As a writer, researcher and senior fellow at conservative think tank the Hoover Institution, Shelby Steele has dedicated much of his work to questioning our assumptions about race relations in America, social programs and political correctness. His most recent book, Shame: How America's Past Sins Have Polarized Our Country, puts forth the idea that liberalism, and the related desire to redeem America of its past sins through social programs, has instead prevented the advancement of the very groups these policies intended to help. Steele shares more thoughts on this topic below.
Societies have many of the qualities individuals have. America is a particularly great society. There's been no country like this ever before in all of human history. And all of the sins that America has committed in its past are nothing that's new. Many countries around the world had slavery and so forth. And America is to be honored and complimented for actually facing these problems and dealing with them. Nevertheless, [having grown] up during the Civil Rights Era, America was brought to account for the sin of slavery, for its mistreatment of women, for all of these things that white supremacy, in a sense, fostered…Still, we all live with the knowledge of this past tragedy and of the hypocrisy of it. I think that knowledge has generated in American life this need to be redemptive, to prove that we are not like that anymore. And so how do you show yourself to be redemptive? You keep deferring to those groups that are associated with that victimization and you keep trying to give them things and, in a sense, use them as a vehicle for America's redemption.
One of the points that I feel very strongly about, coming as a black [man], is that the deference that America has shown us since the '60s with the War on Poverty and the Great Society and welfare, these deferential policies that defer to our history of victimization now victimize us more than racism did. I grew up in segregation. I know exactly what it's like. And I had a more positive attitude toward America than many blacks do today who are the beneficiaries of Affirmative Action. I think that deference has become a very corrupting influence on the people that it tries to help. It's honorable that it wants to help these people but they never ask the people to be responsible for their own transformation and uplift and that's the great tragedy of deference and political correctness.
As I said in a [recent Wall Street Journal] article, political correctness is just the codification of deference…As blacks, we live in a society that keeps trying now to help us and to redeem itself through us. And that just pushes us into a symbiotic relationship with white America. We become their poster boy for redemption… It's now begun to hurt the fabric of American life. I think this past election is about that. Americans are saying, among other things, “We're tired of this. We know something's wrong. We may not know what it is but something's wrong."
The history of America has accused [white people] of the evil of bigotry. And so white Americans are insanely sensitive to being seen as racists or, to a lesser degree, sexists. And so this hyperbolic political correctness that we've descended into has to do with this neurotic response. But when people are living under that kind of threat of stigmatization, they don't even see the people they're trying to help. White people don't even see blacks. Political correctness is utterly and completely blind to the humanity of black America.
Everybody is under threat of stigmatization. Blacks are fanatical about who's really black and who isn't. Whites are fanatical about whether they're racist or whether they're not. Nobody is seeing each other as simply as human beings…
I'm old enough now to know that things do change radically in societies. My elementary school was the first desegregation lawsuit in the North. I remember the battle that we had to fight in order to win that victory. I think today we just continue to be in that position where we are exploited now out of good intentions rather than out of bad intentions and we then become invested in our own victimization -- that's what gets us attention, not our excellence. Black America, the culture, has been one of the richest cultures in the world. We've revolutionized music around the entire globe, we've produced one of the great literatures in modern times -- we've done some fabulous things, even while behind the wall of segregation. Whites have to be honest with us and say, “We can't help anybody who doesn't take responsibility for themselves." It won't work. You just become dependent and weaker. You become the very thing white supremacists said you were in the first place. Inferior. Deference rewards inferiority in minorities. And so how is that gonna happen? Well, we're gonna fight that out. This election was, in many ways, about that…
My father was born in the 19th Century. He never went beyond the third grade. He made something of himself. He taught himself how to read and write. That was a common thing in black America in those days. Everything was stacked against him -- everything. Yet he believed in his own freedom. He took the margin of freedom that he had and he made something of himself. Many blacks have done that. The black middle class didn't just come out of nowhere. That, too, is the result of a long history. Well, we have to get back to that. And whites need to understand that responsibility is the key to everything. Nothing's possible without it -- least of all [white peoples'] redemption. They're now, I think, living under a cloud of morally exploiting minorities for their own moral self-esteem…Blacks are really a currency now of legitimacy for American institutions…
Political correctness is now evil and it is what holds minorities down. So use the n-word -- I don't give a damn. But you will have some respect for me, for my abilities, for my talents, for the fact that I can function in this advanced, modern society. All I ever wanted was just simple fairness. My prayer is that someday we become as fanatical about fairness as we are now about political correctness.
As told to Abby Schreiber
Photo by Rita Steele
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