How Liberalism Divides America: A Review of Shelby Steele’s Shame

Shelby Steele, Shame, How America’s Past Sins Have Polarized Our Country, Basic Books, 2015

Don’t be misled by this small book’s subtitle, or even the title for that matter. Neither reflects Shelby Steele’s thesis that post 1960s Liberalism is built on a house of lies that has relegated many blacks and other minorities to positions “of inferiors and dependents.” (179)

Shame reveals among other things why eight years after the election of the first African-American president, issues around race still divide our country. Steele also explains why Liberalism seems to be more about absolving whites and government from America’s past than helping minorities overcome that past and why conservative commentators are not taken at face value.

To understand Steele’s thesis one needs to start with slavery because slavery was not just an evil in and of itself, it was a black mark against the foundational principle of American exceptionalism––the core principle embodied in the Declaration and the Constitution that freedom of the individual is the ideal foundation of a just society. Although some did oppose slavery from the start, it took half a century before it was abolished. Unfortunately, slavery was replaced by another pernicious social institution––Jim Crow, which was based on theories of African-American inferiority. Segregation and its rational survived until the 1960s when the struggle for equality became the central issue of the day and the necessity of extending the promise of freedom to all brought about a massive social upheaval.

Shelby Steele’s contribution to what happened next reflects his experience growing up in an era where America sought to show the world it had broken with its past by instituting a variety of programs designed to remedy that past, including the War on Poverty, affirmative action, racial preferences in hiring, lowered welfare standards, et al. The short-term impact of these programs was to give blacks an opportunity to join the mainstream of American society, but there was an unintended longer-term consequence that both handcuffed blacks and gave rise to the distorted political culture we call Liberalism.

Steele illustrates how blacks have been hampered by these post-Civil Rights policies by citing the case of Clarence Thomas who found getting into Yale Law School undermined people’s willingness to give him credit for his accomplishments. People assumed Thomas only got into Yale because he was black and that his high grades at Yale were not deserved. This “catch 22” still hampers blacks today. One wonders if Barack Obama feared he was only elected president because of his race, and not his qualifications or platform? Does that explain the aloof manner by which he conducted himself as president?

The flip side of the post 1960s liberal equation is that many whites feel they must continually prove they are not racists by asserting that America is a racist society despite the fact blacks today are “far more likely to receive racial preferences than to suffer racial discrimination.” (17)

The 1960s gave rise to the notion that America was inherently evil as evidenced by its treatment of women, blacks and other minorities, by its disregard for the environment and by its willingness to interfere in third world liberation struggles––the war in Vietnam being the primary example. The remedy was affirmative action on all those issues and in the process discrediting of the notion that a commitment to the freedom of the individual was sufficient. In Steele’s terms, America embarked on a new mission “to establish ‘The Good’ . . . on par with freedom.” The Good requires equal results be guaranteed not just equal opportunity. The purpose of The Good, he writes, “became absolution for the American people and the government, and not actual reform for minorities.” (128)

The Good was a relativistic solution––a commitment to results over process and it required people to dissociate themselves from America’s past. Liberal public policies and programs were promoted as evidence of rejection of America’s evil past and refusal to endorse such programs was seen as lingering affiliation with that past. Belief in America as a city on a hill, as a beacon of freedom for the oppressed peoples of the world, as an exceptional nation was rejected. “American exceptionalism and white supremacy [became] virtually interchangeable.” (164)

Liberalism underscored its commitment to The Good attacking traditional American culture and invading the political arena. To post 1960 liberals the drive for political power was seen as “nothing less than a moral and cultural imperative.” (156)

In order to maintain their political and cultural dominance, liberals have become committed to what Steele calls the ‘poetic truth’ of American society, a false vision that is necessary to support their ideological position. The chickens of that falsity, embodied in academia, big government and groups such as black lives matter, came home to roost in November, 2016 when sixty plus million people rejected the liberal candidate.

