Shelby Steele Biography


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

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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(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Shelby Steele grew up in Chicago under the guidance of strong parents who provided a stable family relationship for him, his twin brother, and his two sisters. Having interracial parents, Steele was influenced by two races, although he more strongly identified with his black heritage. As a college student, he became involved in the Civil Rights movement of the 1960’s, following, at different times, the leads of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X. Steele led civil rights marches at Coe College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and protested that African Americans were victimized by white society.

After the completion of his education, his marriage to a white woman, and the birth of their two children, Steele developed new thoughts about African Americans in America. He came to the conclusion that opportunities are widely available to all citizens if they have personal initiative and a strong work ethic. Upon reaching this conclusion, which ran counter to his earlier ideas, Steele began to publish his ideas in major magazines and journals. His philosophy was often harshly dismissed by leaders in the Civil Rights movement, but it also garnered much praise, especially from African American political conservatives.

Steele was one of a few African Americans willing to challenge what was called the civil rights orthodoxy. When his work was published, he quickly became the subject of magazine and journal articles and was interviewed widely on radio and television, all the while drawing fire from numerous civil rights leaders.

In 1990, his first book, The Content of Our Character, was published. With this collection of his essays on race relations in America, Steele became recognized as a leading spokesman for political conservatives of all races. The main thesis of his book is that individual initiative, self-sufficiency, and strong families are what black America needs. Although labeled conservative by most everyone, Steele refuses the label and calls himself a “classical Jeffersonian liberal.”


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Cooper, Matthew. “Inside Racism.” The Washington Monthly 23, no. 9 (October, 1990). Takes some issue with Steele’s comments about affirmative action but generally supports his ideas.

Loury, Glenn C. “Why Steele Demands More of Blacks than of Whites.” Academic Questions 5 (Fall, 1992): 19-23. Provides an overview and analysis of the controversy aroused by The Content of Our Character.

Prager, Jeffrey. “Self Reflection(s): Subjectivity and Racial Subordination in the Contemporary African American Writer.” Social Identities 1 (August, 1995): 355-371. Compares Steele’s The Content of Our Character and John Wideman’s Philadelphia Fire (1990) to reveal these authors’ confrontation with self-expression and self-definition in the American society which denies African American individuality.

Vassallo, Phillip. “Guarantees of a Promised Land: Language and Images of Race Relations in Shelby Steele’s The Content of Our Character.” ETC: A Review of General Semantics 49 (Spring, 1992): 36-42. Analyzes the language Steele uses to make his case in his book, especially his coinage of phrases such as “race-holding” and “harangue-flagellation ritual” to frame his argument.