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The Content of Our Character

Shelby Steele’s book, The Content of Our Character, is the best statement of its kind dealing with the issues surrounding racial antagonism often felt between black and white Americans. Written by a black professor of English who recently described himself to Time magazine as a “classical liberal,” this book is a striking analysis of the psychological factors involved in issues about race in the United States. Steele challenges many of the suppositions fashionable among the civil rights community on the basis of his own and others’ experiences in this charged area.

One of the many issues Steele raises, rarely brought up in discussions of race relations, is the prevalent feeling of black inferiority among blacks themselves. “You cannot be raised in a culture that was for centuries committed to the notion of your inferiority and not have some doubt in this regard–doubt that is likely to be aggravated most in integrated situations.” As a result “a preoccupation with racial discrimination” covers over “an unspoken black doubt about our ability to compete.”

The counterpart is the feeling of guilt among whites for the enormous injustices their ancestors visited upon blacks.

The feelings of black inferiority and white guilt are sublimated into policies that see blacks as merely helpless victims. “[T]here is still racial discrimination in America, but I believe that the unconscious replaying of our oppression is now the greatest barrier to full equality.” The more blacks see themselves as social victims, the less inclined they are to take steps to move forward. Steele argues:

“The victim-focused black identity encourages the individual to feel that his advancement depends almost entirely on that of the group. Thus he loses sight not only of his own possibilities but of the inextricable connection between individual effort and individual advancement. …Hard work, education, individual initiative, stable family life, property ownership–these have always been the means by which ethnic groups have moved ahead in America.…[T]hese ‘laws’ of advancement apply absolutely to black Americans also.…What we need is a form of racial identity that energizes the individual by putting him in touch with both his possibilities and his responsibilities.”

This theme is echoed throughout Steele’s book. “Whites must guarantee a free and fair society. But blacks must be responsible for actualizing their own lives.…The barriers to black progress in America today are clearly as much psychological as they are social or economic.” The civil rights leadership has “demanded concessions from government, industry, and society at large while demanding very little from blacks themselves by way of living up to the opportunities that have already been won.”

The de-emphasis on individual responsibility and the supreme importance placed upon racial victimization has led blacks and whites to endorse governmental entitlement policies that undercut the integration of blacks into mainstream society.

Nowhere have these entitlements become more central to blacks than in the heated issue of affirmative action. But as Steele notes, “racial preferences … encourage dependency on entitlements rather than on our own initiative.” Moreover, racial preferences for blacks cause “an enlargement of self-doubt. … Another liability of affirmative action comes from the fact that it indirectly encourages blacks to exploit their own past victimization as a source of power and privilege.” They also unfairly stigmatize all blacks as having been beneficiaries of policies that implicitly acknowledge that they are unable to compete with whites. This problem is especially acute, as Steele describes, with admissions policies in modern academia.

Such is not to say that there should be no social attempt, in Steele’s eyes, to remedy the problems facing black Americans. But those remedies need to focus upon individual responsibility rather than on mechanisms that see whites as oppressors and blacks as victims. Steele calls for “…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. We need deracinated social policies that attack poverty rather than black poverty and that instill those values that make for self-reliance.”

This profound and important book reminds us that many of our attempts to overcome past injustice merely serve as psychological barriers to those whom we are trying to help. Even the most benevolent of intentions cannot excuse the continued reliance on failed policies designed to assuage white guilt for past discrimination and to placate American blacks who see entitlements as the sole remedy for their perplexing problems.