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Shelby Steele's Historylessness

By Benjamin DeMott

What follows is a compacted version of a critique of Shelby Steele’s The Content of Our Character (1991) that originally appeared in The Trouble With Friendship (1995). That book by the late Benjamin DeMott showed how white and black neoconservatism, the rise of the black middle class, and the imagery and rhetoric of racial amity promulgated by mass media had coalesced into a “friendship orthodoxy.” This appealing, resolutely ahistorical mindset maintained that the nation’s racial problems could be solved without government intervention, “simply by black and whites working together, one on one, to reconcile differences.” Friendship orthodoxy sublated what was common wisdom in the Civil Rights era when the next steps had seemed obvious:

[S]ociety would have to admit that when one race deprives another of its humanity for centuries, those who have done the depriving are obligated to do what they can to restore the humanity of the deprived. The obligation clearly entailed the mounting of comprehensive long-term programs of developmental assistance—not guilt money—for nearly the entire black population. The path forward was unavoidable.

It was avoided.

Thus the vogue for nice, cheap fixes to the American Dilemma in the 80s and 90s. Friendship orthodoxy ruled then and it hangs on today. But the following clip of a spectral Shelby Steele arguing with Ta-Nehisi Coates hints we may not have to breathe its derelict air forever. Their dialogue, which dates back to earlier this year, impelled your editor to return to The Trouble With Friendship’s clarities about Steele’s emergence as the anti-Race Man back in the day.[1]

"Either them Korean motherfuckers are geniuses or your black asses are just plain dumb."
Do the Right Thing (1989)

The speaker of the line above is M.L., a black man who, with two companions—one of them Sweet Dick Willie, played by the late, great comedian Robin Harris—functions as the chorus in the Spike Lee film. Seated under a tatty umbrella on a Brooklyn street, the three men eye a Korean grocery across the way. “Lookit those Korean motherfuckers,” says M.L. “I betcha they haven’t been off the boat a year before they open up their own place. Motherfucking year off the motherfucking boat and they already got a business in our neighborhood—a good business…Now for the life of me, you know, I can’t figure this out.”

M.L.’s mocking conclusion (either Koreans are geniuses or blacks are dumb) is a detail of character but something else as well...

Castelike societies attempting to dismantle parts of their stratification systems lose patience quickly. Both the majority and the making-it minority, troubled by lack of change in the grossly disturbing elements of everyday bottom-caste experience, seek interpretations—stories—that explain slow rates of progress without attributing them either to large-scale, systemic, historical and socioeconomic factors or to foot-dragging on the part of elites. More than one caste-like society abroad has regressed swiftly to belief that its bottom caste suffer regrettably from ineradicable genetic defects. And talk of “black asses” as “just plain dumb” was one among many signs of similar temptation.

This is America, however. The country doesn’t easily give itself to public harshness. The traditions and pieties forbid the casual shedding of sameness myths. Its can-do rhetoric and sunny tales of black–white fellowship insist on white goodwill and blamelessness. Its fantasy life reverberates with tales of blacks who are necessarily, pleasingly, overwhelmingly grateful to whites...

The situation required a formula that would permit a measure of criticism of blacks—criticism that would check up short of genetic slander and that would simultaneously reaffirm whites’ earnest concern.

The formula arrived at provided an interpretation of slow black progress that was gratifyingly exculpatory. It proposed that the reason blacks were moving ahead only haltingly might be that excessive white generosity had slowed them down. The basic problem wasn’t the intellectual and educational and socioeconomic deficit piled up during centuries of absolute race stratification. It was, instead, the understandable but nevertheless not finally benign disposition of softhearted white Americans to spoil their black brothers and sisters rotten.

Chief spokesmen for this thesis outside the world of pop were the young black neoconservative academics—Shelby Steele and Stephen Carter were the best known—who, like Spike Lee, came to notice in the late 1980s. Arguing that efforts to aid African Americans through programs of racial preference caused psychological harm, these writers had a more complex agenda in mind than did the white Tories who often wrenched their words out of context. But Steele, Carter and others did insist that the time had come to stop “coddling the minority”; they strongly urged that black individualistic energy must henceforth be required to prove itself on its own.

