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Is White Guilt Destroying the Promise of Civil Rights?
May 9, 2006
Shelby Steele


David Theroux
President, The Independent Institute

Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. My name’s David Theroux, and I’m president of the Independent Institute. I want to welcome you all to our program this evening, our program of lectures, debates, and seminars called the Independent Policy Forum.

Our program this evening as you all know is entitled “Is White Guilt Destroying the Promise of Civil Rights?” And we’re very pleased to have Dr. Shelby Steele, who’s author of the new book, which is already turning up the charts, called White Guilt. It’s been out for two weeks, and it’s already gone into a second printing.

For those of you who are new to our program, hopefully each of you got a packet which has information about our books, and upcoming events, and media programs, and so forth. The institute itself is a scholarly public policy research organization. We have about 140 research fellows who are involved in many different kinds of studies in the public policy realm, economics, social issues, and so on. The results of this are published as books and also in our journal, The Independent Review. This is the current issue, which you’re all welcome to pick up a copy and subscribe to. We also produce a weekly e-mail newsletter called The Lighthouse, which is free for anyone who wants to receive that, and I think you’ll find that interesting and up to date on many current issues.

Also in your packet you’ll find a program about tonight’s event, and at the bottom of the first side I want to point out our next event, which is on June 28th, also here at our conference center in Oakland, and that particular program is called “Re-Thinking Green: Alternatives to Environmental Bureaucracy,” and will feature Carl Close, who’s our director of academic affairs and co-editor of a new book of ours called Re-Thinking Green, as well as Randy Simmons, who’s a research fellow of ours. He’s a professor of political science at Utah State, and also a contributor to the book, as well as Michael Shaw, who’s proprietor of the very successful 74-acre private coastal ecosystem between Santa Cruz and Monterey called Liberty Garden.

One other thing I want to point also in the packet. We each summer we hold a number of seminars for students called “Liberty, Economy, and Society,” and you’ll find a brochure about that. It’s for high school students and for undergraduate college students. It’s a week-long program. It’s lively. It’s very informative. All the students who have attended this in the past rave about it. It’s one of these formative kinds of experiences, especially for young people to understand the world they live in. So we encourage you if you have school age children or have friends that do, we encourage you to consider that, and if you have any questions just let me know.

In the 1960s civil rights victories dealt a blow to racial discrimination in many ways, and yet 40 years later many blacks remain behind. Not just blacks, but other groups too. One of the questions is, has affirmative action sabotaged the gains of the civil rights movement? And what is the role of personal accountability in improving the standing of people who are considered to be members of minority groups?

However, what many people often fail to remember is that only individuals exist. Only individuals perceive, think, choose, and act. We’re all individuals. There’s no collective. There’s no collective mind. There’s no collective will. They’re individuals, and individuals are made up of many different things. That’s what makes humanity so remarkable. But out of this only individuals have rights, and only individuals can have claims against the harms that others might cause to them. There are no collective minds or goods as I mentioned, and to treat people as program members of various groups who can be coercively manipulated, or treated as those people, by others for some mythical social good which overlooks the freely chosen goods of individuals, I believe is wrong-headed and really defies reality.

Jim Crow laws and apartheid were rooted in the view that a mythical, racially based collective and collective good mattered and should be enforced through the lethal force of government power—and that means to smother individual choices. Yet, although Jim Crow is dead today in most respects, government policies based on race do still exist. A myth of racial collectivism, you might say, persists in a myriad of government agencies that seek to stamp us, categorize us, mold us, socialize us, and so on in different ways.

In his new book, White Guilt: How Blacks and Whites Together Destroyed the Promise of the Civil Rights Era, Shelby Steele, who is a very distinguished racial relations scholar, argues that the age of white supremacy may have given way to an age of guilt, white guilt and other kinds of guilt, and this has not been good for people who have been the victims of Jim Crow and apartheid and so on.

Dr. Steele is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution. He’s written extensively in many publications, including newspapers like the New York Times, Wall Street Journal. He’s been a contributing editor at Harper’s. He received the National Book Critics Award in 1990 for his book The Content of Our Character. This year he’s receiving the Bradley Foundation Prize for outstanding achievement. He’s also a recipient of the National Humanities Medal.

In 1991 his work on the documentary Seven Days in Bensonhurst was recognized with an Emmy, plus the Writers Guild Award, and the San Francisco Film Festival Award. He’s also author of the book A Dream Deferred, which was the subject of the last time we were delighted to have Shelby with us. He’s also appeared on many programs. Most recently he was on The Today Show. He’s been on 60 Minutes, Night Line. The list goes on.

He’s on the national board of the American Academy for Liberal Education, University Accreditation Association, and he’s worked with the Manhattan Institution. He originally received his Ph.D. in English—which was a small indication of why he’s such a great writer, I guess—at the University of Utah. He’s gone to Southern Illinois University, and so on. So it gives me great pleasure to introduce Shelby Steele.

Shelby Steele

Thank you for that wraparound introduction. And it’s good to be back here. I remember the last time I was here was my last book, so I guess I have to write another book to get back again. [Laughter] Well, that’s an incentive, as it should be.

My current book is White Guilt, and it’s an attempt to look at what seems to me to be a really important phenomenon, certainly in American life if it doesn’t extend beyond that I think maybe to much of the Western world. And nobody else was writing about it, so it seemed to me that that’s what a writer is looking for, new territory.

So I’ll just talk about that for a little while. I don’t want to give you a whole, full-blown, technical lecture here and put everybody to sleep, so what I’d like to do is just talk about it for a little while. Then we’ll open it up for questions and have a conversation.

It begins, it seems to me, in a phenomenon that I think, at any rate, is one of the most important events certainly in late 20th century history. I think even more important than the collapse of communism that happened in the ‘80s. And that is the collapse or the delegitimization, to use the long awkward word, of white supremacy. And it’s interesting to me that this phenomenon has gone unremarked, uncommented on in many ways. But white supremacy was an enormously important force, idea in the world for centuries, and organized the entire globe, and extended the nation-state system from one end of the world to the other. So its mark will never leave the world, and it gave a coherence to the world.

And the important thing, I think, to understand about white supremacy is not whether or not it really is an argument for the supremacy of whites or the inferiority of other races, but what was important about it was the idea that whiteness constituted in and of itself moral authority. And so that if a black man in Africa met a white man on a path somewhere, and there was no one around within 50 miles, the black man would have to carry the white man’s bags—because whiteness was authority, and thus it was power. And so whites—given that authority—could very reasonably go around the world and take over whatever territories they desired, and to take whatever resources they desired, and to then sort of corral the people into some sort of servitude if it so suited them. Well, so you see it was an enormously powerful idea that gave a certain meaning to life in the world.

