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The New Betrayal of Black Freedom in America
February 24, 1999
Shelby Steele


Introductory Remarks by David Theroux

Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. My name is David Theroux, and I am the President of The Independent Institute. I am delighted to welcome you all, and this evening our Independent Policy Forum is a special one to commemorate Black History Month. The program tonight is actually part of an expanded series of lectures, debates and seminars that we are holding here at The Independent Institute.

As many of you know, The Institute regularly sponsors programs of this type. The program is designed to involve top scholars, policy experts, media figures, and many others, often including authors of important new books, and today is certainly no exception. For those of you new to The Institute, you will find information about The Institute’s program in the packet that you picked up. We welcome you to become a member of The Institute and to receive discounts of our books and our journal, The Independent Review. The Institute itself is an academic research institute, and we have over 130 or so research fellows at different universities who are involved in studies that we conduct, most of which result in books or policy reports. We accept no government funding. We are not a contract organization, and we exist based on the support we receive from foundations and businesses and people such as yourself.

In 1776, as you all know, a nation was created in part based on the premise that all men are created equal. From Crispus Attucks to Frederick Douglas and Booker T. Washington to Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, Thomas Sowell, and many others, African Americans have been at the forefront of some of the most important and significant social and economic changes in the United States and elsewhere around the world. The tradition embodies the finest spirit of universal, classical liberal principles of freedom, independence, justice and also embodied in the works of other figures—figures such as Locke, Tocqueville, Acton, Hayek, etc. Yet for more than two centuries, America has struggled to apply the principle that every individual, regardless of race, has the natural right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, without being subject to the dictates of others. In fact, if history teaches us anything, perhaps it is that when governments venture beyond the protection of individual rights under a uniform rule of law, political power follows a repeating pattern of the abrogation of rights, as various interest groups wrestle to use state power against rivals. Often these rivals are other ethnic groups.

Could economists be right that the government power to tax, regulate and control does not actually benefit the public and the disadvantaged in particular? Does politics work, perhaps, in a different way? Do such policies primarily serve to protect politically connected elites by cartelizing markets? Many economists have shown that many of the sacred policies that we have grown up to believe are essential, actually do not serve the public interest. If government gave us slavery, Jim Crow laws, Indian reservations and wars, should we really be surprised at the dysfunction of public schools, urban renewal and the welfare state? Based on his acclaimed book, A Dream Deferred, our speaker this evening will discuss the role race plays in modern American society. Has government been a friend or foe of black Americans? Do government social programs primarily serve to relieve white guilt rather than actually help minorities? If governmental paternalism is a dead end, why should black Americans any longer tolerate political and bureaucratic control? Why indeed hasn’t America lived up to its founding principles, and what can be done about it?

Our speaker this evening is Shelby Steele, as you all know. Shelby is a Research Fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. He is a contributing editor at Harper’s Magazine. He received the National Book Critic Circle Award in 1990 for his book The Content of Our Character a New Vision of Race in America. Dr. Steele received his Ph.D. in English from the University of Utah and was formerly Professor of English at San Jose State University. Having written widely on race in American society and contemporary social problems, his work in the documentary, Seven Days in Bensonhurst, was recognized with an Emmy Award, the Writer’s Guild Award for Television Documentary Writing and the San Francisco Film Festival Award for television documentary writing. Dr. Steele has appeared on many national television programs including Nightline, 60 Minutes, The News Hour with Jim Lehrer, and many of you have seen his articles in the Wall Street Journal, New York Times and elsewhere. It gives me a great pleasure to welcome Shelby Steele.

Shelby Steele

Thank you all for coming out this evening. I always assume that when people come out, they agree with everything I have ever written. Don’t get nervous. I think what I would like to do is read a little bit from my new book, A Dream Deferred and then talk for a little bit and then spend a good bit of our time on questions and answers and that sort of thing. I sort of picked at random three sections from the book. They are distinguished by the fact that I have been on a book tour and have read other sections and I can’t stand to read those anymore, so these I have not read and so I will take this opportunity to break in some new material here.

This is from the first and the longest essay in the book, called “The Loneliness of the ‘Black Conservative.’” It is towards the middle of the essay.

