Shelby Steele is a Black college English professor. His book, The Content of Our Character, published sixteen-years ago, was highly praised, especially by conservatives. No matter that these days, liberal, progressive, and conservative views often meld, Blacks continue to lose political and economic ground. For neo-conservatives, the book was a primer on how to deny the significance of race Revisiting it affords a “back to the future” opportunity to assess Steele’s contentions.
The Los Angeles Times: “The Content of Our Character was the perfect voice of reason in a sea of hate.” The Chicago Tribune: “Steele describes our (Whites) racial fatigue over the ritual dance of accusations and denials very well...his skill compares with that of James Baldwin, Richard Wright or Frederick Douglass.” Is this over the top, or what?
Accolades notwithstanding, Shelby Steele’s conclusions are variations of the “blame the victim” approach to race relations, a long-time conservative ploy. The book’s simplistic account of the civil rights movement maintains that “modified Black power assertiveness is not as ameliorative as the integrationists’ tone of the civil rights era”. Does this mean that amelioration is Blacks’ only path to salvation? Actually, ameliorative efforts should follow, not precede basic issues/tasks such as sustained self-help, political and economic self-sufficiency, etc.
Apparently, Steele does not realize Blacks must first deal with their negatively conditioned past before successfully relating to others. He denies the significant impact of racism in perpetuating this problem, assigning equal responsibility to Blacks and Whites for solving racial problems, further convoluting his proposed remedies.
According to Steele, the U.S. changed significantly as a result of the civil rights movement and racism is no longer a major barrier for Blacks. Like other conservatives on this topic, he believes race relations solutions result primarily from individual initiative. Steele repeatedly downplays institutional barriers to racial justice and does not acknowledge that change is primarily a function of dogged challenges to systemic inequities.
Steele’s propositions (frequently stated as facts) such as, “Opportunity now exists for Blacks to be whatever discipline, hard work and personal courage will allow,” simply do not wash. He arbitrarily ascribes certain negative characteristics and motives to Blacks. Among these is the “fact” that Blacks use “pride of victimization” to evade responsibility and personal development.
Thus, by exaggerating and distorting known phenomena (Black victimization), Steele demeans past and present efforts by Blacks to improve their condition. Such negative skewing is reprehensible but regularly employed by those who would keep Blacks subservient.
Steele’s concept of “personal development,” crucial to both his analyses and proposed solutions, is never defined. But for him, personal development is the only true antidote for the much-despised “entitlement.” Steele and his cohorts believe entitlement was the Achilles Heel of affirmative action—for them it means accepting something for nothing. He portrays Blacks as (consciously) choosing to maintain their present condition. Accordingly, easy entitlement of victimization absolves them of responsibility for changing their behavior.
This is an especially facile and demeaning proposition. What better way to perpetuate the myth of Black inferiority than to assert that they willingly cling to their status as victims because they lack personal courage to improve their own condition?
Content of Our Character assigns Whites less responsibility than Blacks for personal development. Whites maintain power with impunity, even as they fail to deal with their “innocence” by refusing to earn that power. For them, the challenge is to maintain power and feel good about it. Clearly, the burden of ameliorating race relations problems continues to fall disproportionately on Blacks. In a kind of doublespeak, Steele also tells us that the exercise of power is unacceptable as a means of attaining racial integration. Of course, as Whites continue to exercise unearned power, they reinforce an inequitable status quo and remain firmly in control. This is too exorbitant a price for “integration.”
The Content of Our Character is basically a proposed psychological prescription for improving race relations, peppered with notions of individual guilt, personal development, power, victimization and entitlement. But Steele’s observations and analyses, that are supposed to shed light on ways to improve Black-White relations, do just the opposite. In suggesting that Blacks and Whites are on an even playing field, he effectively precludes resolution of the problem.
Any serious effort to improve race relations in the U.S. must accord full consideration to the Black experience that is immersed in institutional repression. This entirely eludes Shelby Steele.
Larry Aubry n can be contacted at e-mail