After World War II there began to be revolutions from one end of the globe to the other. There was a revolution in India that was passive. There were revolutions all across Africa, all across the Middle East, all across Asia. Some of these revolutions were violent. The Algerian revolution was a particularly violent one. Some of them were pacifistic—India. The American civil rights revolution was just one of many. It was one, thankfully, that was also nonviolent. Some were communist. Again, nationalistic.

But in any case, all of them were in one way or another revolutions against, not the idea of white supremacy—they sort of left that argument aside—but against the authority. And they succeeded. Western powers retreated everywhere in the world. Britain, France drew back from their colonies. The civil rights movement in America was victorious. So that the idea that whiteness in and of itself constituted authority was defeated, was killed off.

There are no serious people today anywhere in the world who stand forth in the public square and argue that whites ought to rule the world, that white supremacy is a valid idea. Doesn’t mean that people don’t believe in the idea of white supremacy, doesn’t mean that all racism is gone, but the authority that was once inherent in white supremacy has been defeated, and I think it has had a profound effect on the world. Certainly it has also had a profound effect here in America.

Looking specifically at America, which in many ways is where I think the dimensions of white guilt become maybe their clearest. In 1964, we passed a civil rights bill in the United States. In 1965, we passed the Voting Rights Act. Both of these acts I think are some of the greatest social legislation ever passed anywhere in the world, ever written anywhere in the world. They’re the model for other such legislation around the world. And inherent in this legislation was the acknowledgement on the part of America that it had done something very wrong, that racism was wrong. That slavery was wrong. That segregation was wrong. That white supremacy itself was wrong.

I think this was America’s greatest moment. Here was a nation that morally came to terms with itself, faced itself. Maybe it has happened, but I’m not aware of it anywhere else in the world before this happening, where a society rich and powerful looks at itself, examines itself in the way that America did at that period in time, and makes the decision to change, and acknowledges the wrong, and vows to become a different kind of society.

And so America has to be applauded. I’m glad to be in America, because America was able to do that. It would have been a very difficult if America had not been able to do that.

The problem, though, as always happens in human affairs, when you acknowledge a wrong, you say, yes, it was wrong, and we’re going to move away from that. The price you pay is that you lose your moral authority. And I think this is again one of the most important events in American history, that given after the civil rights movement Americans, white Americans, but more importantly than individuals are institutions, lost a considerable amount of moral authority, because now blacks and other minorities could look at them, could point the finger, and could say, well, by your own acknowledgement, by your own acknowledgement you’re admitting that you—that America did us wrong.

And so the moral authority that whites lost shifted to minorities and became extreme—it became an important source of power for minorities. As I’ve said, white guilt is black power. It’s the same—they have the same phenomenon, and I’ll talk a little bit more about that in a minute when I look at specifically how blacks responded to this.

So white guilt, then, is not a guilt of conscience. It’s not “I can’t sleep at night because I’m so guilty about what happened to black Americans before I was born.” It’s not that kind. If white guilt was that then we wouldn’t be here today talking about this phenomenon. But it is this vacuum of moral authority, this having the authority to be able to speak about any number of issues, race, poverty, and so forth, because of having acknowledged this past, the sins of the past.

White guilt is enforced by stigma. When you acknowledge that you were a part of a group—that you belong to a group that did a wrong in the past. If you want to I think see this in vivid terms, think of the Germans after World War II, the stigma of having been a Nazi, having a Nazi in your family, an uncle who was whatever. Well, you might yourself not have been a Nazi, might never have subscribed to that point of view, but outside of Germany, all Germans in a sense became from then on stigmatized by the sin of Nazism, and other people could look at them and have a certain kind of, again, moral authority in relation to them.

Well, in many ways I think that’s what happened in America. Whites became stigmatized as racist. And from that point on whites were in the position of forever having to prove the negative, that they’re not a racist. And again, if they don’t prove the negative, then the stigma sticks. Well, you must be a racist. And so since that time whites, and particularly, again, institutions, have lived under threat of stigmatization.

Why’s that important? It’s important because if you are stigmatized as a racist in American society—an institution, let’s say. It’s easier, I think, to see on the institutional level. Then that institution becomes illegitimate. It loses its legitimacy. It loses its ability to really function in this society. So the stigma, again, has a powerful impact, because it has so much control over legitimacy. How can you be a legitimate institution in a multi-racial society that is supposed to be free, and everyone is supposed to be equal under the law—how can you be legitimate if you don’t have any blacks in your institution?

So we could look at a disparity like that—blacks could—again, moral authority having passed to us. We could look at a disparity like that, and we could say you don’t have any blacks in your institution. It’s a racist institution. It’s illegitimate. We will sue it. We will do whatever it takes. And in a sense since the ‘60s that’s pretty much what has been —what has happened is that minorities have begun to sort of manipulate that stigma. We call it some circles today the race card. Play the race card. What does the race card mean? Well, if you don’t do what I want you to do, then you’re going to be stigmatized as a racist, and the price you’ll pay is you’ll lose your legitimacy.

So white guilt is a powerful, powerful force. Not because people feel guilty, but because people are stigmatized, and again have to prove the negative all the time, and living forever under threat of being stigmatized.

This leads to the next phenomenon that is a feature of white guilt, and that’s dissociation. The only way to get away from the stigma of being a racist is to find some way to dissociate oneself from the stigma, from the image that you are a racist. That you are like the whites of old. That you still secretly are a white supremacist. That you still secretly believe in this. That you may be smiling, but your heart is still committed to racism. And so again, whites walking around under this sort of cloud of suspicion then have to find ways to dissociate themselves from that.

The first great example of dissociation in American life was President Johnson’s Great Society. Why all of a sudden, in 1965, do you just say, well, we’re going to spend billions and billions of dollars, and we’re going to create all kind of social programs, and we’re going to dump all this money, and we’re going to end poverty in our time? You create all these programs, almost all of which failed. Certainly they did not eradicate poverty. They did not bring about racial equality. They did virtually nothing. But they did dissociate the American society and the American government from the stigma of racism.

The federal government had just, by its own legislation, acknowledged that it had been racist. That was too much moral authority for minorities to have, and the government really had to do something dramatic because the sin had been so dramatic. The wrong had been so dramatic, and had gone on for so long, and had so clearly violated the principles of a free society. That America had to do something big and huge. Had to spend a lot of money, to say in effect we’re not like that anymore. We’re not that old America that discriminated and oppressed people. We’re a new America. And we’re going even get rid of poverty, we’re going to wipe it out from the human condition.

So the purpose of the Great Society was not actually to end poverty or achieve racial equality. It was to restore some legitimacy to the American government, to the American society.

I remember that time very well. I was in college in those years, and as much as I disagree with the Great Society, as terrible as it was, as wasteful it was, as destructive as it was, I can remember feeling that I was not going to recognize my own government if it didn’t do something, if it didn’t make some gesture. I’d be happy to tell it what kind at this point, but it certainly didn’t make the right one, and I was a part of it back in those days.

