SAN JOSE — It is a measure of Shelby Steele's ability to engage and agitate that the mention of his name raises blood pressures and decibel levels during many a conversation in black America.
The author of the best-selling book "The Content of Our Character: A New Vision of Race in America" is hailed by admirers as a breath of fresh air in a national racial discussion grown stale. To many others--those he labels the "civil-rights orthodoxy"--he is just another in a long line of white-anointed black mouthpieces. In his pointed attacks on affirmative action, he casually interchanges that term with the loaded "quota," without a blink. This, during a time when "quotas" are becoming a hot-button issue for the national GOP to sway white Democrats. Put all those explosive elements together--topic, timing and messenger--and it's no wonder that the political spotlight is on the no-longer-obscure English professor from San Jose State University.
At 45, Steele, the son of a truck driver and a social worker, has come a long way from the black, working-class, Chicago-area community of Phoenix, Ill. He went on to Coe College in Iowa, to teaching high school in the slums of East St. Louis, to eventually settling at San Jose State, where he has been since 1974. The married father of two admits to a "moderate strain of yuppie hedonism."
Steele says he does not particularly enjoy the spotlight. If not, he has at least primed himself for it. He is everywhere--quoted in news stories, cited by national columnists, guest-speaking on college campuses. He can relax and talk colorfully with a few expletives deleted, and then look away a moment later, appropriately pensive for a photographer. Steele knows his moment is now and he will not be ignored. The book is the work of a lifetime, he says defiantly, and people "are not going to get away from it." Or him.
Question: \o7 You've said, "Whites must guarantee a free and fair society but blacks must be responsible for actualizing their own lives." The controversy seems to arise over the emphasis you give to black responsibility and relatively minor attention to white responsibility.\f7
Answer: . . . . I think black Americans have made, collectively, one of the greatest contributions to American life that could possibly be made through the civil-rights movement. . . . . On the other hand, I think we have over-relied on collective action to take us further. . . . We do have more opportunities to advance, educationally and economically, than we did before. . . . It's now time . . . (for) stronger emphasis on individual responsibility and individual initiative . . . . That's where our future lies.
Q: \o7 President Bush vetoed the Civil Rights Act of 1990 on the rationale that the bill encourages quotas--in spite of explicit language that said it did not. What's your thought about this?\f7
A: . . . . I just don't know, having not read the bill. . . . Let me say a couple of things. The 1964 Civil Rights Bill . . . too, was passed on the guarantee that it would not involve quotas and very quickly thereafter--five or six years thereafter--quotas came into being by executive orders and so forth.
Q: \o7 Quotas?\f7
A: Preferences, quotas, preferential treatment. . . .
Q: \o7 Aren't quotas and goals different?\f7
A: Well, you know, semantically.
Q: \o7 When I say quotas, I mean: We will hire 200 blacks this year. Do you know of any company in the United States that--\f7
A: --I know of companies that say our goal is to hire this . . . number of minorities.
Q: \o7 But that's quite a bit different from actually hiring them, isn't it?\f7
A: In either case, it seems to me a semantic quibble because . . . you're saying that you're in pursuit of a certain number of people of a certain color . . . .
Q: \o7 You came to San Jose State in 1974, when the school was under great pressure for affirmative action. How do you answer those who say you've catapulted to national prominence attacking the very thing that helped you?\f7
A: . . . . I don't know that I was helped by affirmative action. . . . You'd have to ask the university whether or not that played a role in whether I got the job. . . . If it did, I regret that.
Q: \o7 You're already in place. Isn't it easy to regret now?\f7
A: No. One of the things . . . that gives me deepest satisfaction is that there's no affirmative action in the publishing business. . . . So I know that achievement was based on my merit, my skill of my effort and hard work. If I got the job at San Jose State . . . as a result of affirmative action, it diminishes some of the esteem I would take. I would feel a little tainted as a result of that and be resentful about that because they're robbing me of my personal power--which is the most precious thing to me.