Shelby Steele’s first book, The Content of Our Character: A New Vision of Race in America, which contained several of his essays on social issues primarily affecting African Americans, was a bombshell. The book was denounced by many African American leaders, and despite Steele’s harsh criticism of nonblacks for their attitude in racial situations, his book was applauded by millions, both black and white, and earned for its author numerous honors and much critical acclaim.
Steele grew up in an all-black community south of Chicago. His father, who left school in the third grade, believed in education as the route to success and pushed his children in that direction. This strong parental influence contributed to Steele’s philosophy about how African Americans should gain equality. Steele contended that too many African Americans have come to rely on the preferences demanded by affirmative action programs or on the leverage provided by allegations of racial prejudice rather than on individual initiative. His criticism of racial quotas in the job market and in college admissions, his contention that preference programs such as affirmative action are enslaving, and his call for African Americans to examine their own prejudices put him at odds with many who labeled him a traitor to his race. He was angrily accused of providing comfort to whites, of being an “Uncle Tom,” and of being simplistic.
Steele’s philosophy was formed, in part, by a strong family that included a twin brother, two sisters, and interracial parents. His father grew up in the South before eventually making his way to Chicago, where he married a white social worker. As a child, Steele attended an all-black elementary school; in high school, he excelled in an integrated environment, and as a senior, he was student council president. His parents involved Steele in the Civil Rights movement in the 1960’s, and he became a follower of both Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X. His early affection was for King. As a student at Coe College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, he became involved in student civil rights groups adhering to King’s philosophy. Later in his college experience, he adopted a more militant stance in keeping with his new role model, Malcolm X, who preached Black Power. During this period, he wore African-style clothing and led campus protests. He also began to...
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