Often it takes the Tocquevillean view of the outsider to see the most defining features in American life. Thus V.S. Naipaul, the Trinidadian writer, sees a resonant theme in the much-taken-for-granted American idea of “the pursuit of happiness,” a theme not only of American culture but also of a new “universal civilization”—by which he seems to roughly mean modernity. Of this “pursuit of happiness,” he says: “It implies a certain kind of society, a certain kind of awakened spirit. . . . So much is contained in it: the idea of individual responsibility, choice, the life of the intellect, the idea of vocation and perfectibility and achievement. It is an immense human idea.”

This “immense human idea” asks people to discover themselves as individuals by responsibly pursuing their happiness. In a free society, the self, the individual identity, the singularity of a person, unfolds in his personal pursuit of happiness, but there are also many rigors involved—the development of skills as one’s personal currency, the struggle against limitations that makes this possible. The often difficult exercise of choice, the pursuit of aspirations around immovable moralities, the will to endure the high risk that goes with our best possibilities. Happiness in this context is a kind of difficulty—one that the civil rights movement struggled to win for black Americans.

It was always the collectivizing mark of race that kept blacks from a full engagement with this difficulty and that held them back from the freedom in which, as Naipaul put it, “it was necessary to be an individual and responsible.” Racial oppression imposes nonindividuality on its victims, tells them they will achieve no self, no singularity, that will ever supersede the mark of their race. This surely is the opposite of happiness, this confinement of the self inside of color. The early civil rights movement—grounded in freedom-focused liberalism—saw the mark of race as anathema to freedom, to the individual, and to the pursuit of happiness. It wanted freedom from racial determinism, therefore, it was a struggle for the black individual and against his or her race as a political determinism. This was how the great movement saw to bring blacks into the difficulty of a true and unencumbered pursuit of happiness.

But then, in the mid-sixties when greater freedom came, the nation changed its preoccupation to redemption and to the proactive reform by which it hoped to show itself redeemed. And here, in the idea of systemic and structural interventionism as a means to black uplift and white redemption, is where things begin to go wrong for blacks. Here is where our agency over our own fate was traded away, so that happiness was not something the individual pursued but something the group waited for. Worse, these race-conscience interventions once again submerged the individual in his or her race, deindividualized him or her, and, ultimately, obsessed the nation with group identities.

Just when the idea of the individual might have taken hold, the idea of interventionism came in its place—and with it specimenization, helplessness, contingency, and overreliance on white moral obligation. This is where the black individual lost out to the nation’s need to redeem itself. And this is also where we became essentially a sociological people with a sociological identity, a group moving from the dehumanization of oppression to the deindividualism of the remedies for it.


Suppose America decided that black people were poor in music because of deprivations due to historical racism. Clearly their improvement in this area would be contingent on the will of white America to intervene on their behalf. Surely well-designed interventions would enable blacks to close the musical gap with whites. Imagine that in one such program a young, reluctant, and disengaged Charlie Parker is being tutored in the saxophone by a college student volunteer.

The tutor learns that Parker’s father drank too much and abandoned the family, and that his mother has had an affair with a married man. Young Charlie is often late to his tutorial sessions. Secretly the tutor comes to feel that probably his real purpose is therapeutic, since the terrible circumstances of Charlie’s life make it highly unlikely that he will ever be focused enough to master the complex keying system of the saxophone or to learn to read music competently. The tutor says as much in a lonely, late-night call to his father, who tells him in a supportive tone that in this kind of work the results one works for are not always the important ones. If Charlie doesn’t learn the saxophone, it doesn’t mean that he isn’t benefiting from the attention. Also, the father says, “What pleases me is how much you are growing as a human being.”

And Charlie smiles politely at his tutor but secretly feels that that the tutor’s pained attentions are evidence that he, Charlie, must be inadequate in some way. He finds it harder to pay attention during his lessons. He has also heard from many that the saxophone—a European instrument—really has little to do with who he is. He tells this to the tutor one day, after a particularly poor practice session. The tutor is sympathetic because he, too, has recently learned that it is not exactly esteem building to impose a European instrument on an African-American child.