But it had to do something. There were riots from one end of America to the other. Los Angeles burned up. New York. Newark. Detroit. Huge riots. Destructive riots. Many deaths. Much, much property damage, and it looked as though blacks were simply no longer going to identify with America as their nation. Militant groups began to spring up everywhere. Cultural nationalists. The Black Panthers right up the road here in Oakland. No longer with nonviolent passive resistance, now with guns, and ready to have shootouts with the police, and so forth.

So the President knew there had to be something huge to dissociate the United States government from the past, to say we’re not like that anymore, we’re a different America.

Well, my feeling is that almost all of the racial policy since the Great Society, since 1965, has been designed, not to solve racial problems, but to dissociate our institutions and our government from its racist past and to restore moral authority and legitimacy to the government.

You see, for example, a few years ago in the affirmative case, the Michigan case. There were 100 briefs were submitted to the Supreme Court in favor of racial preferences by every imaginable American institution, from corporations to city governments. Even the military submitted a brief. You notice there was no march on Washington in favor of affirmative action by blacks, by black people, or other minorities. Nothing. But this extraordinary pressure from America’s institutions arguing that the Supreme Court ought to allow racial preferences to stay in place.

Well, again, why? I think the reason is because those institutions are saying, look, we are under a stigma. Our legitimacy is at stake here. We have to have a way to prove, to indicate, that we’re not like that anymore, that we’re not an exclusive racist institution. We are an open, inclusive—that’s the new word—inclusive institution that wants everybody in our midst, and so we have to have diversity policies, and we have to be able to bring in minorities so that they’re here, because again, our entire legitimacy depends on it. Harvard University, Stanford University, all of the Ivy League have to have about 8 percent of every single freshman class be black. Has to be. Not 7 percent, not 6 percent, but at least 8 percent. Probably without racial preferences about 1 percent, 2 percent of every freshman class would be black. So the rest, the 7 percent are the result of racial preferences.

I’ve written a lot about the negative effects I think that has on minorities. I think one of the cruelest things a society can do is to take the best and the brightest young black Americans and basically say to them you simply cannot compete with the best and brightest of other races. We won’t allow you to do that. You can’t do it. You have to depend on our paternalism.

Well, what a cruel thing to do to a group that’s trying to overcome four centuries of oppression. But does the administration at Harvard, or Stanford, or Yale, or Princeton or any of those schools care about the impact that they’re having on black students, the way they’re stigmatizing them as second raters? Even that 1 percent or 2 percent who would have gotten into that institution anyway?

They say, look, we have to have 8 percent blacks in our freshman class. We don't care about you, because the legitimacy of our institution depends on that. If we go down to 1 percent or 2 percent, then we are going to be stigmatized as a racist university. Faculty won’t want to come here. We will lose money. We will lose grants. Our institution will decline in its whole. We will lose our reputation in every way. And so baby, we’re going to have 8 percent blacks in this freshman class no matter what we have to do to get them. Because it’s the dissociation from the stigma that is so necessary to the legitimacy of the institution.

The early ‘70s, we began to practice a welfare in America, where we basically said to people—this is coming out of the welfare rights movement and coming out of the civil rights movement. We basically said to people, okay, we’ll give you a little bit better than subsistence living, and you don’t have to do anything at all. Nothing. Don’t have to educate yourself or your children. Don’t be married—in fact, you can’t be married. You can’t have a whole family. And if your children grow up and they have children, then of course, we’ll put them on the dole too. And they too don't have to do anything.

So it’s one of these odd situations where you actually put an incentive in place for human inertia. You get rewarded for being nothing, for doing nothing. Nothing. You get rewarded for in a sense giving up your humanity.

Well, what kind of society, other than one trying to dissociate from the stigma of racism —acting guilty—would put in place a policy like that?

Well, again, white guilt—its purpose really is not to help the people who it says it wants to help but to give the society itself a way to dissociate from racism, and say, oh, see, we’re not a racist society, and we know blacks have had it rough, and so we’re going to give them welfare, and we’re going to—without any strings attached. That’s just how wonderful and generous we are.

Well, you put that in place, and, of course, it was at that precise moment in American history that the black underclass began to develop. That we began to have illegitimacy rates—even to this very day, the illegitimacy rate in black America is about 70 percent. In many inner city communities the illegitimacy rate is 90 percent. There was a rapper a couple weeks ago who said, “marriage is for white people.”

Slavery and segregation came nowhere close to injuring the black family in the way that these white guilt welfare policies injured, if not destroyed, the black family in America.

It was precisely the black family that had enabled blacks to survive slavery and segregation. It was the black family that was the primary institution in black America that enabled us to survive all of that oppression.

And so now because we live in a society that doesn’t feel, but acts guiltily towards us all the time, and it doesn’t feel it has the moral authority to ever ask anything of us, we get policies that injure us more profoundly than our oppression did.

Well, let me look at the other side. There’s another side to this story, and that’s the black side, and of course I think much of this extends to other minorities, but it certainly does especially apply, I think to blacks.

When we won the civil rights movement, and we did win it, when white supremacy was defeated, we moved into freedom for the very first time in our history. And, of course, freedom had been the promised land, and we had longed to get there. You go back to the Negro spirituals, and black music, and folklore, and there’s all this talk about the promised land, and what’s it going to be like when we get there, and so forth. And of course we always equated that promised land with freedom.

But freedom is very, very, very, very different, fundamentally different than what we normally think of. It is not a promised land. It isn’t anything. It’s just freedom. And so when we won freedom—and again, we had survived about four centuries of oppression, so we had all the skills in place to survive oppression. We were good at it.

I have written in the past about the imagination, the ingenuity of black America and black American culture, in surviving oppression. We had no experience whatsoever with freedom. We’d never had it. We didn’t have the values for it. We weren’t prepared for it. We didn’t have the ideas with which to seize it, to take advantage of it. We didn’t even really know that that’s what you do. That it’s so entirely dependent on individual will, and on the assumption of responsibility, and all these sorts of things were not in our experience.

And so when we came into freedom we experienced it as a humiliation. Because it’s so—my, look how inadequate we are. Look how uneducated we are. Look how noncompetitive. We don’t know.

Well, again, all over the world, in all of these colonies that had won their freedom, the same thing happened. They ran into freedom, and whew. It was not a kiss. It was a smack. And it said, you know, you were a janitor before, and now that you’re free you’re still a janitor. You don’t know how to become a business executive. You don’t know. You don’t have in place the entire apparatus of values, of education, of opportunity to do that. You’re free now, and you’re still a janitor.

That’s painful. Freedom became and is experienced by people who newly become free as a shame, as a humiliation, as a painful experience, something that is difficult. And invariably what happens is that because freedom is associated with such pain and shame, the first thing people do is say, hey, I’m not really free. Racism is everywhere. Oh, maybe it’s underground now. Maybe it’s institutional now, but boy, it’s everywhere. In other words, I’m not free. Because in a sense the group has a fear of freedom. Freedom is shame because if you don’t know what to do with it, and you’re not doing well in it, then again you experience it as shame.

