Shelby Steele’s The Content of Our Character: A New Vision of Race in America represents the highest expression of black neoconservative thinking in the United States. This collection of short essays transcends the usual conservative support for the sanctity of American institutional life; it offers novel ideas as to how and why African Americans are primarily responsible for their failure to achieve socioeconomic parity with whites. The most central idea that drives Steele’s entire analysis is that African Americans have failed to take advantage of opportunities for success in the United States because of their fears of ambition, ineffective attitudes about matters of race, and a general lack of understanding of what it takes to realize the “American Dream.” This conceptualization is developed fully in the volume’s nine essays, each of which emphasizes a slightly different aspect of this same notion.
In “I’m Black, You’re White, Who’s Innocent?” Steele begins his analysis by arguing that racial conflict in the United States can be reduced to a struggle for innocence between blacks and whites. According to Steele, each group’s struggle for power has been accompanied by an effort on their part to convince themselves that they are entitled to achieve their goals because of their “essential goodness in relation to others and, therefore, superiority to others.” Steele believes that, by accepting the terms of this struggle, African Americans have been compelled to rely on their long history of subjugation and victimization under white domination as the source of their claim of innocence, and thus, their source of power. In other words, they have taken on the identity of a victim whose only recourse is to rely on entitlements derived from injustices perpetuated in the past. Steele goes so far as to suggest that certain black leaders revel in continued black suffering and victimization because it is their only source of power; it is the basis upon which they build their leadership. While this approach may inspire collective action, Steele argues that it is demoralizing on the individual level and inhibits African Americans from taking the initiative to improve their lives. Hence, since in Steele’s view racism has declined, the socioeconomic deterioration of the African American community “must be of our own making.”
The weaknesses that characterize some of the arguments in this first essay can be found in the subsequent essays, in which Steele continues to rehash and recast his essential conservative theme. Many of these weaknesses derive from Steele’s limitations as a scholar trained in English drawing conclusions that require an expertise in psychology and economics. For example, Steele’s analysis tracing racial conflict and the struggle for power to people’s psychological need to feel innocent in relation to others pales in comparison to studies done by some of the intellectual giants of African descent who have been formally trained in psychiatry and psychology. The work of Frants Fanon, for example, which is still considered the intellectual standard-bearer in the psychology of the oppressed, shows little resemblance to Steele’s highly subjective pronouncements.
Moreover, Steele’s claim that the socioeconomic deterioration of the African-American community is the fault of that community’s failure to seize hold of opportunities for advancement that are readily available indicates a lack of understanding on his part of the severe economic stress the African-American community has been experiencing. A legion of studies have documented that a disproportionate number of black workers have lost their jobs as a result of plant closings, automation, and corporate relocations to underdeveloped countries. Steele’s failure to consider seriously the devastating impact of such dislocations on the African-American community reflects a more pervasive narrowness of vision in these essays.
In the second essay, “Race Holding,” Steele argues that African Americans suffer from ’integration shock,” which results from their fear of having to compete with whites on purely individual terms. Steele contends that integration exposes the doubt and fear that African Americans feel about themselves vis-a-vis their white counterparts at school or at work. In order to justify or camouflage these fears, according to Steele, African Americans engage in “race-holding.” This entails the use of exaggerations, distortions, and lies regarding matters of race that serve to protect one’s self-esteem. It manifests itself whenever African Americans internalize the notion that they are inferior to whites because of their past history of victimization and thus should not be expected to do as well as their white counterparts. In short, Steele says that African Americans use their race to excuse themselves from competing with whites and, consequently, from taking advantage of the opportunities available to all.
What makes this analysis somewhat unusual and difficult to accept is the fact that Steele argues that African Americans, students in particular, engage in “race-holding” voluntarily, because of the “comforts and rationalizations their racial ’inferiority’ affords them.” In gist, they choose to believe in their “inferiority” because it allows them the opportunity to evade “individual responsibility.” While it is generally agreed among psychologists in this field of study that African Americans have indeed suffered from an inferiority complex relative to their white counterparts, Steele is certainly alone in his inability to see that this phenomenon occurs unconsciously, as a result of the African-American community’s interaction with the white-dominated institutions of society.
Steele’s third essay, “Being Black and Feeling Blue,” continues his critique of the African-American community for failing to take advantage of opportunities for advancement. The fact that these opportunities, which Steele never attempts to verify empirically, may not be available to all socioeconomic sectors of the African-American community never enters his analysis. Instead, he issues a blanket indictment of the African- American community for concealing its self-doubt (in competing with whites in integrated settings)...
(The entire section is 2581 words.)