Specters of Racism: A Conversation with Shelby Steele

I had the pleasure of recently speaking with Dr. Shelby Steele. Steele is a bestselling author (The Content of Our Character, White Guilt), speaker, and fellow at the prestigious Hoover Institution at Stanford University. He has won many awards, is respected by all who know him, and has a unique view of African American culture today.

Dr. Steele has a new documentary coming out October 16th:  “What Killed Michael Brown?” -- a film that speaks about the origins of fiery riots and protests concerning police violence. Before I get to his upcoming film, I ask about Joe Biden, who has committed to nominate the first African American woman to the Supreme Court to replace Justice Ginsburg’s position.

Steele answers:

“What he is doing is, he is using race as a means to power. The problem with that is, that is the same thing slave owners did. That's the same thing that supported Jim Crow segregation. Racism means, to power a racist, a justification for me, taking power over you. Biden is saying please vote for me, I am not a racist. It's very cynical and very counterproductive, because it keeps alive racism. We assign racism meaning when we want to use it to gain power and that's what we use race for, to seize power, and it's an old and tragic American story."

Dr. Steele has previously mentioned that ‘bad faith identity’ is embedded in the African American identity. I ask if Biden’s announcement plays into this identity issue:

“Blacks feel that their history of victimization is their source of power today. They can claim that America is systemically racist, that they are still victims of racism and therefore they are entitled, and the tragedy is that blacks are farther behind today than they were in the sixties. It has completely failed.”

Dr. Steele lived through segregation and was raised by Civil Rights activists. I ask him about the differences in society for blacks now vs. the Civil Rights era. 

“I grew up in segregation. I know all about it. I grew up in Chicago on the South side and I was, my family was very much involved with the Civil Rights movement. I could tell you stories, but we'd be here all day. I am so proud of this society… back then I couldn't do any number of things. That is the first time really in human history that anybody, that a country has made the kind of moral evolutionary progress that America has made around race. Americans do not want to be racist. I remember when they did, when they took it for granted, that was a way of life.”

He goes on to speak about the burden of freedom, and how while it is a gift, it comes with responsibilities.

“The hardest thing in the world is to come into freedom when you have never experienced it. It's not a part, [that struggle with freedom] is not what we struggled with, we struggled with oppression, racism, bigotry. Now we have freedom. And, so it is confusing, we don't have a lot of experience with it. We are in a learning period and so rather than fight through this period and really master freedom, and find a way to live in it and thrive in it, we say, ‘oh no, our problem is racism, racism is still here.’

He closes this thought by talking about how African Americans struggle to close the gap with whites because they refuse to see the real problem, and would rather be out protesting racism when in fact he says that “Racism does not exist enough to be fought anymore.”

Concerning Dr. Steele’s film “The Death of Michael Brown: “It is one of the triggers, I guess you could say, for a lot of the protests that have happened and continue to happen.”

I ask Dr. Steele about the line in the trailer, "When truth becomes a lie and when a lie becomes truth."

"One of the interesting things about the Michael Brown situation, again, applies to George Floyd as one of the more recent ones. These now seem to be recurring cultural events in America that every several months or so we have another one. Almost always they blow up because they make what we call in the film, poetic truth, which is that blacks are suffering from systemic racism in every area of life. So, when you get a white cop who shoots and kills a black teenager, Oh, well, you say, of course, that's the norm, it's not the exception. That's the way America is for black people. And therefore, we are entitled. It's always that entitlement that turns the truth into a lie. So, we say that Michael Brown was a victim, he is now an archetypical icon of racism for many young black Americans.”

Steele loves to talk with black students and says, “As a young black person coming of age in America today, the issue is not racism, it is freedom. ‘Who are you?’ Your job is to show us how-to live-in freedom.”

I ask Dr. Steele about the quote from Karl Marx, "Revolutions are revisited once by tragedy and then by farce.” If the revolution was freedom from slavery, then the Civil Rights movement was its tragedy, leaving the current protests as the farce.

“That's a good one because you look at these protests down there, they really are a farce as they're about nothing. They're just aimlessly disruptive. The Civil Rights movement that was a moral witness, in order to march one had to have a white shirt and a tie on. Women had to be dressed in their Sunday best, and you went limp when the police attacked you, you never ever fought back. Those were real protests, these people are trying to steal the ennoblement of those great protests by rioting, they are mimics. I feel almost sorry for them to be that lost, to think that kind of fruitless mindless anarchism is going to get you anywhere.”

I ask Dr. Steele if he believes that the desire for victimization has placed the African American identity in stasis?

“It's almost a hunger for victimization, that means that this is a people who was stuck and don't know how to move forward. And so, moved backward and we're afraid. We have difficulty making it, we were not prepared to thrive in that world and so we claimed the victimization as our sort of only power in American life. And that's sad.

“There's so much freedom, so much possibility, so much opportunity in American life today. There is much good will, people want minorities to do well. They want blacks to finally overcome all that history of deprivation. They're not against blacks, that is gone and in fact, if anything, there is a desire to whenever possible lend a helping hand.”

Dr. Steele’s thoughts on race relations and its origin are refreshing to hear. He sees an issue and wants to fix it, and wishes very much to help others find success. It was a delight and privilege to speak with this man. The interview in its entirety is well worth listning to. I also recommend reading Dr. Steele’s books, as they are filled with valuable and insightful commentary. Steele’s film releases October 16th, for more information on Dr. Shelby Steele or to learn more about the film visit whatkilledmichaelbrown.com

Image credit: Hoover Institution, via shareable YouTube, screen shot

If you experience technical problems, please write to helpdesk@americanthinker.com