So we began to define our situation with what is called bad faith.

I used to say when I was young and starting as a writer, I can’t really get started. I can’t write this book because I don’t have any time. I have to make a living. I don’t have any time. So I would excuse myself from having to develop as a writer. Well, when I finally gave up bad faith, I didn’t get any more time, but I worked a little harder.

Bad faith, in other words, is excuse making. It’s a way you spare yourself because of—I’m free. I can do whatever I want. If I want to write a book, I can write a book. But I deny that I’m free because if I admit that I am that free, then I’m going to feel ashamed.

Well, most of the identity, certainly the black identity that began to emerge right away in 1965, ’66, ’67 when we hit freedom is a bad faith identity, an identity that says we’re really not free. Boy, racism is everywhere.

Now, we had just defeated racism. We had just stepped into much greater freedom. But we were never as obsessed with racism when we were actually segregated as we are today in freedom. Today we are obsessed—we worship at the church of racism. Racism is everywhere, it’s just so subtle. It’s in every little situation. And we’re still being victimized by it, and that explains why we haven’t done better.

And so we are a people traumatized not by oppression, but by freedom. And the great challenge that faces us a peopleand I have every faith that we will live up to it, is to learn to thrive in freedom.

We’re free. It doesn’t matter that there’s still racism in the world. White supremacy no longer has any authority. So what if somebody believes white people are superior? I don’t care. If they can’t interrupt my life, and if they can’t keep me from becoming educated and taking out loans in banks and pursuing my dreams, what do I care? I’m not going to lose any sleep over someone like that.

But if I don’t know how to move my life ahead in freedom—and I often point to the example of my own father, who was born in 1900, and only went to the third grade before he went into the fields. He was a wonderful man. I wouldn’t be here standing here today if it were not for him. But when I started out in the university I couldn’t go to my father and have him tell me how to get tenure. How do you play politics in this? He said go for it. [Laughter]

So I had to figure that out and ask people. And many people were quite willing to be helpful and so forth, but I didn’t have that kind of cultural capital in my background, and there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s not hard to get. But if you say your problem is racism all the time, then you won’t be able to deal with the fact that you don’t have that kind of cultural capital and you need to get it. It’s not hard. You just need pay attention to it.

So again, I think that freedom was this terrible trauma for us. We began to develop an identity in bad faith, and out of that trauma what we decided, or at least what our leaders decided—because leaders are often people who smell opportunity—is they realized that white guilt was there. That whites were in this position of having to dissociate and prove all the time that they weren’t racist. And so we developed a black leadership in America that has been since that time devoted to absolutely nothing but the manipulation of white guilt.

You do not see this leadership turn around and look at their people and say, you know, our problem is we don’t have enough cultural capital. We’ve got to put a lot more energy in education, a lot more effort in restoring our families. Family is the most important institution in any society. If the family is weak, the society is weak. We’ve got to really do that regardless of whether white people are guilty or not.

I can accept as valid any black leader who turns around and asks most of all from his own people, but one who just simply asked of others, of whites, is the worst possible kind of leader. What position did that put blacks in when all you’re going to do is manipulate white guilt? You’re stuck. Nothing is available to you but protests and anger. And you have to make sure that the white man knows you’re angry. And you have to make sure that he’s intimidated by it, and that he’s a little scared of you. Because if he ever feels that you’re not angry and you’re not stuck in this protest mode, he won't give you anything. He won’t feel the need to dissociate.

So for 40 years now we’ve had a leadership devoted to nothing more than that manipulation of white guilt. And so it is no surprise that in the year 2000 black students did worse on the SAT exam than they did in the year 1990. As far as I was concerned there was a lot of freedom in the 1990s. Why decline? Why this backward slip? Why does the illegitimacy rate stay stuck at 70 percent? Black women get married at half the rate of white women and divorced at twice the rate of white women. Marriage is a disappearing institution in our inner cities. It’s, of course, weak all across America in many ways, but it’s far, far weaker in our inner cities than anywhere else.

So how has the manipulation of white guilt helped us? Not at all. It has put us right back. Again, I think of the civil rights victories as a period in time when we talked about self-sufficiency, self-determination. Where we took it on our own. There was no government program that created the civil rights movement. We got out there and got this great, wealthy, powerful society to acknowledge it’s wrong. We achieved that through hard work, initiative, self-determination, and so forth. And the minute we achieve it, we turn around, manipulate white guilt, and put ourselves right back in a dependent position on that society.

And not only that, we nurture this dependence as a kind of black pride. So the black who is not angry and protesting and arguing to be dependent on the larger society, the black who is not doing that is an Uncle Tom. The black who says I want to be self-sufficient. I want to take my life in my hands and do it, and I believe that we can get a lot further as a people if we do that—that black is an Uncle Tom. The black who says, oh, my god, we cannot make it without the paternalism of whites, without manipulating that stigma, without keeping them on the hook, as we say—that is the militant. That’s Mr. Black Power. Well, we’ve got it all completely screwed up and backwards.

And of course we punish those among in our group who are high achievers, who have used the freedom open to them and achieved things. We say Condoleezza Rice—she doesn’t have the flavor, she’s not really black. So we punish her. Why would we punish those among us who do so well?

We punish Condoleezza Rice because she proves that we are free, and that opportunity is everywhere. She proves it. So we have to put her down because, again, we’re in bad faith. We’re afraid of freedom. And so we put her down, and Colin Powell down, these extraordinarily accomplished individuals, and we say again the crack dealer on the corner is a brother. [Laughter]

So it is when you make this mistake on relying on the fact that another group of people has lost its moral authority, and you say that’s my chance, that’s my opportunity, all I’ve got to do is keep working them, then you don’t overcome, you begin to decline.

The challenge, I think, for black Americans is to begin to live in good faith rather than in bad faith. Instead of constantly saying there’s racism around every corner, and racism is a big barrier in my life, say instead there may be racism, but I am free. I have opportunities. I can do whatever I want in life. I can go as far as I want to go.

And I want to make sure my kids get that message. Look what we do to young black kids: “Oh, this is how you were oppressed. This is how you were sat upon. And in order to be black you’ve got to understand racism is everywhere. They’re against you.” How’s a child going to thrive with that kind of a message? We should say the opposite: “You’re free. Everything’s possible. You just have to work hard. You just have to set yourself in motion, take responsibility, and you’re going to do very well.” So I think blacks have to live in good faith.

What do whites have to do? I think that what whites have to do is acknowledge and accept one interesting fact. It’s not a theory. It’s a fact. Since 1965 to roughly this, our own time, white America, I think, has made one of the greatest moral evolutions in all of human history. There is no example that I’m aware of, of a society determining to correct itself morally that has been more consistent and more relentless than what white Americans have done.