Finally Charlie stops coming to the program. The tutor accepts this failure as inevitable. Sadly he realizes that he had been expecting it all along. But he misses Charlie, and for the first time feels a genuine anger at his racist nation, a nation that has bred such discouragement into black children. The young tutor realizes that surely Charlie could have been saved had there been a program to intervene earlier in his life. And for the first time in his life the tutor understands the necessity for political involvement. He redoubles his commitment to an America that works “proactively” to transform and uplift its poor, and that carries out this work with genuine respect for cultural differences.

The following fall, back in college, he tells his favorite history professor that he finally understands what “Eurocentrism” means. “Can you imagine,” he says, shaking his head in disbelief at himself, “teaching saxophone to a poor black kid from Kansas City?”

Of course the true story of Charlie Parker is quite different from this. Though he did grow up poor, black, and fatherless in the depression, he also became the greatest improvisational saxophone player in the history of music. When he died far too young, at the age of thirty-five, he had already changed Western music forever. But the real Charlie Parker was not given the idea that his fate was contingent on an abstract racial politics that pretended to resolve history. None of this came between the real Charlie and the saxophone. What did intervene was an idea of musical excellence that prevailed in his black world—a standard of excellence that was enforced so absolutely that it would have seemed cruel to outsiders.

Some will argue that because Charlie Parker was a genius he would rise without interventions and against any odds. The regular guy would need the tutor. But this is that old double bind of redemptive liberalism that makes the black success the exception that proves the rule of black weakness. The fact is that thousands and thousands of black men and women have made respectable livings in the world of music before and after Parker’s time. Few of them were geniuses, and none at all were brought ahead by government interventions that tried to transform them from musical helplessness. Many, like Parker himself, thrived even as segregation prevailed across the land.

But the point here is not simply that when people decide to do something they generally do it, with or without help. The point is that when interventionism becomes a faith, when it is implemented to transform people, it oppresses and defeats them instead.


One last section, and then we will talk. In order to understand this section, there is an idea that I try to develop in this essay about agency. By “agency” I mean complete responsibility—the taking of responsibility for one’s life, one’s advancement. The idea is that in taking this agency over one’s life, one becomes a full human being.


I am what is called a black conservative because I came to feel that redemptive liberalism was the second American betrayal of black freedom. The first was oppression; the second delusion.

But am I lonely?

In the United States today the presumed loneliness of the black conservative is an article of liberal faith. Our public discussion of race is still framed by redemptive liberalism. It is still “correct” to consider black helplessness the “truest” black experiences. The black conservative exclaims that opportunity is as available to blacks as a change of mind—that awareness of opportunity is the same thing as opportunity. So the black conservative’s loneliness is a liberal propaganda against black opportunity.

In thinking about all this, I am reminded of a passage by the Italian writer and Holocaust survivor, the late Primo Levi, in which he described what it was like to be liberated from the concentration camps. He makes the point that there was not much happiness in liberation, that “almost always it coincided with a phase of anguish.” He says of those liberated, “Just as they were again becoming men, that is, responsible, the sorrows of men returned.” For our purpose here, the important idea is not the reference to sorrow but the equation of humanity with the word “responsible.” Liberation did not bestow happiness: It bestowed agency.

And with agency came the responsibility to create opportunities for survival. In those bereft and post iberation circumstances, agency must have felt like yet another cruelty. But it was precisely this almost impossible responsibility for their own survival that restored humanity to the survivors.

Perhaps the greatest corruption of redemptive liberalism was that it made opportunity seem to be a happiness that could be delivered by others in redress for past suffering. This magical view of opportunity flattered the liberal with the illusion of his own moral power. It seduced blacks into the delusion that opportunity was the same thing as liberal interventions, and that these interventions were justified by past suffering. Opportunity became distorted into a magic that resolved history, into something given out of obligation and received as redress.

In fact enduring opportunity grows out of the struggles of agency. When a person or group truly takes agency over their own fate, opportunity materializes virtually out of their concentration—especially in a free society. Others can be helpful, but only if they never take agency for problems away from those who suffer them. It is easy to help those who are the agents of their own fate, and impossible to help those who are not.


