From a book review of Shelby Steele’s new Shame: How America’s Past Sins Have Polarized Our Country
…The author has a fierce racial pride, and his writing about blacks in America is without condescension and imbued with deep sympathy. He is a brother, make no mistake, but a brother quite unlike any other. What distinguishes him is his openly stated belief that blacks in America have been sold out by the very liberals who ardently claim to wish them most good. He regrets that affirmative action, multiculturalism and most welfare programs purportedly put in place to show racial preference, far from liberating black Americans, have failed to advance their fortunes. Judging from high crime, divorce and unemployment rates, as well as relatively low rates of high-school and college completion, a case can be made that liberal policies have harmed them. To cite a single statistic: In 1965, the year after passage of the Civil Rights Act, 23.6% of black births in America were to single women; today that number is 72%…
…“Liberalism in the twenty-first century,” Mr. Steele writes, “is, for the most part, a moral manipulation that exaggerates inequity and unfairness in American life in order to justify overreaching public policies and programs.” This liberalism, which is not your Aunt Bessie’s liberalism but the liberalism that came into play at the 1972 Democratic convention that nominated George McGovern, “is invested in an overstatement of America’s present sinfulness based on the nation’s past sins.” Mr. Steele argues that liberalism’s efforts to alleviate the past injustices done to blacks in America have amounted to another botched project of that famously failed political construction firm, the Good Intentions Paving Co. “Liberalism,” Mr. Steele writes, “expresses its inborn racism in the way it overlooks the full human complexity of blacks—the fact that they are more than mere victims—in order to distill and harden the idea of their victimization into a currency of liberal power.”
Liberals, Mr. Steele holds, deal in what he calls “poetic truth.” This is a kind of truth “conceived in reaction to the great shames of America’s past—racism, sexism, territorial conquest (manifest destiny), corporate greed, militarism, and so on.” In poetic truth, the world is reduced to victims and victimizers, with liberals alone innocent of evil and thus excluded, by self-dissociation, from the role of victimizers. Under the realm of poetic truth, Mr. Steele explains, the race riots of the late 1960s could find justification and the feminist slogan “woman as nigger” could be taken seriously, while “fifty years of real moral evolution in America” can be entirely ignored.
After the 1960s, in Mr. Steele’s reading, authority was undermined and “authenticity” put in its place. Authenticity, he writes, “meant the embrace of new idealisms and new identities that explicitly untethered you from America’s notorious hypocrisies.” Through rebellion, antiwar activity, dissent, civil and uncivil disobedience, and dropping out before selling out, authenticity rendered one innocent of all the old evils associated with American power, domestic and international; authenticity also gave one the right to view “traditional America as a fundamentally hypocritical society.”
Mr. Steele does not use the word, but authenticity also conferred virtue on those who chose it. Self-virtue is the ultimate consolation to be found in the poetic truth of the new politics that came into being in the 1960s, and millions of Americans, rich white liberals prominent among them—recall Leonard Bernstein’s famous party for the Black Panthers—gloried in it. These politics changed the nature of liberalism from a reform-minded, character-forming set of political ideas into “a broad, guilt-driven, moralistic liberalism in which at least a vague anti-Americanism was decency itself.” America, in this interpretation, is essentially evil, and those who oppose it from within are thereby good. Hence the claim to moral superiority of the protest groups—blacks, women, gays et al.—of our day. For black Americans, the claim to moral superiority took the form of grievance, boisterous, unrelenting and willfully blind to any evidence of progress.
The new liberalism, eager to bring about The Good (Mr. Steele’s capital letters), went in for social engineering to accomplish its missionary work. For Mr. Steele not The Good but true good “would include an incentive to minorities to in fact become equal with all others by talent and merit . . . [and] would ask minorities to assimilate into modernity even if that felt like self-betrayal. . . . And it would discourage them from building a group identity singularly focused on protest. . . . Instead, all would be focused on their becoming competitive.” Blacks, Mr. Steele argues, ran into serious discrimination in sports and music, and yet in these competitive fields “their excellence and merit ultimately prevailed over all else.”
As things now stand in American political life, the desire for equality has trumped freedom; self-virtue, honesty; and preferential programs, the development of character. The effect of these liberal victories has been to lessen the quality of American life. Consider the contemporary university, where the goal of diversity, enforced by the whiphand of political correctness, has brought in various minority studies, women’s and gay studies, and other intellectual vulgarities in the name of redressing old injustices and mollifying grievances. The humanities and the social sciences have become hopelessly tendentious, the ideal of truth besmirched and higher education itself turned sadly comic.
Through the pages of “Shame,” Mr. Steele fills in a few of the details behind his own conversion from angry young black man to chronicler of the dead end that anger and moral indignation, supported by white guilt, have brought to American blacks. Strongly implicated in this conversion was his father, who had seen much darker days than his son ever would and who, as long ago as the late 1960s, assured him that “you shouldn’t underestimate America. . . . It’s strong enough to change.” After visiting the Black Panthers in North Africa and witnessing their self-destructive hatred for their own country, which left them placeless and bereft, Shelby Steele began to recognize that “the American mainstream would be my fate.”
The author’s conclusion is that black America sold itself out, entered “a Faustian pact,” as he puts it, by placing its destiny in the “hands of contrite white people.” Doing so, he writes, “left us pleading with government, not for freedom, which we had already won, but for ‘programs’ and ‘preferences’ that would be a ladder to full equality. The chilling result is that now, fifty years later, we remain—by most important measures—in the position of inferiors and dependents.” The liberalism that has come into prominence since the 1960s, Mr. Steele believes, “has done little more than toy with blacks.”
Mr. Steele has himself become a conservative. He is a conservative who believes less in the mysticism of the invisible hand of the market than in the force of strong character as the main element propelling social change. He is certain that there will never be a government program that builds such character. Speaking out about the false bargain that blacks have made with the new liberalism will doubtless earn him, if it hasn’t already done so, the old opprobrious title of Uncle Tom. The irony here is that Shelby Steele might just be a Tom of a different kind—a black Tom Paine, whose 21st-century common sense could go a long way to bringing his people out of their by now historical doldrums.