It’s been a year filled with calls for justice. The deaths of Ahmaud Arbery shown below,
or Breonna Taylor-right here in my hometown of Louisville, KY., shown below.
Not to be forgotten, George Floyd’s barbaric death under the knee of a police officer earlier this year sparked demonstrations around the world-(see below)
Protestors see these deaths not simply as isolated, one-off events but as the terrible product of centuries of systemic racism.HOWEVER, not everyone agrees. Shelby Steele offers a contrarian point of view. His counterclaim is that systemic racism ended decades ago and that the challenges facing Black Americans today have little to do with it.
Steele, who is himself Black, has made this argument for years. Liberals, he says, are dangerous to Black people, and their ideas keep black people from progress. The way forward for Black people is an individual responsibility, NOT an overhaul of the system!
Steele even wrote a 2009 book entitled called “White Guilt: How Blacks and Whites Together Destroyed the Promise of the Civil Rights Era.
It takes moxie to champion a challenging point of view, and Steele has it.
Moxie explores complexity.
Steele believes the story of Michael Brown is more complex than it would seem. Brown was shot dead by a police officer in Ferguson, Mo. Brown’s killing sparked weeks of protest and catalyzed the Black Lives Matter movement. BLM leaders pointed to systemic racism as the root cause of Brown’s death.
But Steele looks at things differently. He places responsibility for Brown’s death on the shoulders of liberals and their ideology, and on Brown himself. The problem, in his mind, is that liberalism removed personal responsibility from Black people and victimized them. Black people are the victims of white guilt; he posits. White liberals need for Black people to be victims so they can be their saviors with paternalistic programs like affirmative action.
“Since the social victim has been oppressed by society, he comes to feel that his individual life will be improved more by changes in society than by his own initiative. Without realizing it, he makes society rather than himself the agent of change. The power he finds in his victimization may lead him to collective action against society, but it also encourages passivity within the sphere of his personal life,” says Steele.
Moxie achieves excellence.
What shaped Steele’s point of view on race? His upbringing.
Steele and his identical twin brother Claude were born in 1946 to a black father and white mother. They lived in Chicago, and their parents, Shelby Sr. and Ruth were active in the civil rights movement.
Growing up Black in the 1940s and 50s was not a gentle experience, and Shelby and his family faced challenges along the way. But Shelby processed those challenges differently; because his mother was white, he says, he had difficulty seeing whites as a monolithic oppressor. He saw more nuance in racial interactions. While the rest of his family remained steadfastly liberal in their political point of view, Shelby went in a different direction.
Steele entered a career in academia as a professor of literature, and his political leanings continued to evolve. As he ascended the career ladder, he began to explore themes of race, victimization, and responsibility. His work gained popularity in politically conservative circles.
In 1990, he won the National Book Critics Circle Award for his book The Content of Our Character, and he won Emmy and Writers Guild awards for his 1991 documentary Seven Days in Bensonhurst.
Moxie is double trouble.
Shelby and his brother Claude might be identical twins, but they are ideological opposites!
Claude is also a professor at Stanford University, and he also studies race. Claude pioneered the study of “stereotype threat,” the idea that stereotypes about inferiority place significant stress on even the highest achieving students of color and that stress negatively impacts performance.
Where Shelby and Claude disagree is on the question of who or what is responsible for the problem and how it should be addressed. While Claude sees systemic racism as the issue, Shelby says Black students “voluntarily perceive themselves as inferior,” and it’s up to them to fix it. Their ideological differences have led to strains in their relationship, and though they might pass each other in the halls of Stanford, they rarely connect.
I have to admit, my first thought is, “Wow, I’d really love to moderate a discussion between these two on this issue.” I’m not the first one to have that thought. No less than Bill Bradley of 60 Minutes made that pitch and was flatly turned down. Neither brother wants to take part in a “sideshow” driven by brother against brother drama.
“To be compared all your life to your twin,” Shelby once said, “is a form of existential Hell.”
While I won’t be moderating a “cage match” between the Steele brothers any time soon, what would you want to ask Shelby if you had the chance?
Shelby Steele’s Wikipedia Page: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shelby_Steele
The Killing of Ahmaud Arbery’s Wikipedia Page: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Killing_of_Ahmaud_Arbery
The Shooting of Breonna Taylor’s Wikipedia Page: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shooting_of_Breonna_Taylor#Persons_involved
The Killing of George Floyd’s Wikipedia Page: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_Floyd