Shelby Steele, Shame: How America’s Past Sins Have Polarized the Country, Basic Books, 2015, $25.99, 198 pp.
Every few years we can count on Shelby Steele for a thoughtful analysis of the American dilemma, and Shame, his latest offering, does not disappoint. Dr. Steele, who has been a Hoover Institution fellow since 1994, is one of that distinguished handful of blacks who despise the victim identity, and who insist that blacks must rise or fall according to their merits. He is also a keen observer of whites–having a white mother and a white wife probably helps–and ruthlessly dissects their motives.
In this book, to quote its subtitle, Dr. Steele tries to explain how America’s past sins have polarized the country. The worst of those sins was “racism,” along with “sexism,” environmental plunder, and a pointless war in Southeast Asia, but Dr. Steele’s central question is whether “racism” is still the abiding American sin or has diminished to the point of little consequence.
Dr. Steele believes it is of little consequence, but the Left has built a nearly impregnable moral position on the opposite view: that whites are oppressors virtually by instinct, and continue to ruin the lives of non-whites. Blacks, of course, have swarmed to this position, because it excuses their failings and keeps whites in a state of supplication, but Dr. Steele argues that it also makes them prisoners of victimhood and clients of white generosity. Dr. Steel gets an awful lot right–his prose is clear, sometimes even beautiful–but he has blind spots that keep him from seeing the entire picture.
Dr. Steele traces the roots of today’s polarization to the 1960s, which he says were “arguably the worst crisis of moral and cultural authority in [America’s] history.” The slogan “Never trust anyone over 30” could have arisen only in a period of deep skepticism and alienation.
Dr. Steele is right to say that it all began with race: “The civil rights movement was the first movement in the 1960s to win legitimacy because its charges against America were so blatantly true.” Legal discrimination unquestionably violated statements about equality that have always haunted the republic, and the moral thrill of battling “bigotry” quickly spread to the battle against other newly invented “isms.”
Dr. Steele writes that these battles became part of the spirit of his generation: “America’s evil would always provide us with a sense of purpose and destiny and even moral superiority.” However, for blacks, he says those battles were a bad bargain because they made victimhood a permanent part of their identity. Blacks became “more wedded to the idea of themselves as oppressed than to the reality that they are freer than ever,” and they adopted “a strategy that only keeps us victims even when the world, hesitantly or not, invites us to live as men and women.”
Dr. Steele writes that agreeing to become perpetual victims turned blacks into “contingent people,” whose fate depended on other people’s goodwill. The racial preferences by which whites expressed their goodwill also meant that no black could really claim to deserve success: “There is at least a whisper of doubt over my entire generation of educated blacks–a whisper, frankly, of inferiority.”
Part of the problem was “black pride.” Too many blacks believed that afros and swagger could replace hard work and competence. “Group identities that compensate for the deprived background of the individual with a grandiose vision of the group,” he writes, are a false hope.
But playing the victim is irresistible: For blacks, “grievance against their former oppressor is leverage, entitlement, and even self-esteem within the larger society. It is power.” Where there are victims, there must be oppressors, and blacks quickly learned that whites lived in terror of being thought of as oppressors. Blacks learned they could humiliate and exploit whites by threatening to withhold the blessing that whites craved: recognition that they were not “racists.”
But how do you sniff out and exploit oppressors in a world in which oppression has diminished to almost nothing? By creating a giant lie–by believing what Dr. Steele calls “poetic truth.” Just as poets take license with the truth to achieve artistic effects, the Left distorts the truth so it can keep peddling tales of oppression. Dr. Steele sees America differently:
If you are a black and you want to be a poet, or a doctor, or a corporate executive, or a movie star, there will surely be barriers to overcome, but white racism will be among the least of them. You will be far more likely to receive racial preferences than to suffer racial discrimination.
For the Left, however, “the victimization of blacks (and other minorities) is always the larger truth of American life, a truth so much a part of America’s fundamental character that it must always be taken as literal truth even when the facts refute it.” The basic poetic truth is that all failings of blacks and Hispanics are due to white oppression, but new truths are added all the time. Since the shooting of Trayvon Martin in 2012, it has been established that white vigilantes hunt down and kill unarmed blacks. 2014 gave birth to the poetic truth that white policemen murder unarmed blacks with impunity. This year will no doubt produce its own crop of poetry.
Phony truths of this kind make it impossible for the Left to understand their own country, but they give it tremendous leverage because, as Dr. Steele explains, there is “so much moral and political power in the idea of delivering blacks from their tragic past.” Poetic truth is a lie that supports an ideological position, but it is also the essential buttress for “political correctness,” which Dr. Steele describes as follows:
It has no other purpose than to project these sins [of racism, etc.] as the essential, if not the eternal, truth of the American way of life. Then political correctness tries to bully and shame Americans–on pain of their human decency–into conformity with this ugly view of their society.
Anyone who points out that blacks face very little discrimination is a dissident who must be put down, and poetic truth gives the Left “the power to shame and stigmatize all who oppose it.” As Dr. Steel emphasizes, the poetic truth isn’t about truth; it’s about power.
How whites think
But what’s in it for whites? They still set the bounds of political discussion. Why paint such a dark picture of their own race? Dr. Steele argues that it is because condemning their own race is how liberals exhibit virtue.
All whites have been trapped by a shift in what it means to be moral. Until the 1950s, private virtue was the measure of goodness. As the ’60s mentality took hold, goodness began to depend on explicit opposition to all the alleged American evils, especially “racism.” The expression of certain views–rather than virtuous acts–became an important moral standard. You could still get in trouble for ordinary misbehavior, but you could be fired from your job and stripped of respectability merely for expressing forbidden views.
