 6, 1991, p. 77.

Business Week, October 1, 1990, p. 12.

Chicago Tribune, June 8,1988, sec. l,p. 17; September 16, 1990, sec. 14, p. 4.

Christian Century, April 3,1991, p. 373; February 1, 1995, p. 121.

Commentary, February, 1991, p. 58.

Commonweal, January 11, 1991, p. 23.

Mother Jones, May/June 1991, p. 11.

Nation, March 4, 1991, p. 274.

National Review, September 17, 1990, p. 52.

Newsweek, September 24, 1990, p. 86; November 6, 1995, p. 82.

New York Times, May 15, 1990, p. C18; May 30, 1990, p. A18.

New York Times Review of Books, September 16, 1990, sec. 7, p. 12.

People, vol. 36, no. 8, p. 79, 1991.

Time, August 13,1990, p. 45; August 21,1991, p. 6.

Amy Loerch Strumolo

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Steele, Shelby 1946–

Steele, Shelby 1946–

PERSONAL:

Born January 1, 1946, in Chicago, IL; son of Shelby, Sr. (a truck driver and activist) and Ruth (a social worker and activist) Steele; married; wife's name Rita; children: two. Ethnicity: "African American." Edu-cation: Coe College, Cedar Rapids, IA, B.A., 1968; Southern Illinois University, M.A., 1971; University of Utah, Ph.D., 1974.

ADDRESSES:

Office—Hoover Institution, Stanford University, Stanford, CA 94305-6010.

CAREER:

Educator and writer. Taught high school in East St. Louis, IL; San Jose State University, San Jose, CA, professor of English, beginning c. 1974; Hoover Institution, Stanford University, Stanford, CA, began as research fellow, Robert J. and Marion E. Oster Senior Fellow, 1994—. Narrator of Frontline episode for PBS entitled Seven Days in Bensonhurst; frequent guest on television programs, including Good Morning America, 60 Minutes, Nightline, and This Morning. Member of national board, Center for the New American Community at the Manhattan Institute, and American Academy for Liberal Education.

MEMBER:

National Association of Scholars, University Accreditation Association.

AWARDS, HONORS:

National Book Critics Circle Award for nonfiction, 1990, for The Content of Our Character: A New Vision of Race in America; Emmy Award, Writer's Guild Award for television documentary writing, and San Francisco Film Festival Award for television documentary writing, all 1991, all for Seven Days in Bensonhurst; National Humanities Medal, 2004; Bradley Prize, Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, 2006; San Jose State University President's Award.

WRITINGS:

The Content of Our Character: A New Vision of Race in America (essays), St. Martin's (New York, NY), 1990.

Seven Days in Bensonhurst (episode of Frontline television news series), PBS, 1990.

A Dream Deferred: The Second Betrayal of Black Freedom in America, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 1998.

White Guilt: How Blacks and Whites Together Destroyed the Promise of the Civil Rights Era, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 2006.

A Bound Man: Why We Are Excited about Obama and Why He Can't Win, Free Press (New York, NY), 2008.

Contributor of essays and articles to periodicals, including Harper's, Commentary, Fortune, Mother Jones, National Review, Newsweek, American Scholar, Wall Street Journal, and New York Times. Contributing editor, Harper's magazine.

ADAPTATIONS:

A Bound Man: Why We Are Excited about Obama and Why He Can't Win, has been adapted for audio, Tantor Audio, 2007.

SIDELIGHTS:

Shelby Steele first came to public attention in the late 1980s for his controversial articles on race relations, published in periodicals such as Harper's and American Scholar. He collected and expanded some of these essays for his 1990 book, The Content of Our Character: A New Vision of Race in America, which garnered him the National Book Critics Circle Award for nonfiction. Steele has also explained his views on race on numerous television talk shows, and created and narrated a documentary for the Public Broadcasting System's Frontline series on the killing of a young black man in the Bensonhurst neighborhood of New York and the media exploitation that followed. Because of his unusual approach to the problems of blacks in the United States—he places emphasis on individual achievement and rejects social remedies such as affirmative action—he has been both praised and criticized by black and white critics alike. "As a black analyst of America's racial scene," declared Clarence Page in Tribune Books, "Shelby Steele seems somewhat anomalous. He is neither preacher nor politician nor sociologist. He is a middle-aged professor of English who has an appropriately fine gift for powerful prose and an uncommonly sharp bulljive detector tuned in to the empty rhetoric that often passes for sound racial discourse these days."