Today racism is despicable. It is seen as disgraceful by whites. They want no part of it. There are certainly fringes out there, but again, those fringes have no authority, no real role in American life. And whites have done this, and whites need to accept this as fact and accept this as reality because it is reality.

In my own life, 99.9 percent of the whites that I’ve met have had only good will towards me, have helped me, have mentored me in many ways. And I have certainly run up against racism. I write about it in the book. But racism has not stopped my life. I don’t think it stops the lives of many people.

And I think white people ought to accept and be proud of this moral advancement, and put that it in the calculation when you think about public policy, and when you think about issues that come up, that we are, in fact, a good people.

America is full of good people who mean well, not people who are rotten and evil and waiting around every corner to stunt the lives of minorities. That just is not the reality of American life. And whites can get out of this game of having to dissociate and fight off stigma as they begin to accept this fact, this achievement.

Thank you. Let me stop there. We’ll take some questions.

David Theroux

We have time for questions, and Shelby, you want to field them?

Shelby Steele

OK. Sure. Yes, sir. There was I think a question over here?

Audience Member

You mentioned the Black Panther movement in the 1960s, and I was just curious whether you thought that something along the lines of the kind of self-sufficiency—the Oakland breakfasts and those types of things—would be viable in any way today, maybe without the militant aspect of that. In other words, whether blacks need those types of groups today, or whether those types of groups would be possible today.

Shelby Steele

Well, when an oppressed people come into freedom and get that shock, that real hit, like an electric shock, invariably there pops up some group that basically takes their identity, the identity that was once used against them—in this case our race, our blackness—and tries to seek power through that identity. That’s, I think, exactly what we see now in the Middle East with Islamic extremism. All of a sudden there’re extremists in the Middle East looking for power through identity, through nothing but being a more pure Muslim than the next guy. Exactly the same thing is what we saw in the ‘60s—the Panthers were one example, the Cultural Nationalists were another—where we’re going to all of a sudden pursue power through blackness. We’re going to be what? I guess really black.

Well, what does black do? Does it build a car? Does it know engineering? [Laughter] You begin to see it’s an identity that these groups are compensating for that inner sense that we don’t know what to do with freedom. We don’t have the cultural capital. We don’t have the education. And it’s painful to face. It’s not easy. I have a lot of sympathy.

Then we shoot off these identity groups that tell us, well, the real way to solve these problems is just to be blacker, or to be more extreme in your Islamic devotion. “Be willing to kill. Be willing to kill yourself. And that’s how we will prevail.”

We can’t make the guns we shoot. The entire GNP of the Middle East when you take oil out of it is less than that of Finland. There’s a good deal of backwardness, underdevelopment. That’s where you see these kinds of groups like the Black Panthers emerge, so they try to do something—have a little camouflage, where they may have a breakfast program or something as if breakfast is really a serious problem for black Americans, and if we just give these little kids breakfast we’ll overcome.

So there, again, use of identity is power, and so we truly I don’t think need those kinds of groups. Hope we don’t see them come around again.

David Theroux

The question of self-help.

Shelby Steele

Well, self-help has to be based in the individual. You were talking about the individual earlier. I liked that very much. Ralph Ellison said it beautifully, “The group is the gift of its individuals.” If I develop myself and pursue my dreams in life and become what I can become, then that becomes the gift I make to the group. And other people in the group have to do the same thing. If we’re going to just get together and be black and use the word self-help, then obviously that doesn’t get us very far.

Audience Member

I look at the Panthers phenomenon partly as a self-defense kind of mechanism. And the Panthers aside, I lived in Leavenworth, Kansas, and during the 1930s, the Ku Klux Klan, many of them from Missouri, would ride through parts of Leavenworth, and they would shoot into homes that were owned by black people, and it wasn’t until the black people started shooting back that stopped.

Shelby Steele


Audience Member

And so I’m looking at the Panthers. I think they got sidetracked with drugs and other kinds of problems, but I think the idea of protecting yourself is very, very important. And in the ‘50s, there were these ideas that blacks were almost helpless in the face of white power, and I think your quote about Emmett Till is an example, in 1955—

Shelby Steele


Audience Member

—where you have no power to—

Shelby Steele

That’s right.

Audience Member

—defend yourself, and yet once you get the power a lot of the things that the oppressor or various people did with impunity no longer occur.

Shelby Steele

Well, yes, you’re absolutely right, and one of my personal heroes, and maybe at the very top of the list, in black America is Nat Turner, who said, uh-uh. No, no, no. And took things into his own hands and had one of the biggest slave rebellions in American history. I wish there had been more slave rebellions. I wish there had been so many that slavery had become an impractical institution to sustain. It’s painful.

But to answer your question about the Panthers, the problem there is that nobody was shooting into the homes of black people in Oakland. There was no need for a militaristic defense at that particular time in history. There probably was at an earlier time, and I’m very proud of the people who defended themselves, and certainly self-defense is everyone’s right. But my problem with the Panthers is it was more of a posture. It was when we were free, that’s when they picked up the gun.

Let me say this. I write about this in the book. You may notice that right around 1965, that’s when the really big race riots began to start. The first one was in Los Angeles. Huge riot. Burnt down major parts of that city. Killed I don’t know how many people. Then we began to have one after the other all the way through the late ‘60s.

Interestingly, the race riots, the Black Panther, the Cultural Nationalists, the Black Power movement in all of its many different manifestations, began at precisely the moment white guilt started, right when whites from the President on down acknowledged what they’ve done wrong. Why was it that in 1961, ’62, there were no race riots, there was no Black Panther? When we were in real segregation, in what I call the age of racism, where white supremacy had its authority, we didn’t do that. We didn’t riot very often or rebel very often, because we knew we would be instantly put down.

So the fact that we finally had white guilt—whites back on their heels having to prove that they were not racists—was an opportunity to finally become militant, and finally carry guns and start shootouts with the pigs and all that sort of thing.

Well, you know, it was a little late. It was a little late then.

Audience Member

You know, there’s just so much I want to say. Mostly because as a grad student, I worked in the War on Poverty, albeit under Nixon, and most of the poverty programs were run by whites serving whites. And I worked in one of those breakfast programs in north Philly, and I remember mostly serving kids pancakes. I was a grad student. But that’s neither here nor there.

Shelby Steele

I worked in four of them myself, four different ones.

Audience Member

Good. I think we’re contemporaries.

Shelby Steele


Audience Member

If you were to transport yourself to Marcus Books, which is in West Oakland. Mostly black audience, okay? And I don’t know if you’ve ever been there, or if you speak—

Shelby Steele

I’ve been to many black bookstores.

Audience Member

OK. And then speaking before a black audience. And I talked to you about that book, The Covenant with Black America. And I’ve been to those rallies. And as I listen to them I never hear anything about white guilt, white racism. In fact, I never hear much about white folks in that book. Most of it seems to be about self-help.

