When I saw this book on Amazon, I was a skeptical as to what I found find inside of it. However, the nearly five star reviews convinced me to inspect it a bit further. I took the plunge and ordered it to see exactly what Shelby Steele had to say about race, a topic that continues to either unite or divide people in America. The phrase “content of our character” is known to many of us. It was the pivotal moment of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s (1929-1968) “I Have a Dream” speech on August 28, 1963. Fifty-seven years have passed since that monumental moment in American history and the question remains, do we judge each other on the content of our character? Further, have we progressed as a society or is America still the same place it was when Jim Crow made life miserable for millions of black Americans and others who emigrated to the United States in search of opportunity?
The book was published in 1991, making it twenty-nine years old. At first, I wondered if the material would have any relevance to current day America. To my surprise and satisfaction, Shelby’s message is still relevant today. He does not place blame on white Americans or absolve them of guilt or responsibility for America’s past sins. Instead, his focus is on black America and the message he conveys is an attempt to introduce a different dialogue about race. Skeptics will be tempted to write him off as someone who has animosity towards his own upbringing. That is not the case and at no point in the book does Steele express any type of regret or dissatisfaction about his own ethnicity. His goal is to show that American has progressed when it comes to race and for black Americans to truly live the American dream, there are things that have to change. First and foremost is the role race plays in all of our lives for better or worse.
As I read through the book, I could not help but to think of John McWhorten’s “Losing the Race: Self Sabotage in Black America“, which explores some of the same issues as Steele does here. In fact, McWhorten references Steele on several occasions as he discusses the concepts of victimology, separatism and anti-intellectualism. Steeled does focus on each but does not distinctly define them as McWhorten does. His discussion about an identity formed out of being a victim stands out as an observation that warrants much further discussion and is exactly what McWhorten believes in his equally moving book.
By his own admission, Steel is what would be considered to be middle class. He is successful but not extremely wealthy, a father of children he loves and in what will be a surprise to some, married to a white woman. However, he cannot and does not refute his race and explains the tightrope that black middle class Americans walk on daily. As a black American, I firmly believe that education is key to moving up in life and pursuing values that will help me to assimilate into mainstream America. Yet should I also accept and embody the concept that no matter what I do, I am still regulated to a lower standard of living because my skin is dark? That is the question black Americans will find themselves confronted with while reading this book. Today, there are black CEOs, governors, attorney generals, vice-presidents, movie stars, pilots, etc. Steele believes that black Americans have and continue to advance in society. And while he does not ignore the fact that racism exist, our successes and failures cannot always be attributed to it.
Of course, there is the elephant in the room in the form of affirmative action, a subject that almost always results in heated discussion. Steele does not shy away from the matter and his words are similar to McWhorten’s beliefs as well. The idea behind affirmative action was rooted in the right principles. However, moving forward decades later, does it hurt black people more than it helps? Further, by accepting someone with lower qualifications solely on the basis of their race, do we inadvertently discriminate against others well qualified on the basis of their skin being white? Surely, the question does not have a simple answer but I do believe, as do Steel and McWhorten, that the system of affirmative action needs to be reevaluated to see if in fact, it has really made the change that it was intended to be.
By no means does Steele provide the final word on the subject of race. As we all know, discrimination still exist. But I do think the material is gold and provides a wealth of food for thought with regards to race and the advancement of black Americans. Former President Barack Obama ran his campaign on a simple slogan, “yes we can”. I believe as does Steele, that black Americans can and will succeed but only after accepting hard truths that can reshape our minds and provide a new vision for long term success. And as we move forward, we shall seek to be judged solely on the content of our character.