Steele was born in 1946 in Chicago to interracial, activist parents. They were founding members of the civil rights organization Congress of Racial Equality, or CORE. Steele grew up in Phoenix, a suburb of Chicago, in an atmosphere that promoted both social activism and individual education. He tells E.J. Dionne, Jr., in the Washington Post: "I grew up in that ethos of CORE—high principled Gandhian activism." Like many other black children of the time, he attended a segregated school. As a student at Coe College in Iowa, Steele became active in the civil rights movement. He admired both Martin Luther King, Jr., and the more confrontational black leader Malcolm X, and he served as head of the black student organization there. Upon graduating, he took a job teaching African American literature in a ghetto school in East St. Louis, Illinois. Though he admits to Dionne that "it's the best teaching experience I've had, in the worst ghetto I've ever been in," he decided to go on with his academic career. With a master's degree obtained from night school at Southern Illinois University while teaching in East St. Louis, he went on to get a Ph.D. in English from the University of Utah.

After many years of teaching at San Jose State University and writing on black authors such as Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison, Steele's essays on the subject of race began to appear in well-known periodicals. According to Peter Applebome in the New York Times, Steele "began writing on race after he was annoyed by a 1986 radio broadcast on the holiday for the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in which a black leader was espousing what Mr. Steele considered the clichés of the civil rights movement." These collected and expanded essays form the core of his 1990 book, The Content of Our Character. The title is taken from a speech by King in which he said he dreamed of a day when his children would be judged not by their skin color, but by their character. In the book, Steele contends that most important civil rights battles have already been won, and that there is less racism and more opportunities for black achievement now than there were in the 1960s. He urges his fellow blacks to let go of what he sees as their psychology of victimization; he thinks that because black people believe (and are continually told by present-day civil rights leaders) that they are automatically oppressed, they are afraid to try to better themselves. Steele argues that blacks, unlike other U.S. ethnic groups, come from a "culture of oppression," and that "oppression conditions people away from all the values and attitudes one needs in freedom—individual initiative, self-interested hard work, individual responsibility, delayed gratification, and so on. In oppression these things don't pay off and are therefore negatively reinforced. It is not that these values have never had a presence in black life, only that they were muted and destabilized by the negative conditioning of oppression."

Some reviewers, such as Adolph Reed, Jr., in the Nation, have lambasted Steele's ideas, complaining that he echoes black and white neoconservatives, blames victims for their own bad situations, and uses too many examples from his own personal life rather than accumulating case studies in a more scientific manner. But others, even those who disagree with Steele on several points, laud his courage in breaking with what most black civil rights leaders project. Steele "cannot be dismissed out of hand as there appears to be much substance to what he is saying," noted R.L. McNeely in Human Relations. Steele "seems earnestly engaged in a search for truth, regardless of where that search may lead. Because of this, and because his remarks should serve as a call to arms on the part of those not active in their own interests, we must embrace Steele, regardless of whether we agree with him," McNeely wrote. "For all the flaws in Steele's thesis," declared Juan Williams in the New Republic, "he has addressed the real problems, and offered a new approach in thinking about them." Black author Charles Johnson, critiquing the collection of essays in the Los Angeles Times Book Review, went even further in his championing of Steele: "The Content of Our Character is, clearly, a book that will infuriate anyone who disagrees with Steele's premise that ‘the American black, supported by a massive body of laws and the not inconsiderable goodwill of his fellow citizens, is basically as free as he or she wants to be.’ But I am convinced that we cannot afford to ignore his conclusions, that we must, in other words, take with us into the 1990s his statement (one that echoes back in black thought to the end of the Civil War): ‘What we must know … is that nothing on this Earth can be promised but a chance. The promised land guarantees nothing. It is only an opportunity, not a deliverance.’" Steele himself responds for Applebome to the charges of making his book too personal: "I know I don't have all the answers, but I try to write what I know. Some people say I shine a harsh light on difficult problems. But I never shine a light on anything I haven't experienced or write about fears I don't see in myself first. I'm my own first target. I spill my own blood first." He also objects when critics see him as being too similar to black conservatives such as Thomas Sowell and Walter Williams. "We're all very different," he told Dionne. "Our politics are different. But we're against that [present civil rights] orthodoxy. So we're cast out of the church and lumped together."

