Form and Content

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

More than anything else, this collection of essays reflects the background and experiences of its author. The Content of Our Character: A New Vision of Race in America offers the very personal recollections of an African American university professor living and working in a predominantly white neighborhood in the predominantly white Silicon Valley of Northern California. Professor Shelby Steele, who is middle class, middle-aged, and married to a white woman, has—by his own admission—led an unusually integrated life. This provides him with a perspective that, while original, could not be said to be representative of the major trends in African American life in the latter half of the twentieth century. The author’s unusual life experiences become both a major source of strength and a major source of weakness within this collection.

The Content of Our Character consists of nine essays, two previously published in Harper’s Magazine (in 1988 and 1989), one in The American Scholar (1989), one in Commentary (1988), and one in The New York Times Book Review (1990). Other essays contain excerpts from Steele’s early publications on race as well as more recent ruminations. Because the book covers its author’s thoughts and speculations over a five-year period, there are inevitable repetitions and inconsistencies. He attempts, largely unsuccessfully, to tie these essays together in the introduction and in a brief, summarizing epilogue.

The overriding theme of the work is that African Americans have failed to take advantage of opportunities presented to them in the United States because of their basic fears of ambition and their outmoded racial attitudes. Critics of the book have pointed out that Professor Steele, in effect, blames African Americans for many of their own failures.

Steele’s first essay, aptly entitled “I’m Black, You’re White, Who’s Innocent? Race and Power in an Era of Blame,” suggests that racial conflict in the United States is primarily a struggle for innocence between African Americans and whites. As each group tries to convince itself that it is entitled to achieve its goals because of its essential “goodness” and its superiority in relation to others, each ends up using victimization and the protracted history of subjugation as a major means of asserting and maintaining power. African Americans, it is contended, believe that they are entitled to be compensated for injustices committed in the past. While stopping short of denying that such compensation is necessary Steele contends that it is “demoralizing” for African Americans on an individual level, since it inhibits them from taking, the initiative to improve their own lives. For Steele, self-determination at the individual level is the highest good.

The second essay, entitled “Race Holding,” argues cogently that African Americans dealing with whites on a one-to-one basis suffer from “integration shock.” Interracial classrooms and workplaces, for example, are said to expose African Americans to fundamental, unconscious doubts and fears that they may have concerning their own competence and ability in comparison to whites. A primary defense is...

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(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Baker, Houston A., Jr. Betrayal: How Black Intellectuals Have Abandoned the Ideals of the Civil Rights Era. New York: Columbia University Press, 2008. Extended attack on African American neoconservative individualism and plea for a renewed commitment to activism. Includes a chapter on Steele’s works and career.

Barnes, Fred. “The Minority Minority: Black Conservatives and White Republicans.” The New Republic 205 (September 30, 1991): 18-23. Steele is discussed alongside other prominent African American conservatives. Includes Steele’s comments on the furor over the nomination of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.

“Black Voices.” Utne Reader, September/October, 1991, 50-62. Presents the views of a number of African American writers and scholars (including Steele, Bell Hooks, Cornel West, and Manning Marable) on problems facing the African American community. Provides a helpful context for interpreting Steele’s controversial opinions.

Bracey, Christopher Alan. “The Rising Tide of Black Neoconservative Intellectualism: The Blame Game, ’Self-Help,’ Shelby Steele, and John McWhorter.” In Saviors or Sellouts: The Promise and Peril of Black Conservatism, from Booker T. Washington to Condoleezza Rice. Boston: Beacon Press, 2008. Discusses the importance of the American neoconservative movement to understanding Steele’s particular brand of conservatism.

Edwards, Wayne. “Going It Alone: Author Shelby Steele Says Affirmative Action May Do More Harm than Good.” People Weekly 36 (September 2, 1991): 79-83. Discussion (including Steele’s comments) of one of Steele’s more controversial claims. The article’s appearance in a beacon of popular culture points up the depth of feeling Steele’s views arouse in both supporters and detractors.

Kirp, David L. Almost Home: America’s Love-Hate Relationship with Community. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2000. Includes a chapter on Steele, emphasizing his refusal to see the United States as comprising a unified African American community and a unified white community.

Steele, Shelby. “The New Sovereignity: Grievance Groups Have Become Nations unto Themselves.” Harper’s Magazine 285 (July, 1992): 47-55. Steele argues in favor of integration through the elimination of interest-group lobbying, which he considers self-perpetuating and divisive.

Wolf, Geoffrey. Introduction to The Best American Essays of 1989, edited by Geoffrey Wolf. New York: Ticknor & Fields, 1989. Early comments on Steele’s “On Being Black and Middle Class” (chapter 6 in The Content of Our Character), which is included in the anthology.