Form and Content

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

In his first book, The Content of Our Character (1990), Shelby Steele wrote that it is a mistake to identify white racism as the principal cause for current problems in the African American community. He further asserted that a “victim-focused identity” produces excessive pessimism, thereby discouraging individuals from achieving their full potential. Steele expands on these themes in his second major work, A Dream Deferred (1998), in which he also argues that racial policies since the 1960’s have been aimed more at the “expiation of American shame” than at the achievement of true racial equality. The book consists of four chapters: “The Loneliness of Black Conservatives,” “Wrestling with Stigma,” “Liberal Bias and the Zone of Decency,” and “The New Sovereignty.” The first three chapters were first published in the book, whereas the fourth appeared earlier in Harper’s Magazine.

In the treatise’s first chapter, Steele begins with the premise that the strategy of the current civil rights leadership is to cause whites to internalize a sense of shame (or “white guilt”). In order to promote this “peculiar liberalism generated by shame,” moreover, it is important for African American leaders to convince a significant percentage of the population that the legacy of white supremacy is the major reason for continuing racial disparities in family income, educational achievement, and related matters. These leaders, according to Steele, expect that such ideas will help promote the expansion of affirmative action and other policies that provide compensation for the evils of slavery and institutional racism. Since they want African Americans to present a united front in advocating these orthodox doctrines, they look upon conservative dissidents as a threat. Such dissidents, therefore, can expect to...

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(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Asumah, Seth N., and Valencia Perkins. “Black Conservatism and the Social Problems in Black America: Ideological Cul-de-Sacs.” Journal of Black Studies 31 (September, 2000): 51-73. While critical of Steele and other black conservatives, the authors argue that African American conservatives and liberals should find ways to work together to achieve their common goals.

Ellison, Julie. “A Short History of Liberal Guilt.” Critical Inquiry 22 (Winter, 1996): 344-371. Writing that “liberal guilt” since the 1960’s has been synonymous with “white guilt,” Ellison includes several interesting pages about Steele’s views on the topic.

McCabe, J. P. “Social Critics of Color and Normative Approaches to Democracy.” Polity 29 (Winter, 1996): 221-245. Interesting comparison between right-wing proponents of radical individualism such as Steele and left-wing writers such as Cornell West who emphasize group solidarity.

Megalli, Mark. “The High Priests of the Black Academic Right.” The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education 9 (Autumn, 1995): 71-77. Balanced summary and comparison of the writings of Steele, Glen Loury, Walter Williams, and Thomas Sowell, as well as more moderate African American conservatives.

Moskowitz, Milton. “Shelby Steele Views the Texaco Race Discrimination Case.” The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education 22 (Winter, 1998): 135-136. Emotional and extremely critical judgment on Steele’s minimization of racial discrimination in a racial discrimination lawsuit and in American society in general.

Sheridan, Earl. “The New Accommodationists.” Journal of Black Studies 27 (November, 1996): 152-171. Sheridan is highly critical of black conservatives, asserting that Steele is “afraid of offending white people” and wants “to let white Americans off the hook.”

Steele, Shelby. “The Race Is On.” Interview by Julianne Malveaux. Transition 56 (1992): 166-174. Steele remembers his experiences with racism, describes himself as a “classic liberal,” and claims to support government programs that help poor persons.