In the same year that The Content of Our Character was published, Steele hosted a PBS documentary for the Frontline series that he wrote himself. "Seven Days in Bensonhurst" is about a black man who was attacked and killed by four white teenagers when he entered their Bensonhurst neighborhood to look at a used car that was for sale. The documentary, however, goes beyond the murder itself to examine the behavior of civil rights leaders and both black and white politicians in its context. People contributor David Hiltbrand noted that Steele's program is "both cogent and timely."

In A Dream Deferred: The Second Betrayal of Black Freedom in America, Steele writes further on the topics he examined in The Content of Our Character, except that in this volume he is "older, angrier, and understandably less patient with those who refuse to weigh his case on its merits," observed Peter Berkowitz in Commentary. Much of Steele's attention in this volume is dedicated to the "sensibility according to which racial preferences are the indispensable means to achieving equality for blacks," Berkowitz noted, and to dismantling the notions surrounding this contentious concept. This type of "redemptive liberalism" stands in contrast to more "classical liberalism," which was informed by concepts such as self-reliance, seizing of opportunity, taking of responsibility, and being rewarded and advanced according to merit, Steele asserts. For Steele, Berkowitz commented, "individual freedom and personal responsibility are non-negotiable, and represent two sides of the same coin. These principles, he maintains, are the necessary foundation not only for American self-government but also for the dream of racial integration, to which he remains rock-solid in his devotion." He is sharply critical of those he calls part of the "grievance elite," a group of black scholars, politicians, activists, and writers whose attitudes he sees as continuing to foster an environment of black helpless and victimization, and whose manipulations of the associated emotional and social elements help them retain their own power within government, the media, and the African American community. He is equally critical of white liberals, however, and those who seek to quell a sense of racial shame by offering ineffective solutions and weak social reforms that do not address long-term issues or, in the main, help African Americans solve their most pressing problems. "With searing eloquence and an inspiring display of the freedom of mind that he wishes to encourage in others, Shelby Steele reminds us of the demanding principles by which Americans of every race can yet live together with pride and mutual respect," Berkowitz stated.

In his 2006 volume, White Guilt: How Blacks and Whites Together Destroyed the Promise of the Civil Rights Era, Steele delves deeper into his ideas concerning the programs, policies, and social structures put into place, mostly by white liberals, to assist blacks economically and educationally. In Steele's view, these programs, particularly Affirmative Action, fail to provide the means for African Americans to truly take responsibility for their lives and become self-sufficient outside of any consideration of race. Instead, these programs serve to do little more than assuage long-term white guilt over slavery and civil rights abuses by creating policies that, on their surface, seem to be helping blacks, but which at their foundation only perpetuate the victim mentality and the notion that blacks must be helped by someone else—specifically, by whites. In a more insidious fashion, Steele observes, these programs help whites retain significant power over blacks, and ensures that those of all races who continue to espouse black victimization and similar disempowering rhetoric will retain a measure of power and ability to manipulate the racial divide to their own ends. "Whoever is able to establish moral authority vis-a-vis some ‘outrage’ grasps the power to lead and to do what they will," observed Alvin Kernan in Public Interest.

The functional core of white guilt, according to Steele, is "a form of self-congratulation, whereby whites devise ‘compassionate’ policies, the real purpose of which is to show that whites are kind and innocent of racism," George F. Will noted in Newsweek. Steele is unimpressed by these policies and programs, and is intensely critical of some. For example, he calls Affirmative Action "the second betrayal of black freedom in America," after slavery, noted Kernan. "In accepting the responsibility, Steele argues, for what it has done to blacks in the past, affirmative action turns those blacks into ‘victims,’ an inferior race that is not responsible for either its own past sufferings or its present problems. It is white society that is responsible, white society that makes things go, not the black individual," Kernan remarked.

"The unbearable boredom occasioned by most of today's talk about race is alleviated by [this] slender, stunning new book," commented Will in Newsweek. "Steele's analysis of affirmative action cuts deep and, I think, to the center. He cannot prove his case with statistics, does not even try, but he catches perfectly and explains persuasively the hypocrisy and self-serving qualities that seem always to hover around liberal social programs," Kernan stated. In concluding his review of the book, Will noted that White Guilt is a volume that will stand for years as a "clarifying lens through which to view the lonely struggle of clear sighted black intellectuals to rescue blacks from a degrading temptation" to "profit from the condescension toward blacks" that continues to propel misguided programs and white guilt today.