You’ve heard enough reading, so maybe I’ll talk for just a little bit about the background of this book.

One of the things that has always interested me in terms of race, and the way that I always try and look at it, is as the symbiosis between white and black Americans. Much of our relationship is subterranean. You don’t often notice it, but that relationship and the way we relate to each other and . . . you have to go through that in order to understand whatever is going on in terms of racial matters. [In my previous book, The Content of Our Character, I wanted to look] more at the black side of that symbiosis than the white side. In this book I suppose I wanted to sort of look more at the white side and I sort again wanted to look at it from a kind of existential framework. That is, to just plain look at it as an experience.

What might the experience be? If we go back to the 1960s and the civil rights era, and so forth, there was this, I think, interesting moment, when America on the one hand did something extremely honorable, which was to say, “We are wrong as a society in the way we have treated black Americans. It is immoral what we did.” Almost no other society that I know of on Earth has yet done that other than America.

All sorts of ideas, traditions and notions of democracy, and so forth, had to be in place for our society to come to the point where the majority that out numbered blacks 10 to 1 could say, “We were wrong.” So it was on the one hand a noble moment.

On the other hand, what happens when you say you were wrong? I think this is the side of it that has been overlooked, in terms of the way we analyze racial relations. What happens when you say you were wrong is that you lose moral authority. You just don’t have it any more. It is the price you pay. This has put, it seems to me, white Americans in a very difficult situation in American society, as it relates to race. Because it means they no longer, at least since that time, have had the moral authority to speak about it honestly. Anytime they did, somebody from the other side could point their finger and say: “You are a racist. On what grounds do you speak if you are against affirmative action when you had it for three centuries?” The moral authority is not there for enough of it—certainly not for a powerful response.

My point, and one of the things I tried to look in this book, is that this problem that white Americans have had—of not having the moral authority to really deal with the problem of race—and the problem of a group of people who have been kept down for three centuries—the real story of our racial policy in America grows out of this white difficulty. And that most of our policies since the sixties have really been devoted to sort of restoring that moral authority, or trying to reclaim that moral authority. In some cases it is almost comic, it is almost hysterical. Right after the 1964, ’65 Civil Rights Bill, we get a President, a Southerner, who creates I don’t how many hundred Great Society programs and says we are going to end poverty in our time. Well, this to me is the measure of the hysteria. It is part of the American denial. He is saying we are not like that. We are not a bad people. We are not a bad country. We are a good country, and we are going to end poverty in our time just to prove it. We are going to spend billions of dollars because we are going to reclaim this. We are going to show you how good we are.

Well, those programs failed one by one. And then we sort of moved into the era of various affirmative action programs, the same sort of thing: “We are going to get a preference whether you want it or not. We need that preference more than you need that preference.” It is because, again, the white situation in admitting the wrong, put whites in the situation where they had to prove a negative, that “I am not racist.” It put them in a situation where they we could presume they were racist and they had to prove otherwise. Blacks had always been in a stigmatized situation—stigmatized as inferior—and they always had to prove a negative, and we know it is impossible to prove a negative. White America is still very much in that position; at least public white America is still in the position of struggling to prove a negative, that “We are not racist.”

And again, most of our policies have to do with that. The proof of that is that, and again what characterizes most of the racial policies that we have had in America since the 60s are two sort of things: one is deference and the other is license. Because America has been on the defensive in trying to prove a negative, what it has ended up doing is saying we now have to show blacks deference, and we know have to grant them license. So, right after the sixties or the end of the sixties, we began to get a different kind of welfare. Welfare became not something that was temporary, that got you through a difficult time and before you went back on your feet. Welfare became a permanent way of life. It became an entitlement, and not only that, there was absolutely no expectation that you would ever work or that you would ever educate yourself or ever develop any skills, whatsoever, that might someday bring you back into the mainstream of American life. It was assumed to be a sort of permanent state.