So I just want to ask you, this from your perspective, is there anything good that you can say that’s going on in black America? That you can tell these folks something that folks are doing good that you like and that you would support?

And just finally, what do you think the role is for the 75 percent of black folks, who are not poor, in order to uplift the 25 percent who are? And you know, those people who work with the AIDS issue in the black community, the incarceration issue, the health issues, all those things which may not have anything directly to do with white racism, and people aren’t even talking about white guilt.

Shelby Steele

Let me try to parse those questions out. Remind me if I—

Audience Member

I will.

Shelby Steele

[Laughter] Yeah. I believe you will.

The first one is a good question, and you’re asking it very sincerely about—is there something good, what’s good, what’s good that’s going on in black America. And you were talking about the Tavis Smiley, the big thing he has every year, where he brings together all sorts of black leaders and big crowds and so forth. I have no doubt we’ll be better off when we don’t do that anymore, when we don’t feel the need to do that. We sort of continue to have this idea that there’s something in our race that’s going—that really, truly matters, and that’s going to take us forward.

And my fundamental difference with that, as proud as I am, and have written a lot about black culture, and the genius of it, really, through which we’re all here today. If there wasn’t a real genius in black American culture, we would never have made it into the 19th century. But we haven’t yet found our way in freedom, it seems to me. And I think one of the problems is we keep—I’m going to see Tavis Smiley next week, and I’m going to hopefully have this discussion with him that—

Audience Member

On his TV or radio?

Shelby Steele

I think it’s his TV show.

But as nice as the fellow feeling is in those occasions—there’s this warm sort of camaraderie, a fellow feeling that I think is wonderful and good, but the modern world really asks us to be individuals. It only knows how to respond to individuals, individuals who have something to offer to it in some way or other, some skill, some talent, some maybe just hard work. It can be any number of things.

Whites work as individuals, and do well or do poorly as individuals. It’s going to be that way for us, and it’s not good to hold out—and this is where I have a little qualm with Brother Tavis—it’s not good to hold out this illusion of group unity as a means forward. It isn’t. It’s not a means for it. It doesn’t do math. It doesn’t make money. It doesn’t invent things. Individuals do those things.

Audience Member

A reminder, my question was what do you see—

Shelby Steele

No, that’s good. [Laughter]

Audience Member

—that’s good in black America.

Shelby Steele

All right. I’m working here. [Laughter]

What I see is that there are many blacks that I run into all the time. I don’t know if I’d name a percentage, but certainly it makes me feel that a large percentage of black America is moving away from this idea of manipulating white guilt as the way forward. Many blacks that I meet all over the country, who I get letters from, proud people who are going ahead with their lives in an un-dramatic way, but are doing well, and want this other idea to feel exhausted with it, feel tired with it.

So that’s something I see as really good, and certainly I encourage that, and there’s, again, this—you’re free. Think about what you want in life. Have a dream. Have a real dream. Have a passion in your heart, something you want to do. You want to offer to the world. Whatever it might be. And in that dream will be your contribution to your race. So there are a lot of black people like that, and that’s good.

Yes, ma’am.

Audience Member

I really enjoyed your speech a lot. I really enjoyed your speech a lot. Do you go to high schools, like to minority high schools, and talk to the students before they graduate? I think that would help them a lot.

Shelby Steele

I do do that sometimes, yeah, I do, yes. I enjoy that. Yes. There’re a lot of high schools out there, though. [Laughter]

Audience Member

I disagree with you on the effectiveness of what you call white guilt. Guilt is a good thing, incidentally. It generally fixes problems.

Shelby Steele

If it’s real guilt, yeah. But—

Audience Member

Yeah, okay. Now, let me share my own personal experience with you.

Shelby Steele

Well, I want you to ask me a question now, because there are a lot of people who want to ask questions.

Audience Member

All right. The question is on an individual or a micro level, I’m looking for a job.

Shelby Steele


Audience Member

Do you believe that if I am on the short list, started with 20, now it’s down to four, and there’s one black guy, myself—do you believe that I have a chance?

Shelby Steele

Oh, god, today you’re a shoo-in.

Audience Member

I disagree with that 100 percent.

Shelby Steele

Today you’ll be a shoo-in.

Audience Member

No, not really.

Shelby Steele

Oh yeah.

Audience Member

Let me tell you why.

Shelby Steele

Today you’d be hired and they’d worry about the others. [Laughter]

Audience Member

I’ve been in situations like that and I disagree, and I’ll tell you why.

Shelby Steele

Well, wait a minute. Because what you’re asking me is the following. You’re saying, isn’t racism still a problem? That’s what you’re asking.

Audience Member

No, I’m not asking that—

Shelby Steele

Let me answer quick, because you’re saying there’s still barriers out there to you as a black. And what I’m trying to communicate is that, yes, that might be true—the example you give might be true. There might be circumstances where you run into some racism. I have run into some racism. I’m sure I will again. But what I’m saying is there are other jobs. There are other opportunities. And if you let the fact that you might possibly in a hypothetical situation be discriminated against by someone, somewhere, sometime, stop your life, you have no one to blame but yourself.

Audience Member

Are you suggesting that I stop my life?

Shelby Steele

No. I don’t know anything about your life—

Audience Member


Shelby Steele

—and so don’t take anything I say personally. I’m talking in the abstract. I’m saying racism is not a barrier to the dream that you have here in your heart. You have a dream? If you have one, racism’s not going to stop you.

Audience Member

Absolutely, and I understand that. That’s why I’m in business for myself. However, you’re not dealing with the issue. The issue is white guilt. And I don’t think that white guilt is as an effective issue as you make it out to be.

Shelby Steele

Well, again, let me clarify that. Remember this, now. I know it’s a lot to absorb in a lecture, because it’s kind of a little bit abstract. You should buy the book. [Laughter] But white guilt is not a guilt of conscience. It’s not a feeling of guilt, of remorse, over something that you did wrong. White guilt is a manipulation. The fact that whites are stigmatized and therefore have to dissociate it all, have to find ways to prove that they’re not, and so, therefore, come up with all these very bad policies that don’t help blacks. That’s all I’m saying white guilt is.

David Theroux

Could I add one little thing? Economists have pointed out that the reason why people are in business is because they want to attract as many customers to make as much money in whatever that field might be. So it’s in their rational self-interest to employ people who have the best skills and can contribute to that enterprise the best.

And in keeping with what Shelby’s saying, is that that means that anyone should be thinking in terms of what kind of skills and what kind of advantages can I bring to that possible job or opportunity, or if you’re in business, you’re trying to attract customers.

In other words, I think the confusion often is if someone is not being given an opportunity, is it because they are not competitive because they haven’t developed those skills, and they’re not showing that I am better, or is it because of race?

Now, it certainly is a case people will use racism as an excuse, but I think that when you individualize the relationships, which is what we’re talking about in a free system, is that it comes down to why are you better in that market than the other people? And if you see someone else beating you out, by golly, figure out what it is you can do to beat that person out and be more productive, and I think that’s a very important thing for anyone to learn.