In his 2008 book, A Bound Man: Why We Are Excited about Obama and Why He Can't Win, Steele takes a look at the first black man to make a serious bid to become president of the United States. Examining Obama's life in relation to his 2008 candidacy, Steele describes the candidate, whose mother is white and father is black, as being caught between the races and the two classic postures that blacks have used to establish themselves in a society controlled by whites, namely bargaining and challenging. According to Steele, bargainers agree not to focus on past misdeeds to blacks done by whites, such as slavery, while the challengers do just the opposite to get ahead, challenging whites to prove themselves innocent by use of such policies as affirmative action. According to Steele, Obama cannot find his own political voice because he is constrained by the overwhelming pervasiveness of these two postures. In his book, Steele not only outlines the constraints of the bargaining and challenging postures but also discusses approaches that Obama can use to break their bonds and find his own voice if he has any chance to win the election. Stephen K. Shaw, writing in the Library Journal, commented that A Bound Man "is essential reading for anyone wishing to try to make more sense of contemporary American presidential politics and social policy." A Publishers Weekly contributor wrote that "the book is full of fresh insights into the cultural politics of race."

BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:

BOOKS

Steele, Shelby, The Content of Our Character: A New Vision of Race in America, St. Martin's (New York, NY), 1990.

PERIODICALS

Booklist, December 15, 2007, Vernon Ford, review of A Bound Man: Why We Are Excited about Obama and Why He Can't Win, p. 7.

Chronicle of Philanthropy, May 18, 2006, "Political Thought," p. 34.

Commentary, February, 1999, Peter Berkowitz, review of A Dream Deferred: The Second Betrayal of Black Freedom in America, p. 66.

Human Relations, April, 1996, R.L. McNeely, review of The Content of Our Character: A New Vision of Race in America, p. 489.

Library Journal, April 15, 2006, Thomas J. Davis, review of White Guilt: How Blacks and Whites Together Destroyed the Promise of the Civil Rights Era, p. 93; February 1, 2008, Stephen K. Shaw, review of A Bound Man, p. 86.

Los Angeles Times Book Review, September 30, 1990, Charles Johnson, "A Challenge for Black Americans," review of The Content of Our Character, p. 1.

Nation, March 4, 1991, Adolph Reed, Jr., review of The Content of Our Character, p. 274.

National Review, September 17, 1990, Brad Miner, review of The Content of Our Character, p. 52.

New Republic, December 10, 1990, Juan Williams, review of The Content of Our Character, p. 33.

Newsweek, June 5, 2006, George F. Will, "White Guilt, Deciphered," review of White Guilt, p. 68.

New York Review of Books, March 6, 2008, Darryl Pinckney, "Dreams from Obama" review of A Bound Man.

New York Times, May 30, 1990, Peter Applebome, "A Professor at the Heart of Anguish on Breaking the Shackles of Racism," p. A18.

New York Times Book Review, September 16, 1990, Patricia J. Williams, review of The Content of Our Character, p. 12.

People, May 14, 1990, David Hiltbrand, review of Seven Days in Bensonhurst, p. 13.

Public Interest, spring, 1999, Alvin Kernan, review of A Dream Deferred, p. 118.

Publishers Weekly, October 8, 2007, review of A Bound Man, p. 45.

Tribune Books (Chicago, IL), September 16, 1990, Clarence Page, review of The Content of Our Character, p. 4.

Washington Post, October 10, 1990, E.J. Dionne, Jr., "Red-hot Ideas on Black and White: Fueling the Debate on Race and Responsibility," profile of Shelby Steele, p. 1.

ONLINE

Hoover Institution Web site,http://www.hoover.org/ (July 6, 2008), faculty profile of author.

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Steele, Shelby 1946–

Steele, Shelby 1946–

PERSONAL: Born January 1, 1946, in Chicago, IL; son of Shelby Sr. (a truck driver and activist) and Ruth (a social worker and activist) Steele; married; wife's name Rita; children: two. Ethnicity: "African American." Education: Coe College, Cedar Rapids, IA, B.A., 1968; Southern Illinois University, M.A., 1971; University of Utah, Ph.D., 1974.

ADDRESSES: Office—Hoover Institution, Stanford University, Stanford, CA 94305-6010.

