Just as African Americans were betrayed by slavery and the establishment of the Jim Crow system following Reconstruction, Steele holds, a “second betrayal” has been the failure to treat them the same as other citizens. In particular, he charges that they have been denied full equality by public policies such as affirmative action preferences, multiculturalism, and Afrocentrism. Rather than concentrating on improving educational standards and insisting on equal competition, in his view, the civil rights establishment has chosen to encourage African Americans to harbor bitterness and resentment for the injustices of the past, which has tended to result in an unproductive culture of victimization.
A Dream Deferred deals disproportionately with issues relevant to institutions of higher education. Time and again, Steele returns to the issue of affirmative action programs that utilize race or gender preferences in an attempt to increase the members of underrepresented groups in education and employment. From his perspective, such programs represent an appeal to white philanthropy rather than African American achievement, an attitude that he believes is incompatible with the goal of first-class citizenship. The emotional tone of his analysis gives the impression that he takes the existence of racial preferences as an insult against his personal competence.
Steele’s writings are extremely polemical, and, not surprising, they have provoked strong reactions. Persons who agree with his perspective praise his courage in challenging political correctness. Critics, on the other hand, charge that he severely underestimates the continuing persistence of white racism, and some assert that he misunderstands the nature of racism by focusing on individuals’ attitudes rather than social structures. Even more, they strongly disagree with his negative judgments in regard to race-conscious programs. In their view, such programs are moderate means to “level the playing field” and to bring about a modest degree of compensation for centuries of oppression. Although many critics concede that race-conscious programs can sometimes result in a stigma of inferiority, they insist that Steele exaggerates the danger. They insist that such programs have helped promote an equality of opportunity, and they deny that any practical alternatives are available.
Although Shelby Steele, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institute, describes himself as a “classic liberal,” he is commonly classified as one of the most prominent of the “black conservatives.” In public discourse, his name is particularly associated with two topics: “white guilt” and opposition to affirmative action. His writings are clear and cogent, and they have been widely quoted by persons who hope to end (or severely limit) affirmative action programs. In 2006, he published White Guilt: How Blacks and Whites Together Destroyed the Promise of the Civil Rights Era, which expands and develops the themes of his previous works.