Shelby Steele

That’s so true. One of the most painful things about this experience of freedom that came to us is this understanding of how competitive you have to be. Ooh, I didn’t really understand that. You have to be excellent at something. You have to pursue something so that you can compete, you can say, well, he’s got a skill level there, but mine is there, and I can prove it, and that’s why you have to hire me, that’s why you have to buy my product, whatever.

The burden of freedom—as Sartre used the term—the burden of freedom is so demanding, asks so much of the individual—it asks us to be so responsible in so many ways, and that’s one of the reasons we shy away from it.

Yes, ma’am.

Audience Member

Two part question. I’ll ry to be a relevant question to show I was listening. During your speech you mentioned two things that I want to respond to. One is the individual. The second thing is not being ready for freedom. And I wanted to ask you first of all about the not being ready for freedom part, and how to approach the world outside of solely in a repression-oppression framework, and if you’re familiar with the work of Albert Murray, and if you think his work can contribute to that. That’s number one. That’s one question.

Shelby Steele

Albert Murray?

Audience Member

Yes. The author. He wrote Omni-Americans. The other part is you spoke about the individual. I want you to respond to how counter that acts or works against the deeply Judeo-Christian kind of group mentality that African Americans have, the old delivering from bondage or lost people. I mean, it’s deeply rooted in Judeo-Christian construct, and the individual, I think, is going to take some sorting out to kind of process through that to get to the individual, so I want you to speak on those two things.

Shelby Steele

Well, let me take the last first. I want to make clear here when I talk about the individuals and the group, I’m not saying the two are mutually exclusive, that you can have no group identity and you must be an isolated individual. I take a great deal of strength from my group identity. It is really a part of me and of my individuality. I have learned so much and so many things. I can’t imagine myself without, frankly, the riches that have come to me by my group identity. And yet that in no way spares me from having to be responsible as an individual and do something, pursue a dream.

So again, when you’re segregated that makes for a lot of unity. [Laughter] You’re going to be unified.

As we leave oppression, as segregation fades away, as we come into the free world. One of the great challenges among Jews today is the fact that so many Jews intermarry. I think the rate is something like 60 percent of Jews marry people who aren’t Jewish, or somewhere near that. Some rabbis call this a second Holocaust because they’re losing so many, or feel as though, and they’re trying to find all kinds of ways to keep people with a sense of identity. Well, why is that the case? The case is because Jews are free in America. They’re not pushed into a ghetto. There’s no imposed unity anymore. And so freedom diffuses identity, it diffuses group identity.

It’s going to diffuse the black identity too. Thank god. Because the other alternative—we could have a good black identity if we want to go back into segregation, and I don’t want that, so we’re going to be diffused too. Our interracial marriage rates are going up—have quadrupled in the last 15 years—because we have more freedom. And people will pursue their own lives as they will.

So yes, in past, yes, we did talk about the Judeo-Christian tradition and so forth. Certainly we had a strong group identity. We still do, but as time goes on we’re going to slip.

And I forgot what the first part of your—

Audience Member

Oh, it was about being ready for freedom—

Shelby Steele

Oh, being ready for freedom, yes. That’s right. Freedom comes as a shock to all groups. And again, the reason is it causes terror, it causes fear, and when you start to define ourselves in bad faith and we start to say there’s racism everywhere so that we don’t have to be free, is because freedom asks so much to the individual. It just asks almost a ridiculous amount from the individual. So much responsibility, self-direction, and self-governance. I get tired of it, frankly. [Laughter] But I have no option.

Yes, ma’am.

Audience Member

Within the context of white guilt, what are the solutions that you’re seeing, because so many policies are still coming out of that mode that are negatively impacting people of color, i.e., the immigration issues and all that. What is your message to white America?

Shelby Steele

Thank you. When I grew up in segregation, you could never have convinced me that whites would have come as far as they have today. I would not have believed that. And yet they have. And I think that one thing they have to do is have some moral confidence in themselves, and say, look, I may not understand every nuance of black culture. I may make a faux pas here and there, but damn it, I mean well. And I don’t have an animus toward a race.

And so therefore, if you can accept that in yourself, then you’re not going to say, well, I’ve got to have some sort of a silly diversity scheme where I have all kinds of double standards and all the problems that come with racial preference. I don’t have to have that in order to prove—in fact, I can go to black people and say, look, you might think about making it in freedom this way.

One of the real problems we have as blacks today is because whites are so terrified of speaking to us—because they think that telling us what they honestly think, because they think we’ll call them a racist. The result is that we live in a bubble. We don’t get information from whites about how to do well in freedom. They don’t tell us. They would never tell.

One of the things that I harp on all the times is child rearing in black America. Boy, we have to do a better job in rearing our children, in making sure that they come into the world well loved, read to, taught their colors, their numbers, talked to, treated with respect, their minds developed from infancy on, so that when they finally do go to school that they’re—I pound that. You won’t hear any white people say that. Because they feel that if they say it, they’re going to instantly be seen as racist. So we don’t get that feedback. And if I say it, they’ll call me an Uncle Tom, but then I’m used to that. [Laughter]

But one of the things I always say to white people is when you’re at home around your kitchen table, when you say, if black people would just do this.

I remember a white woman came up to me about a couple of months ago, and she came up just humbly, and she was whispering. And she said, “I am just so afraid to say this, I know it’s not my place to say this. And I just hope you won’t think badly of me, but I think it would be so helpful if blacks learned to speak better.” [Laughter]

She’s right. And we need to hear that. We need to get that feedback. I’m not going to hire somebody to work for me who is speaking like a rapper. I want someone to have a command of standard American English. We should be insisting on that. Well, whites don’t say it.

And so one of the things that they have to do, as difficult as it is, is be more courageous and be more honest with us rather than hiding behind all these policies, coming up with another sort of gimcrack scheme to whatever.

A lawyer talked to me this morning and said, “Isn’t it wonderful that we have in our law firm a diversity program, and we want to hire more blacks?” No, it’s not wonderful. It would be wonderful if blacks were pounding down your door. Why is it wonderful when —why should you do it? Why should you take responsibility? Where are the blacks? They ought to be pounding your door down to get in that law firm. That’s what makes me sad.


Audience Member

Have you heard from Rev. Al Sharpton. Have you heard from members of the black establishment types, the Angela Davises, the Jesse Jacksons? Have you heard from any of those folks since you wrote this book? And if you have, can you share it with us?

Shelby Steele

I have over the years had conversations with all those people, with Jesse Jackson, with Al Sharpton, who is a very charming man. [Laughter] I can’t think of a better dinner partner than Reverend Al. And yes, we profoundly disagree. We just disagree. Jesse wanted me to write something with him at one point, and we didn’t get too far. [Laughter]

But the civil rights establishment, which has rigidified, gotten worse—Jesse Jackson used to be back in the early ‘70s—I used to go to his Operation Push in Chicago, and he was talking about turning the TV off at home, and keeping the family together, and insisting on homework, and reading, and had a book rental program—he was great.