CAREER: Taught high school in East St. Louis, IL; San Jose State University, San Jose, CA, professor of English, beginning c. 1974; Hoover Institution, Stanford University, Stanford, CA, research fellow, 1994–. Narrator of Frontline episode for PBS entitled Seven Days in Bensonhurst; frequent guest on television programs, including Good Morning America, 60 Minutes, Night-line, and This Morning. Member of national board, Center for the New American Community at the Manhattan Institute, and American Academy for Liberal Education.

MEMBER: National Association of Scholars, University Accreditation Association.

AWARDS, HONORS: National Book Critics Circle Award for nonfiction, 1990, for The Content of Our Character: A New Vision of Race in America; Emmy Award, Writer's Guild Award for television documentary writing, and San Francisco Film Festival Award for television documentary writing, all 1991, all for Seven Days in Bensonhurst; National Humanities Medal, 2004; Bradley Prize, Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, 2006; San Jose State University President's Award.

WRITINGS:

The Content of Our Character: A New Vision of Race in America (essays), St. Martin's (New York, NY), 1990.

"Seven Days in Bensonhurst," Frontline (television news series), PBS, 1990.

A Dream Deferred: The Second Betrayal of Black Freedom in America, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 1998.

White Guilt: How Blacks and Whites Together Destroyed the Promise of the Civil Rights Era, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 2006.

Contributor of essays and articles to periodicals, including Harper's, Commentary, Fortune, Mother Jones, National Review, Newsweek, American Scholar, Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. Contributing editor, Harper's Magazine.

SIDELIGHTS: Shelby Steele first came to public attention in the late 1980s for his controversial articles on race relations, published in periodicals such as Harper's and American Scholar. He collected and expanded some of these essays for his 1990 book, The Content of Our Character: A New Vision of Race in America, which garnered him the National Book Critics Circle Award for nonfiction. Steele has also explained his views on race on numerous television talk shows, and created and narrated a documentary for the Public Broadcasting System's Frontline series on the killing of a young black man in the Bensonhurst neighborhood of New York and the media exploitation that followed. Because of his unusual approach to the problems of blacks in the United States—he places emphasis on individual achievement and rejects social remedies such as affirmative action—he has been both praised and criticized by black and white critics alike. "As a black analyst of America's racial scene," declared Clarence Page in the Chicago Tribune Books, "Shelby Steele seems somewhat anomalous. He is neither preacher nor politician nor sociologist. He is a middle-aged professor of English who has an appropriately fine gift for powerful prose and an uncommonly sharp bulljive detector tuned in to the empty rhetoric that often passes for sound racial discourse these days."

Steele was born in 1946 in Chicago to interracial, activist parents. They were founding members of the civil rights organization Congress of Racial Equality, or CORE. Steele grew up in Phoenix, a suburb of Chicago, in an atmosphere that promoted both social activism and individual education. He told E.J. Dionne, Jr., in the Washington Post: "I grew up in that ethos of CORE—high principled Gandhian activism." Like many other black children of the time, he attended a segregated school. As a student at Coe College in Iowa, Steele became active in the civil rights movement. He admired both Martin Luther King, Jr., and the more confrontational black leader Malcolm X, and he served as head of the black student organization there. Upon graduating, he took a job teaching Afro-American literature in a ghetto school in East St. Louis, Illinois. Though he admitted to Dionne that "it's the best teaching experience I've had, in the worst ghetto I've ever been in," he decided to go on with his academic career. With a master's degree obtained from night school at Southern Illinois University while teaching in East St. Louis, he went on to get a Ph.D. in English from the University of Utah.

After many years of teaching at San Jose State University and writing on black authors such as Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison, Steele's essays on the subject of race began to appear in well-known periodicals. According to Peter Applebome in the New York Times, Steele "began writing on race after he was annoyed by a 1986 radio broadcast on the holiday for the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in which a black leader was espousing what Mr. Steele considered the clichés of the civil rights movement." These collected and expanded essays form the core of his 1990 book, The Content of Our Character. The title is taken from a speech by King in which he said he dreamed of a day when his children would be judged not by their skin color, but by their character. In the book, Steele contends that most important civil rights battles have already been won, and that there is less racism and more opportunities for black achievement now than there were in the 1960s. He urges his fellow blacks to let go of what he sees as their psychology of victimization—because he thinks that black people believe (and are continually told by present-day civil rights leaders) that they are automatically oppressed, they are afraid to try to better themselves. Steele argues that blacks, unlike other U.S. ethnic groups, come from a "culture of oppression," and that "oppression conditions people away from all the values and attitudes one needs in freedom—individual initiative, self-interested hard work, individual responsibility, delayed gratification, and so on. In oppression these things don't pay off and are therefore negatively reinforced. It is not that these values have never had a presence in black life, only that they were muted and destabilized by the negative conditioning of oppression."

