Posted on September 28, 2006

Shelby Steele Takes On Racism, Imperialism, Affirmative Action

Carla Dash, Tufts Daily (Medford, MA), September 27, 2006

Dr. Shelby Steele, a conservative race theorist, delivered the fifth Richard E. Snyder President’s Lecture yesterday afternoon in the Balch Arena Theater.

Steele’s discussion, entitled “White Guilt: Why American Can’t Solve the Race Problem or Win Wars,” explained his thesis of “white guilt” and his views on the negative policy implications for African-Americans.

White guilt, as Steele defined it, is the “vacuum of moral authority” that resulted when global white supremacy ended in the period after World War II. In the context of U.S. politics, Steele cited legislation such as the Civil Rights Act (1964) and the Voting Rights Act (1965) as white America’s acknowledgement of the racism it had practiced and its promise to give it up.

However, he argues this very admission of guilt caused white people to be “stigmatized as racists.”

White people’s attempts to dissociate themselves from this stigma have resulted in concepts and policies like diversity, welfare, and affirmative action, which according to Steele validate the nation’s moral authority but do not necessarily effect real change.

The concept of diversity, he claimed, exists for only to allow white people to dissociate themselves from racism. By including black people, white institutions prove that they are not racist.

The message of diversity is “I don’t know who the hell you are, but I need your race,” Steele said.


Affirmative action, Steele argued, is a system that sets black people up for failure by putting on them on a higher level than they ought to be, stigmatizing them as inferior and unable to compete on their own. It also encourages black people to “trade on race, not talent or ability,” he said.

Despite this tendency, Steele said, white guilt does not apply in certain areas: sports, music, and entertainment. In these areas, he said, black people settle for nothing less than excellence. Here, he argued, black people have taken the responsibility for success into their own hands and worked hard to achieve.

This is the kind of work ethic Steele portrayed as a step toward bridging the gap between white and black professional performance in the United States.

The problem, he said, is that “we mistakenly defined inequality in America as racism and injustice when it was in fact underdevelopment.”

To overcome the underdevelopment that resulted from hundreds of years of oppression, Steele argued, black people must come to value excellence, merit, and education, and raise children who can compete in the world.

Steele argued that American could not win wars because we “fight with a kind of minimalism and restraint” for fear that our power will appear to be racist and imperialist when used against third world countries populated by people of color.

Audience response to Steele was diverse.