Criticism of liberal programs by whites can be dismissed as evidence of a person’s association with pre-1960s America, but it’s harder to make that label stick when the critics are black. Labeling people like Clarence Thomas, Michelle Malkin, Thomas Sowell, Walter Williams, Dr. Ben Carson, and Shelby Steele ‘uncle toms’ only demonstrates how unglued liberals become when confronted with facts that fly in the face of their make believe world.

Sadly books like Shame rarely get the visibility they deserve. I found no reviews in the New York Times or the Washington Post, despite the fact that Steele is a senior fellow with the Hoover Institution and author of the National Book Critics Circle Award-winning book The Content of Our Character (1990).
Shame has only 49 reviews on Amazon and a 4.3 rating while Ta-Hehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me has 3,157 reviews and a 4.6 rating. Coates has received numerous awards for his writing, including a MacArthur “genius grant,” but Coates’ thesis that racism survives because whites are attached to the benefits of being white is a perfect example of what Steele unclothes––a false narrative that is accepted because it re-inforces the story that America is as tainted today as it was in the time of slavery. Coates views “whiteness” as inevitable and permanent but fails to recognize that the price of conflating slavery and segregation, discrimination and unintended bias is that blacks will never be free! That’s where Steele parts company with Coates.

Steele gives us a window into his evolution from a sixties radical to a twenty-first century conservative. The turning point came in 1970 when he and his wife spent several weeks in Africa where he discovered that the revolution the Black Panthers and others were championing was a false and bankrupt dream. His experience reminds me of the degeneration of the civil rights movement in Albany, New York around the same time. I had been involved in the optimistic years before King’s assassination, which understandably caused many to become bitter and the rhetoric of revolution to gain currency. When the Black Panthers came to Albany, however, they sent a heroin dealer as their representative. Apparently at that point anyone willing to spout their revolutionary rhetoric was acceptable.

While post 1960s liberalism has been losing currency at the polls, it still dominates our culture, the entertainment industry, and the news media. Conservatives who reject the relativism of Liberalism, who stand behind the founders’ original insights, have an opportunity to turn the tide. Steele urges conservatives to be sensitive to the “psychological and cultural damage done to minorities by American hypocrisy,” by showing how the original dream of equality for all and a commitment to freedom, is still America’s essential truth. The time to win that war is now.

A review of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me

Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me (2015)

Between the World and Me, which is structured as a letter to his fifteen year old son by Baltimore native Ta-Nehisi Coates, is a rejection of and an indictment of the United States––its origins, its history, its people. To that end it demands a rebuttal.

No one has the right to deny Coates interpretation of his experience, to deny what it was like growing up as he did in poverty in Baltimore in the last quarter of the 20th century. He eloquently describes the incidents that led him to his negative conclusions about this country, including the odds weighted against him on the street and in school.

Counterposing those experiences, however, was his family life. He was blessed by a grandfather who taught him the love of books and a grandmother who taught him the import of questioning authority. No sane person could have lived that life without coming away with a good deal of anger, nor without the tools to express that anger.

Nor is Coates to be criticized as an outlier in the transcribing the story of the Black experience. As Toni Morrison suggests, he follows in a tradition that include James Baldwin, Amiri Baraka, Malcolm X, and others.

Where does he go wrong? To me it’s defining the Black experience as both unique and intentional. Many groups have had experiences as bad the descendants of slavery. What of the Jews, the Armenians, the Russian and Chinese victims of Communism, the African victims of genocide, India’s outcastes, and many others?

Coates seems to want an answer as a member of a group, which he will argue, is how others have defined him. Yet no time in human history had the rights of the individual without regard to gender or origins been more valued than on this continent on the day our Declaration of Independence was passed. Should we hold against the founders, as Coates does, the fact that their stand was a beginning and not the end of the story of the struggle for liberty for all people?

In terms of intentionality, Coates’ fallacy is blaming people for policies over which they had no control and which many protested. Slavery had its opponents long before the United States became a country. Many died to put an end to it. Whites helped found the NAACP in 1909 and white college students of my generation went to the South to protest segregation. Has Coates talked to Black Southerners who were alive in the 1960s? The changes have been dramatic.