Some reviewers, such as Adolph Reed, Jr., in the Nation, have lambasted Steele's ideas, complaining that he echoes black and white neoconservatives, blames victims for their own bad situations, and uses too many examples from his own personal life rather than accumulating case studies in a more scientific manner. But others, even those who disagree with Steele on several points, laud his courage in breaking with what most black civil rights leaders project. Steele "cannot be dismissed out of hand as there appears to be much substance to what he is saying," noted R.L. McNeely in Human Relations. Steele "seems earnestly engaged in a search for truth, regardless of where that search may lead. Because of this, and because his remarks should serve as a call to arms on the part of those not active in their own interests, we must embrace Steele, regardless of whether we agree with him," McNeely concluded. "For all the flaws in Steele's thesis," declared Juan Williams in the New Republic, "he has addressed the real problems, and offered a new approach in thinking about them." Black author Charles Johnson, critiquing the collection of essays in the Los Angeles Times Book Review, went even further in his championing of Steele: "The Content of Our Character is, clearly, a book that will infuriate anyone who disagrees with Steele's premise that 'the American black, supported by a massive body of laws and the not inconsiderable goodwill of his fellow citizens, is basically as free as he or she wants to be.' But I am convinced that we cannot afford to ignore his conclusions, that we must, in other words, take with us into the 1990s his statement (one that echoes back in black thought to the end of the Civil War): 'What we must know … is that nothing on this Earth can be promised but a chance. The promised land guarantees nothing. It is only an opportunity, not a deliverance.'" Steele himself responded for Applebome to the charges of making his book too personal: "I know I don't have all the answers, but I try to write what I know. Some people say I shine a harsh light on difficult problems. But I never shine a light on anything I haven't experienced or write about fears I don't see in myself first. I'm my own first target. I spill my own blood first." He also objects when critics see him as being too similar to black conservatives such as Thomas Sowell and Walter Williams. "We're all very different," he told Dionne. "Our politics are different. But we're against that [present civil rights] orthodoxy. So we're cast out of the church and lumped together."

In the same year that The Content of Our Character was published, Steele hosted a PBS documentary for the Frontline series that he wrote himself. "Seven Days in Bensonhurst" is about a black man who was attacked and killed by four white teenagers when he entered their Bensonhurst neighborhood to look at a used car that was for sale. The documentary, however, goes beyond the murder itself to examine the behavior of civil rights leaders and both black and white politicians in its context. People reviewer David Hiltbrand noted that Steele's program is "both cogent and timely."

In A Dream Deferred: The Second Betrayal of Black Freedom in America, Steele writes further on the topics he examined in The Content of Our Character, except that in this volume he is "older, angrier, and understandably less patient with those who refuse to weigh his case on its merits," observed Peter Berkowitz in Commentary. Much of Steele's attention in this volume is dedicated to the "sensibility according to which racial preferences are the indispensable means to achieving equality for blacks," Berkowitz noted, and to dismantling the notions surrounding this contentious concept. This type of "redemptive liberalism" stands in contrast to more "classical liberalism," which was informed by concepts such as self-reliance, seizing of opportunity, taking of responsibility, and being rewarded and advanced according to merit, Steele asserts. For Steele, Berkowitz commented, "individual freedom and personal responsibility are non-negotiable, and represent two sides of the same coin. These principles, he maintains, are the necessary foundation not only for American self-government but also for the dream of racial integration, to which he remains rock-solid in his devotion." He is sharply critical of those he calls part of the "grievance elite," a group of black scholars, politicians, activists, and writers whose attitudes he sees as continuing to foster an environment of black helpless and victimization, and whose manipulations of the associated emotional and social elements help them retain their own power within government, the media, and the African American community. He is equally critical of white liberals, however, and those who seek to quell a sense of racial shame by offering ineffective solutions and weak social reforms that do not address long-term issues or, in the main, help African Americans solve their most pressing problems. "With searing eloquence and an inspiring display of the freedom of mind that he wishes to encourage in others, Shelby Steele reminds us of the demanding principles by which Americans of every race can yet live together with pride and mutual respect," Berkowitz stated.