He says none of that now. And he gets so much money and attention from manipulating white guilt, and he’s so good at it. I mean, he’s a virtuoso of it. He has gotten billions of dollars from American corporations who he threatens to stigmatize if they don’t pay up. And when you’re rewarding somebody with billions of dollars, it’s hard to break that habit. So he’s a good example of where white guilt really is a dangerous thing.

I think this young lady had her hand up for a long—

Audience Member

Thank you. I was just wondering if you honestly believe without affirmative action that students, minorities, including women, would honestly be able to compete equally for positions in schools, jobs.

Shelby Steele

Absolutely. In fact, I don’t think they’ll ever be able to really compete equally until we get rid of affirmative action and stop—

Again, it’s this idea—look at the thinking behind affirmative action: America’s an evil—it is still to this day determined to be racist.

Universities, which we all know to be the most liberal pockets in American life, have not practiced racial discrimination or gender discrimination in 60 years. In 60 years. They do the opposite. They do discriminate against Asians. Asians really get a raw deal from affirmative action.

So I have no doubt that we would do better without it, because we would be more competitive. Both women and minorities would be more competitive. If the university says, “Here’s a standard. We don’t care who you are, this is the standard.” You never have a perfect meritocracy, but as close to that as you can get. Then we compete. If we don’t get in that school, we get in another school, and we can then walk around honorably, with our honor, without thinking I can’t make it if there’s not paternalism. What a cruel thing to do to women and minorities, to tell them that they’re inferior, they can’t compete. You know, it really bums me up.

As I said earlier, the talented tenth, the brightest, most educated blacks, minorities, women in the work—and you say you cannot compete with whites. That’s the group that ought to be competing. Black people ought to be demanding that you let our best compete with all other groups, and that’s how we’re going to overcome, through excellence. We’re going to beat you. We’re not going to beg. We’re going to beat you. You have to get up early to compete with us. Wouldn’t that be wonderful?

David Theroux

Could I add one quick thing that might also put this in perspective? After the Civil War in Southern states, emancipated blacks were going into the workplace. They were essentially breaking into white markets. In many states they were intermarrying, and so on and so forth. They were on their own breaking down the stereotypes when people were racist, and the only way that they could be stopped was Jim Crow laws. In other words, Jim Crow was needed to stop competition, and that’s why apartheid was started.

So that’s a very important thing to keep in mind—that freedom can prevail if people pursue it, and the thing that stopped it historically has been coercion.

Shelby Steele

Yes, that’s so true. White guilt has bred this idea in black America that we’re weak, that we can’t compete. In the year 1895, there were five high schools in the city of Washington, D.C. The second best high school was Dunbar, was all black. Can you imagine that today? An all-black high school being better than three white high schools?

When you ask people to compete, they compete. They do well. When you just keep hammering the message that you can’t make it if you don’t get some little gimcrack paternalism from the system, you defeat women, you defeat minorities, and you elevate the white male, and you make him like a god, you make him unbeatable, and he’s the only one who walks around with his full pride and his honor, and when we get in a pinch we want to go back to him again. So you repeat the patterns of oppression when you practice affirmative action.

Shelby Steele

Yes, sir. You’ve had your hand up for a long time.

Audience Member

When we look around at American culture, it’s easy to spot flaws and shortcomings, but we have certainly an enormous amount to be proud of, and I think your comments about America’s efforts to turn back racism is just one example. There’s a tremendous amount to be very proud of. And in the conservative community I guess we refer to that as American exceptionalism, but when we talk to liberals it looks more like white supremacy. I wonder how you would distinguish between the two?

Shelby Steele

Well, you’re absolutely right. I wrote a piece not long ago talking about that, where our supremacy, our exceptionalism, because of white guilt, because we’re stigmatized as a white imperialistic racist power, our supremacy looks like white supremacy. It isn’t. Doesn’t have anything to do with white supremacy, but the French can say that we’re imperialistic pigs and our President is a cowboy. The American left loves to wield this stigma—the anti-Americanism of the American left. They say really deep down, America is still that racist, greedy, evil society, and we want to go to Iraq just to beat up on those brown people and take their resources and so forth.

Well, I don’t want to argue the war in Iraq. Reasonable people can reasonably disagree, but I don’t think we went there to do that. We may have gone there for dumber reasons, [Laughter] but we did not do that. It was not a deep racist impulse in American society that led us to do that. And we ought to stop paying attention, taking people seriously, who say that. They ought to be ashamed of themselves. They’re just calling names. They’re wielding the stigma.

As I said in the piece, there’s very little different in anti-Americanism between Jacques Chirac in France and Al Sharpton in America. They both do the same thing. They both call us racist imperialist pigs, and they both get a lot of power as a result of that. But it’s again white guilt, the use of a stigma to contain this great power that America is.

David Theroux

One more question.

Shelby Steele

OK. Yes, sir.

Audience Member

Would you say something about the fact that we have the problem of black men killing black men? As a black man, I don’t like being an endangered species, but also in this country, we also have the problem of white men killing white women. Can you say something that could be done to stop this from happening?

Shelby Steele

Let me try here. You know, you’re right, the murder rate, black on black crime, is terrible. Fifty-five percent of federal prisoners today are black. We’re only 11 percent of the population. We’ve got this exorbitant crime—a lot of that has to do with the breakdown of family that I’ve been talking about, and the fathers not being in the home so that the young boy does not get the kind of discipline, the sort of development of the superego, a sense of responsibility, a sense of limitation, and so he finds that in prison after he’s done something terrible. And that then becomes almost a kind of norm. Prison becomes a kind of rite of passage that the family ought to be.

My father did that to me, said you will go this far and no further, and you’ll have to accept that. So I didn’t have to go to prison to get that kind of a response from the world, but many young black men today who don’t have a male in their lives who’s teaching them that end up breaking the law, killing each other, as though life means nothing, as though it’s cheap. It’s a part, again, of what we were talking about earlier, this decline that set in when we began to rely on white guilt.

Audience Member

About Viacom and hip hop—?

Shelby Steele

Eighty percent of all hip hop music is bought by white males. We sell our despair. Our pain that we manifest in rap, we sell it to the larger society.

Thank you very, very much.

Audience Members


David Theroux

I want to thank Shelby Steele for his great presentation, and he’ll be delighted to autograph his book for those of you hadn’t had a chance upstairs to do that. I also want to thank all of you for joining with us, for making this evening so successful. We hope that you’ll be joining with us in the future. Please, again, review our event next time, and thank you for coming. Good night.

Audience Members



  • MyGovCost.org
  • FDAReview.org
  • OnPower.org
  • elindependent.org