One of the incidents that led to Coates’ unremitting anger was the murder of fellow Howard College student Prince Jones in September 2000 by an undercover police officer. Each one of the similar tragedies that can be traced as far back as you want to go eats at the soul and makes it difficult to challenge the notion that America is not a police state structured to crush Black people for the benefit of “those who think they are white.”

Yet to make this argument Coates has to undercut his own thesis, as the officer who killed Prince Jones was black. Jones’ death can only be described as a reflection of race if one is willing to muddy the waters of rational discourse by suggesting all black police officers are white when it comes to their treatment of blacks.

The problem instead more truly reflects the consequences of charging law enforcement with impossible and often contradictory responsibilities. The most difficult assignment for public officials in general, not just police officers, is operating in our inner cities. Generations living in poverty, where the family structure and other institutions are weak and where crime is a rational choice, have given rise to a hostile, war zone environment for teachers, social workers, bus drivers, meter readers as well as police officers.

Can whites and blacks be blamed for leaving if they could? Coates would like to do so. He recalls seeing white children at ease in a mixed New York neighborhood and reflects on how black children are often told they have to be twice as good. “No one told those little white children . . . to be twice as good. I imagined their parents telling them to take twice as much.” (91)

Coates imagines a lot of things about whites that are just plain wrong. He imagines we make a big deal about being white to the extent we have lost our connection with our ethnic origins. Not true. He imagines we think differences in “hue and hair” are the right way to organize a society. Not for two hundred years. He imagines whites see race “as a defined, indubitable feature of the natural world.” I don’t think I’m alone in seeing only one race––the human one.

Has the fact that Coates grew up in a country that promises much it has not always delivered contributed to the level of his anger? Had he grown up in almost any other country in the world, he would not have had a foundation for his complaints, as nowhere else are people even promised what we are in the United States have been granted. Yes, America has often failed to deliver, but Coates questions whether the promises are genuine. That is his mistake.

Progress has always been achieved by those who believed the rights possessed by others were due them as well. What can you achieve if you give up before the battle has even started?

Hints in Between the World and Me suggest Samori Coates has moved beyond his father. The son’s experience is such that he takes for granted what the father still can not. While the father sees the death of young blacks at the hands of the police as evidence that nothing has changed, the son views those incidents as anomalous. Both would protest, but the son lives in a world where his opportunities are greater, where fewer pay attention to his skin color, and where the promise of the Declaration is closer than ever to belonging to all.

I read Between the World and Me at the suggestion of someone I had criticized for his use of the term “mass incarceration.” I heard that term again during the Democratic debate from the mouth of Hillary Clinton. Loose language and especially inflammatory language used loosely bother me greatly. They are signs that people have stopped dealing with particulars and fail to see the damage that is done by throwing out generalities whose meaning fails to stand up to scrutiny.

Ta-Nehisi Coates is extremely articulate. His phrasing speaks of genuine feeling and a bright intellect, but he also employs a lot of loose language. He sneaks in words whose meaning is inside baseball to those who think like he does.

Here are three examples. The italics are mine:

  • The destroyers (speaking of the police) are merely men enforcing the whims of our country, correctly interpreting its heritage and legacy” (10).
  • “[E]ducators spoke of ‘personal responsibility’ in a country authored and sustained by a criminal irresponsibility” (33).
  • “And today, with a sprawling prison system, which has turned the warehousing of black bodies into a jobs program for Dreamers and a lucrative investment for Dreamers” (131).

Words matter. If the words on the pages of Between the World and Me matter, then the words of the Declaration of Independence matter, the words of the U.S. Constitution matter, and the words of Lincoln’s Gettysburg address, which Coates discounts, matter. It’s unfortunate that Coates disputes that Americans who are not descendants from slavery mean to include Black people when we use the term people, but we do.

If Coates is not satisfied that two and a half centuries of American history have demonstrated a commitment to inclusion, I suggest he take another look. He sees the glass more than half empty. I urge him to talk to people who see it more than half full. They won’t be hard to find.