Well, what nation would ever do that to its poor citizens if it were not trying to prove a negative? We are trying to prove that we are good—that we are a really good, decent people, and so we’ll give you welfare generation after generation after generation, even though it may be tearing you apart. Welfare has probably done a great deal more damage to the black American family than segregation ever did. But it was a policy based on the principles of deference and license.

Affirmative action, again, is another sort of example. There are many, many varieties of affirmative action that we all know, but at the same two principles are ever present: defer to the suffering and victimization of blacks and then offer them license, that is, lower the standards; ask less, not more.

Now of course common sense tells you that if you are trying to develop the people who have been held down for three centuries, that they are behind in their race, that you have to ask more. Maybe it’s not fair, but you have to ask more. What our policies have done, because of deferential and other license, is ask less and less and less, until now you have inner city school systems that virtually are warehouses where they ask absolutely nothing of young black students.

Today there is new talk of things like high expectations, as though this is revolutionary. But, again, they’re having a hard way to go in our society. It is not the moral authority. If you begin to raise the expectations and ask more of blacks and not show deference, then again certainly the institution, and the whites who do that, are again in the position of being seen as racist. So if you are black on the other hand, and you make those same sort of demands and ask for high expectations and you say, “You know, I’m asking for this because I believe we are in fact equal and we must become competitive in this society,” then you are a traitor to the race. So we are in this bizarre, bizarre situation where we have a leadership, a black American leadership, that argues day in and day out for our own weakness, our inadequacies, our helplessness. [When you argue against them, they say, “You don’t understand, we are weak, we are inadequate. It is cruel of you to say we are not weak and inadequate. You are claiming the victim.” We are in that sort of bizarre, strange place.

The only metaphor I can think of, not a metaphor but a comparable situation, would be if, for example, after World War II the Jews had all gone back to Germany and lived in Germany—millions of them—and lived with the people who have just subjected them to the Holocaust, who have not admitted, they were obviously wrong. Think about the negotiations of symbiosis, the guilts and the grudges, the interaction and so forth, that would go on there. They founded the state of Israel and went other places and of course Israel worked very hard creating one of the world’s important nations. Would that have been possible if they felt they had to negotiate their faith through German guilt? And that, in many ways, has been the situation that black Americans have been in.

Our leadership never looks back at its own people and says, “This is what we have to do to get from point A to point B.” They spend all their time looking at the larger society. The classic phrase is keeping a society “on the hook.” Keeping whites on the hook. That’s what the goal of our leadership is. And the thing that they can’t stand about people like me is that, “Well you’re letting whites off the hook.” It is as though the fate of black America is entirely dependent on whites being on the hook. In other words, as though our advancement is in white hands, not in our hands. What was freedom supposed to be about?

I call this in the book “contingent thinking”—the thinking that my faith is contingent on what somebody else does, on what white America does. For example, “I spend my time not really developing myself, putting all my energy into that; I spend my time manipulating attitudes in white America. And keeping white America on edge; and negotiating to have a whole politics revolve around this and have a whole group identity revolved around keeping white America on the hook—ignoring my own people but focusing on white America. If they don’t do it, then it can’t be done. If they don’t do this in the school system, it can’t be done. If they don’t do something else, it can’t be done.”

Of course, if we look at those areas of black American life, where blacks don’t have contingent thinking, where they say, “We will compete with any and everybody”—those areas are obviously sports and music and entertainment and literature. Blacks not only compete but very often dominate. The same terrible, wretched inner-city circumstances that produce these abysmal test scores, also produce every year the greatest athletes in the world. They come from the same deprivation, the same single parent homes. The same gang-infested neighborhoods, drug-infested neighborhoods. But in those areas, when you go out into the basketball court at the age of 8 or 9, they don’t say to you, “Well you come from a single parent home, so if you can’t dribble then we’ll bring a tutor in.” There’s no mercy. Its standard of excellence is enforced that is ruthless, cruel, So we produce all these great athletes year in and year out, from the same circumstance where we produce no academics, where billions of dollars are spent 20 feet away in a classroom. Again, the contingent thinking is to me is infinitely more destructive to the future of black America than racism, which is not to say that racism is not the main problem.

Well, I have a bunch of other points, but maybe it’s time to stop and take some questions from the audience. Thank you!


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