In his 2006 volume, White Guilt: How Blacks and Whites Together Destroyed the Promise of the Civil Rights Era, Steele delves deeper into his ideas concerning the programs, policies, and social structures put into place, mostly by white liberals, to assist blacks in economic, educational, and other situations. In Steele's view, these programs, particularly Affirmative Action, fail to provide the means for African Americans to truly take responsibility for their lives and become self-sufficient outside of any consideration of race. Instead, these programs serve to do little more than assuage long-term white guilt over slave and civil rights abuses by creating policies that, on their surface, seem to be helping blacks, but which at their foundation only perpetuate the victim mentality and the notion that blacks must be helped by someone else—specifically, by whites. In a more insidious fashion, Steele observes, these programs help whites retain significant power over blacks, and ensures that those of all races who continue to espouse black victimization and similar disempowering rhetoric will retain a measure of power and ability to manipulate the racial divide to their own ends. "Whoever is able to establish moral authority vis-a-vis some 'outrage' grasps the power to lead and to do what they will," observed Alvin Kernan in Public Interest.

The functional core of white guilt, according to Steele, is "a form of self-congratulation, whereby whites devise 'compassionate' policies, the real purpose of which is to show that whites are kind and innocent of racism," Will noted. Steele is unimpressed by these policies and programs, and is intensely critical of some. For example, he calls Affirmative Action "the second betrayal of black freedom in America," after slavery, noted Kernan. "In accepting the responsibility, Steele argues, for what it has done to blacks in the past, affirmative action turns those blacks into 'victims,' an inferior race that is not responsible for either its own past sufferings or its present problems. It is white society that is responsible, white society that makes things go, not the black individual," Kernan remarked.

"The unbearable boredom occasioned by most of today's talk about race is alleviated by [this] slender, stunning new book," commented George F. Will in Newsweek. "Steele's analysis of affirmative action cuts deep and, I think, to the center. He cannot prove his case with statistics, does not even try, but he catches perfectly and explains persuasively the hypocrisy and self-serving qualities that seem always to hover around liberal social programs," Kernan stated. In concluding his review of the book, Will noted that White Guilt is a volume that will stand for years as a "clarifying lens through which to view the lonely struggle of clear sighted black intellectuals to rescue blacks from a degrading temptation" to "profit from the condescension toward blacks" that continues to propel misguided programs and white guilt today.

BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:

PERIODICALS

Chronicle of Philanthropy, May 19, 2006, "Political Thought," p. 34.

Commentary, February, 1999, Peter Berkowitz, review of A Dream Deferred: The Second Betrayal of Black Freedom in America, p. 66.

Human Relations, April, 1996, R.L. McNeely, review of The Content of Our Character: A New Vision of Race in America, p. 489.

Library Journal, April 15, 2006, Thomas J. Davis, review of White Guilt: How Blacks and Whites Together Destroyed the Promise of the Civil Rights Era, p. 93.

Los Angeles Times Book Review, September 30, 1990, Charles Johnson, "A Challenge for Black Americans," review of The Content of OurCharacter, p. 1.

Nation, March 4, 1991, Adolph Reed, Jr., review of The Content of Our Character, p. 274.

National Review, September 17, 1990, Brad Miner, review of The Content of Our Character, p. 52.

New Republic, December 10, 1990, Juan Williams, review of The Content of Our Character, p. 33.

Newsweek, June 5, 2006, George F. Will, "White Guilt, Deciphered," review of White Guilt, p. 68.

New York Times, May 30, 1990, Peter Applebome, "A Professor at the Heart of Anguish on Breaking the Shackles of Racism," p. A18.

New York Times Book Review, September 16, 1990, Patricia J. Williams, review of The Content of Our Character, p. 12.

People, May 14, 1990, David Hiltbrand, review of "Seven Days in Bensonhurst," p. 13.

Public Interest, spring, 1999, Alvin Kernan, review of A Dream Deferred, p. 118.

Tribune Books (Chicago, IL), September 16, 1990, Clarence Page, review of The Content of Our Character, p. 4.

Washington Post, October 10, 1990, E.J. Dionne, Jr., "Red-Hot Ideas on Black and White: Fueling the Debate on Race and Responsibility," profile of Shelby Steele, p. 1.

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"Steele, Shelby 1946–." Contemporary Authors, New Revision Series. . Retrieved September 10, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/arts/educational-magazines/steele-shelby-1946

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