The summer before Shelby Steele left for Coe College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, in 1964--the same year the Civil Rights Act was passed--he heard Martin Luther King speak in Chicago. "When you are behind in a footrace," he recalls King saying, "the only way to get ahead is to run faster than the man in front of you. So when your white roommate says he's tired and goes to sleep, you stay up and burn the midnight oil."
Despite the rise of the Black Power movement in the late 1960s, Steele, now an English professor at San Jose University, has held onto the American middle-class ideals of integration and high individual performance. He has expressed this old-fashioned, often maligned vision of America as a rich field of possibilities for all its citizens on ABC-TV's "Nightline," recently on a PBS "Frontline" documentary on Bensonhurst, and now offers it in nine essays in "The Content of Our Character," a brutally honest, remarkably brave and timely book on the psychology of race relations in the post-civil rights era.
Steele puts a provocative spin on our present racial troubles by proposing that integration has itself been a shock to the black psyche, a release from legal bondage that forced African-Americans, "who belong, quite simply, to the most despised race in the human community of races," into the position of put up or shut up--or, in the case of Black Power advocates, to withdraw entirely from competition with whites through a separatism that avoids freedom's most "brutal proposition: If you're not inferior, prove it" through deeds.
Confronted with this challenge, says Steele, blacks fail because "They (use) their race to evade individual responsibility. Their margin of choices scares them, as it does all people."
"I believe we carry an inferiority anxiety that makes the seizing of opportunity more risky for us," he writes, "since setbacks and failures may seem to confirm inferiority. To avoid this risk, we hold to a victim-focused identity that tells us there is less opportunity than there really is.
"Our culture was formed in oppression rather than in freedom . . . . In oppression we were punished for having initiative and thereby conditioned away from it. Also, our victimization itself has been our primary source of power in society . . . and the paradoxical result of relying on their power is that it rewards us for continuing to see ourselves as victims in a racist society."
But if blacks are haunted--even paralyzed--by the myth of inferiority, says Steele, whites are so thoroughly crippled by guilt over an oppression they've benefitted from that they have rushed to programs that give blacks preferential treatment--he is especially critical of affirmative action--and thus even greater dependency on white largess, as a way of atonement and salvaging their sense of innocence.
Does any of this sound like Ronald Reagan, William Bennett, Allan Bloom, Roger Kimball, Thomas Sowell or other "neoconservative" voices? It should, because Steele says, "I believe there was much that Reagan had to offer blacks. His emphasis on traditional American values--individual initiative, self-sufficiency, strong families--offered what I think is the most enduring solution to the demoralization and poverty that continue to widen the gap between blacks and whites in America."
Yet we must also admit that his position is identical to that of Roy Wilkins, Clarence Mitchell Jr. and those tireless workers of the NAACP who for half a century believed, like Steele, that "what is needed now is a new spirit of pragmatism in racial matters where blacks are seen simply as American citizens who deserve complete fairness and in some cases developmental assistance, but in no case special entitlements based on color."
Throughout these essays, which originally appeared in Harper's, Commentary and The American Scholar, Steele asks us to examine recent events in our racial history in light of the original spirit of the civil rights movement. He brings clarity to our discussion on why racism has erupted on American campuses, why many Asians have succeeded in the mainstream while some blacks have made slower progress, why the name African-American may not be the best for people of color, and why non-acceptance of the black nationalist "party-line" can lead, for some blacks, to their virtually expulsion from the black community in today's climate, where "taking responsibility for bettering ourselves feels like a surrender to white power."