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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


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.


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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