The position made waves. Previous preaching, by whites, against special treatment for minorities had been easy to abuse as reactionary and heartless. And the rare black writer who sided with the preaching tended to avoid direct attacks on black activist leaders and seldom addressed a general audience. Not so the new black neoconservatives. Early achievers in professional disciplines, they were seeking a wide public—and, they didn’t hesitate to challenge black leaders who, certain that problems facing black Americans derived from historical caste reality, continued to urge new public commitments. Rightist commentators and organs of opinion praised the black neoconservatives unreservedly—“If you read no other book…make it Shelby Steele’s,” wrote George Will—and their message quickly got out…

Fairness demands repeated acknowledgement that a primary goal of the black neoconservatives was to put on record that at least some African Americans recognized the welfare system to be not merely a failure but, because it perpetuated dependency, a blight on the hopes of their race. In pursuing that goal, however, they laid less stress on the need for new conceptions of nationally supported racial development than on the themes of black-white sameness that had come to dominate cultural life. In short, despite huge differences in tone, idiom and ultimate purpose, pop and academic black conservatism jointly backed the attitudes and assumptions of friendship orthodoxy. And that cultural rapprochement hastened the process by which the orthodoxy established its broad claim to respectability. Instead of spectacles of knockabout bonhomie, in the pages of the black neoconservatives it was possible to find moral, philosophical, and psychological justifications for the view that the surest proof of white kindness and caring would be a national decision to leave blacks alone to solve their problems for themselves. And with the triumph of this view, friendship orthodoxy reached its apogee.

The definitive black neoconservative text was Shelby Steele’s The Content of Our Character (1991), subtitled A New Vision of Race in America. An English professor in the California state college system, Steele articulated his new vision in ten chapters composed in an autobiographical style. He drew on classroom knowledge of young black undergraduates, on memories of his own youth as a poor black growing up in Chicago, and on his adult experience as a suburbanite member of a secure and respected professional class.

But despite the uncontentious tone (one newspaper critic spoke of the author as “the perfect voice of reason in a sea of hate”), The Content of Our Character is a cunningly argued work. Structured as a series of essays redefining three key terms (power, racism, and the self), the book advances unremittingly toward its goal, namely the displacement of historical and socioeconomic factors from their once dominant position in race discourse. At one and the same time it provides new intellectual footing for the range of assumptions underlying the contemporary enlightened mind-set and defines, with passion, the grounds on which majority culture neglect of black Americans could now claim to be truly benign.

Black-White Sameness: The Theological Overview

Steele’s approach to the matter of interracial sameness lies through analysis of power relations between the races. Pre-Shelby Steele, conventional commentary on this subject focused—when addressing the period before emancipation—on white ownership of blacks, as chattel property, during the centuries of slavery. Commentary on post-emancipation power relations focused on denials to blacks, by whites, of the right to vote, to receive equal protection under law, use public facilities (schools, parks, transportation), and so on. The imbalance in power between the groups was seen in clear, concrete, objective events: the punishment of slaves with thirty lashes for attempting to learn to read, or, for an example in the present, shortages of text-books in schools attended by black pupils (as in the South Bronx, where members of a high school science course recently spent an entire year without texts).

The Content of Our Character takes the position that reading power relations in these terms is superficial. The events that count occur below the surface, in the psyche, and are determined by an inward calculus of innocence. “Innocence is power,” Steele declares in his opening chapter. “What blacks lost in power [through slavery] they gained in innocence—innocence that, in turn, allowed them to pursue power.” Good sense about power relations between the races therefore demands, Steele argues, that we look beyond social circumstances (oppression and victimization) to the moral and psychological transactions that social circumstance triggers.

When we do so, we grasp that laws of compensation have always been at work in black-white relations. (Exercising the power to oppress invariably costs the oppressor; suffering oppression invariably brings gain—in the form of moral capital—to the oppressed.) The oppressed relish possession of this moral capital, relish it so intensely that they refuse to give it up even after oppression ceases. (“We [blacks] have a hidden investment in victimization and poverty…One sees evidence of this in the near happiness with which certain black leaders recount the horror of Howard Beach.”) And accounts of the past or present that address power differentials between the races in moral terms—base white slaveowner or landlord, necessarily pure black slave or tenant—are simplistic. A basic corruption was and still is shared, and it was consensually acknowledged, to a degree, at the very beginning. “The original sin that brought us to an impasse…occurred centuries ago when it was first decided [presumably slaves and slave catchers arrived at the “decision” in consultation] to exploit racial differences as a means to power.”

Implicit in all this is that race difference today is a sham—a fanciful scrim curtain hiding the homely commonalities of human nature. Racial stratification simply doesn’t exist, because differences in worldly power are of negligible consequence. Humankind both black and white seeks personal advantage and endures the curse of imperfection; pleasures of selfishness on one side are matched by pleasures of moral vanity and self-pity on the other; shedding allegiance to the concepts of moral and social difference is the first step toward sanity.