Very few whites actually do anything that could be considered “racist;” today it is all words. Whites must therefore constantly watch what they say because a few syllables can put them at the mercy of liberals and non-whites, who have the power either to pass sentence or forgive. This infuses the lives of whites with a special terror: “The terror of being seen as racist–a terror that has caused whites to act guiltily toward minorities even when they feel no guilt.”
Among the many things whites must not say–and even Dr. Steele says it at his risk–is that since “racism” is not a major barrier to blacks, they generally get what they deserve. For liberals, anyone who denies pervasive “racism” is, himself, an unwitting or even deliberate accomplice to “racism.” The only route to virtue is to recognize the deeply oppressive nature of the country and to denounce it at every opportunity. The perverse result, says Dr. Steele, is that only by denouncing their own country and race can whites enjoy “the good opinion of themselves as decent and socially concerned people.”
The only way whites can be sure of never being tarred as “racist” is to endorse race-preference programs and claim to worship “diversity.” But for Dr. Steele, even though “affirmative action” is supposed to help brown people, it helps only white people. Throwing incompetent non-whites in over their heads does them no good, but it is “a shield against charges of racism and sexism.” Non-whites are pawns in these rituals of expiation.
Liberals and conservatives
Dr. Steele believes that America is more ideologically divided than at any time since the Civil War. He thinks this is a direct result of the moral revolution of the 1960s that unmasked the United States as racist, sexist, materialist, etc. The “poetic truth” of the liberals is that the country still groans under these sins, whereas conservatives believe that most people get a pretty fair deal.
Conservatives therefore preach individual responsibility and hard work, whereas liberals think government must step in and make up for a rigged game. In Dr. Steele’s view, “Liberalism in the twenty-first century is, for the most part, a moral manipulation that exaggerates inequity and unfairness in American life in order to justify overreaching public policies and programs.” Only government activism can shoehorn minorities into the equality they deserve.
The problem for conservatives who preach meritocracy is that white men used to get a leg up. By repudiating discrimination and oppression, liberals claim to have broken decisively with that dark past, and accuse conservatives of using meritocracy as a cover for the same old biases that beat down women and non-whites.
Dr. Steel explains:
This remains liberalism’s great advantage over conservatism–its glib dissociation from the past quickly restores legitimacy to [liberal-dominated] American institutions. Conservatism has no quick dissociative mechanism. It lumbers along, struggling with difficult principles–principles that even ask America’ former victims to take considerable responsibility for their own advancement. Conservatism doesn’t offer dissociation. Thus, in a culture won over by dissociation, conservatism seems to be in association with America’s evil past.
Conservative ideas always have to swim upstream against charges of bigotry. Thus, writes Dr. Steel, “It is conservatives who now feel evicted from their culture, who are made to feel like outsiders even as they are accused of being traditionalists.”
America either is seething with racism and sexism or it is not. These views cannot be reconciled, so to call oneself liberal or conservative is to adopt an almost tribal identity that thrives on hostility towards the other camp. Ideological opponents no longer see each other as two sides of the same coin: Opponents “are a different coin altogether, a fundamentally illegitimate and alien force” and this justifies the “bitterness and contempt” one tribe feels for the other.
Dr. Steele’s conservatism is deeply libertarian. He believes that freedom is better than government intervention even if freedom sometimes means non-whites bring up the rear. He thinks, in fact, that government handouts are destructive, because they reward the degeneracy that breaks up black families. He believes that if the country could turn its back on “paternalistic intervention inspired by white guilt” it would send a clear message to blacks that their success depends on their efforts alone. If blacks rejected victimhood and trusted in America’s willingness to reward effort, there would be a true flowering of black ability. “After all,” writes Dr. Steele, “this was precisely the model of advancement that blacks followed in sports and music to such great success. . . . Wouldn’t this model work in engineering or medicine or business?”
The flaw in the argument
No, this model would not work in engineering or medicine or business. It wouldn’t because there are racial differences that prevent blacks from succeeding in these fields at the same rate as whites. Surely, Dr. Steele must realize that if blacks were as talented in engineering as they are in basketball, not even race preferences and a victim identity would have held them back. It may be that blacks are discouraged to some degree by the fear the Left drums into them that nasty white people are waiting at every turn to trip them up, but blacks with real talent and drive can succeed in any field.
This book, like so many others, falls apart logically because it refuses to face up to race differences in ability. It is those differences that produce the yawning gaps in achievement that make “poetic truth” plausible. If race differences in ability are a forbidden concept, only “racism” is left to explain those gaps. And it is because pure meritocracy always results in these otherwise inexplicable gaps that the Left can plausibly accuse whites of holding blacks down.
Nor is the current arrangement the terrible deal for blacks Dr. Steele makes it out to be. If race preferences and the victim mentality really did sap the vitality of black minds and caused stark gaps in achievement, Dr. Steele would be right. But they don’t have that effect. Most blacks get to about the level they deserve. Affirmative action then lifts some of them higher, and it doesn’t leave them writhing in agonies of self-doubt. Most are obviously convinced they deserve to go even higher!
Nor should Dr. Steele be so quick to dismiss the racial hierarchy of pre-1960s America. Ever since the arrival of blacks on this continent, Americans have stumbled about, trying to find a way for two starkly dissimilar groups to live together. There was injustice in slavery and Jim Crow, but is there no injustice in today’s pretentions of equality?
We are out of options. We have tried them all and they all failed. Blacks and whites see the world differently. The fabricated melodramas of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and Eric Garner are only the latest differences that cannot be reconciled. Blacks like Dr. Steele, who understand the pathological relationship between black power and white guilt, will always be a minority. The only solution is for blacks to run their own societies as they see fit and leave whites to run theirs. That is the only way blacks will finally learn the lesson Dr. Steele wants them to learn: that their fate is in their hands, and not in ours.