The Content of Our Character Essay - Critical Essays

Shelby Steele


As befits a professor of English, Steele writes well. His prose is lively, clear, and engaging. He cogently discusses what he sees as the origin of the current conflicts in race relations. Reflection and introspection are his major tools. By looking at his own life in an integrated society and examining his preconceptions about race, he forces readers to rethink their own preconceptions.

This is an intensely personal book. Most illustrations are taken from the author’s personal experiences and his interpretations of the things going on around him. Professor Steele offers a self-consciously subjective vision and makes no attempt to test or modify that vision. He does not seem to care if his vision is at all representative of the wider African American experience, especially the experiences of lower-class African Americans. The author does not cite evidence from sociology, psychology, or political science in order to substantiate his hypotheses and conclusions. Indeed, one gets the impression that he ignores much of the social scientific literature pertaining to race. For example, his speculations on African American psychology, while insightful, sometimes border on the type of pop psychology that one might expect to find in a self-help book, but hardly in a learned book of essays on such a vital topic.

Steele elicits an emotional response from readers. He urges African Americans to embrace a pride based on achievement and cultural contribution and encourages them to abandon what he considers to be the self-defeating pride of victimization. At the same time, Steele does not exonerate whites. He admonishes them to face up to their own prejudices and to treat African Americans as equals—not only before the law, but in their hearts as well.