Pushing readers to take that step, The Content of Our Character details approaches that helped the author himself advance beyond color. (“In the writing, I have had both to remember and forget that I am black. …I have tried to search out the human universals that explain the racial specifics.”) More than once Steele denounces flat out, as precious, those who take difference seriously. (“Difference becomes inaccessible preciousness toward which outsiders are expected to be simply and uncomprehendingly reverential.”) And, not trivial in rhetorical terms, Steele works the theme of essential sameness into the very rhythm and syntax of his prose, through heavy use of coordinated parallelism; sentences repeatedly balance white and black on the fulcrum of a semicolon. (“Whites gain superiority by not knowing blacks; blacks gain entitlement by not seeing their own responsibility for bettering themselves.”) It’s one measure of the author’s clarity about his mission that his syntactical structures echo the lesson pressed in his overt lines of argument. The lesson is that, because power is innocence and original sin corrupts us all, blacks and whites are the same.

Racism and Self-Deception: The Psychoanalytic Overview

Steele introduces one-on-one themes of sympathy and goodwill via a probe of the nature of racism. And again he dissents from conventional definitions. “Before the sixties,” he asserts, “race set the boundaries of black life. Now, especially for middle class blacks, it is far less a factor, though we don’t always like to admit it.” Black leaders are to blame for this minority evasiveness. “Though we have gained equality under law and even special entitlements through social programs and affirmative action, our leadership continues to stress our victimization.” Their dogged insistence that "white racism and racial discrimination are still the primary black problem” amount to a knee-jerk “party line.”

African Americans don’t need a party line; they do need, says Steele, a fresh concept of racism—one that directs the eye away from ancient offenses of whites and toward present-day self-deceptions of blacks themselves. Steele’s own fresh concept rests on a psychoanalytic theory of “denial,” “recomposition,” and “distortion”; it makes the term “racism” into a synonym for false charges, brought for ego-defensive purposes, by blacks ashamed of their performance in interracial encounters.

He draws a key example from an episode in his own youth. “In a nice but insistent way,” a white woman, mother of one of his swimming teammates in junior high, corrects Steele’s grammar and pronunciation when he lapses into black English. Steele is abashed. “I felt racial shame…It was as though she was saying that the black part of me was not good enough, would not do.“ Covering his mortification, he decides his friend’s mother should be ashamed of herself—for “being racist and humiliating me out of some perverse need.” And he says as much to the white teammate, telling the lad that his mother doesn’t “like black people and [is] taking it out on me.”

Later he learns he was wrong: the woman had grown up poor, by her own words “didn’t give a ‘good goddam’ about my race,” knew that Steele was ambitious, and had only meant to help him realize his ambitions. “My comment had genuinely hurt her…her motive in correcting my English had been no more than simple human kindness…I converted kindness into harassment and my racial shame into her racism.”

The book argues that this “sequence”—the rejection of one-on-one kindness, the racist transformation, by blacks, of white goodwill into ill will—“is one of the unrecognized yet potent forces in contemporary black life.” Everywhere blacks experience “integration shock”—eruptions of “racial doubt that come…in integrated situations.” And instead of facing up to that doubt and shame as something to be overcome within them, they “recompose” it, “externalize [doubts and threats] by seeing others as responsible for them.”

Racism thus conceived hasn’t to do with the evolution of yesterday’s enforced illiteracy into today’s text-bookless classrooms, or with the evolution of yesterday’s outright bans of blacks from trades into today’s job ceilings, or with the evolution of yesterday’s patterns of segregation (extending from housing into all sectors of life) into today’s token integration. Racism hasn’t to do with history or with caste structures or with the actions and policies of a majority reluctant to cope realistically with the consequences of history. Racism is, instead, a verbal or psychological magic practiced by blacks that renders invisible to them the truth of their own evasiveness—their own fear of not being good enough.

Redefining racism in these terms strengthens belief that history casts no useful light on race issues, and that political action in the public world achieves less in the way of solutions to race problems than can be achieved through explorations of the microworld of individual psychology (private responses, emotional intricacies). More important (considering the majority culture interest in distancing itself from anguish), the redefinition presents the persistence of anguish as itself a mode of perverse black aggression—an attempt, by blacks to distance themselves from the too kind, too demanding intrusiveness of the white discourse of one-on-one. In sum: whites excessively concerned about black disabilities are forcing blacks to cling to those disabilities out of defensive pride.

Can-Do and Autonomy: The Existential Perspective

The subject of will and choice touched on in Steele’s treatment of racism is the crux of The Content of Our Character—the point at which the paradox of neglect as the highest form of sympathy comes into sharpest focus. The matter is most fully broached in the discussion of concepts of self, and again the discussion begins with a dissent from standard definitions.

