With The Content of Our Character: A New Vision of Race in America, Shelby Steele created a debate on the merits of affirmative action, the direction of the Civil Rights movement, and the growing ranks of African American political conservatives. Although certainly not the first to challenge views held by African American leaders, Steele pushed his challenge onto center stage more forcefully than others had before. Coming at a time when the United States was awash in conservative radio and television talk shows, the book quickly became a source of contention among political groups of all races and philosophies. Steele, through his television appearances, became a familiar figure throughout America as he explained and defended his ideas on race problems in America.
The book, titled after a line in Martin Luther King, Jr.’s famous speech, is a collection of essays, most of which appeared earlier in various periodicals. Central to Steele’s book is a call for the African American community to examine itself and look to itself for opportunities. He calls for African Americans to look not to government or white society but to itself for the solutions to its problems. Steele contends that African Americans enjoy unparalleled freedom; they have only to seize their freedom and make it work for them. He suggests that such programs as affirmative action contribute to the demoralization or demeaning of African Americans because preferential treatment denies them the opportunity to “make it on their own.”
Steele, calling for a return to the original purpose of the Civil Rights movement, says that affirmative action should go back to enforcing equal opportunity rather than demanding preferences. The promised land is, he writes, an opportunity, not a deliverance. Steele’s ideas were strongly challenged by African Americans who believe that affirmative action and other civil rights measures are necessary for minority groups to retain the advancements that have been forged and to assure an open path for further progress. Steele’s opponents believe that progress for minorities will not happen without civil rights laws and affirmative action. Opposition to Steele and other African American conservatives has led to charges that traditional African American civil rights leaders’ intolerance of different voices within the black community is itself a form of racism.