Two ranges of meaning, personal and social, figure in standard versions of self: the self as a directing inner entity (a felt continuity of experience, a “personality”) and the self as “influenced” (socially conditioned, shaped partly in reflective interaction with others). Steele’s dissent rests on the belief that, for African Americans, the social self is a kind of evil tempter—an “anti-self” luring people away from their first responsibility, which is to “show ourselves and (only indirectly) the larger society that we are not inferior in any dimension.”

Steele claims that, in African Americans, the idea of social conditioning swallows up the idea of the self as controlling agent, causing an enfeebling retreat into blackness as a sanctuary: “It is easier to be ‘African-American’ than to organize oneself on one’s own terms and around one’s own aspirations and then, through sustained effort and difficult achievement, put one’s insidious anti-self quietly to rest.” The anti-self or social self is irremediably defeatist; it pretends that there are no choices, and, for blacks, that pretense spells disaster.

“We can talk about the weakened black family and countless other scars of oppression and poverty,” Steele writes, but none of these things “eliminates the margin of choice that remains open. Choice lives in even the most blighted circumstances.” It does so because “the individual is the seat of all energy, creativity, motivation, and power.” Other groups—“particularly recent immigrants from Southeast Asia"—understand this. Steele’s version of can-do immigrants, like that of other black neoconservatives, totally ignores the differences in circumstances between them and African Americans (differences explored in caste scholarship). Can-do immigrants believe in “individual initiative, self-interested hard work, individual responsibility, delayed gratification.” But “our leadership, and black Americans in general have woefully neglected the power and importance of these values.” And the resulting weakness “has been since the mid-Sixties, a far greater detriment to our advancement than any remaining racial victimization.”

Most American tributes to the values of individualism are haunted by familiar presences from Horatio Alger to Charles Lindberg to Oliver North—go-getters, self-starters, Maslovian self-actualizers. Steele’s tribute is no exception, and he’s given to moralistic chiding in the Franklinesque vein. There’s an indictment of black parents, for instance, for sending their children an anti-can-do white-baiting "double message: go to school but don’t really apply yourself." There’s no allusion whatever to the connection between that behavior, de facto ascribed inferiority, and justifiable black hostility to abysmal school systems or to white moral self-congratulation.

Nor is there any hesitation in reaching outside the American context in building a case against African Americans. Tine and again, in stories of individuals losing the energizing sense of personal identity in “black identity,” and in descriptions of the collapse of the Civil Rights Movement into collectivist delusion, the author falls into existentialist fustian, invoking the language of limitless human possibility—of self-creation in total and absolute freedom, of individuals hurling themselves into an uncharted future. “Blacks must be responsible for actualizing their own lives,” Steele writes. “The responsible person knows that the quality of his life is something that he will have to make inside the limits of his fate...He can choose and act, and choose and act again, without illusion. He can create himself and make himself felt in the world. Such a person has power."

With the appearance of this unencumbered, uncircumscribed, unconditioned figure, Steele leaves can-do, making-it America behind and ascends to the plane of pure historylessness.

A number of writers—among them Glenn Loury, Thomas Sowell, Walter Williams, and Stephen Carter—hold equal rank with Shelby Steele as architects of black neoconservatism. But from the point of view of its impact on the enlightened mind-set, The Content of Our Character stands alone. It was the first work addressed to a general audience that translated the main themes of the friendship orthodoxy from comedy, entertainment, general gregariousness, liberal piety, and vague mysticism into cultural criticism and analysis. And with “neoconservatism” and friendship orthodoxy joined in metaphorical union, something akin to a single story came to be driven home at every cultural level—high, middle, low: history can be forgotten, git-go initiative is the miracle cure, impassivity equals concern (blacks must learn to go it alone), audacity equals concern (say a friendly hello to domestic workers and make their day), blacks and whites are one (taking equal chances, going head to head in fair competition, all in the same boat together in the American mainstream).

The outlook inspired by this story (optimistic, pessimistic, apathetic) vary along the axis from liberal to moderate to conservative. But the tragically simplistic assumptions that structure the tale seem now to have won acceptance throughout the educated and well-meaning majority. We are speaking, to repeat, of the enlightened mind-set.

Excerpted from Benjamin DeMott's The Trouble With Friendship (1995)


1 Pace Richard Torres who forwarded on a compendium of responses to Coates’ Between the World and Me which, in turn, led this editor to a Washington Post piece that included a link to the dialogue between Steele and Coates.

From July, 2015

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