The Content of Our Character by Shelby Steele

by | Feb 27, 2002

Blacks are too often unwilling to accept individual responsibility for their lives and to exert individual initiative to create opportunities for success.

Why are blacks in America so disproportionately poor and uneducated? The old racists would have attributed it to innate genetic factors. Today’s new racists blame it on oppression and exploitation by the white middle-class. Rejecting both these falsehoods, Shelby Steele declares that the cause is the widespread acceptance by blacks of a collectivist, racial identity.

As a result, blacks are too often unwilling to accept individual responsibility for their lives and to exert individual initiative to create opportunities for success.

Many have a vested interest in seeing themselves as victims, and scornfully dismiss any serious effort to better themselves as “surrender to white power.” Steele, a professor who is himself black, says there is a “prevailing victim-focused black identity,” which “amounts a self-protective collectivism that obsesses us with black unity instead of individual initiative.” Steele focuses a great deal on psychology and believes that blacks embrace this view of themselves as helpless victims as a subconscious defense against self-doubt and fears of inferiority. But whether it is just a rationalization or a full-fledged ideology, the intellectual validity of “blacks-as-victims” is what makes the idea acceptable. And Steele tries firmly to persuade people to change their thinking on this issue. He urges blacks to stop believing that “our fate was in society’s control rather than our own and that opportunity itself was something that was given rather than taken.” He also exhorts whites to eschew the “reparations” of affirmative action, which serve only to reinforce the view that blacks are indeed inferior and unable to succeed on their own.

The author does display traces of collectivist errors himself. But in light of his calls for blacks to embrace “the challenges of self-interested, individual action,” and his insistence that “the individual is the seat of all energy, creativity, motivation, and power,” his mistakes are almost inconsequential.

Steele concludes: “The American black, supported by a massive body of law and the not inconsiderable goodwill of his fellow citizens, is basically as free as he or she wants to be. … Nothing on this earth can be promised but a chance. The promised land guarantees nothing. It is only an opportunity, not a deliverance.” There is no doubt that this book will be condemned by the liberal establishment for being racist—but in fact, it is just the opposite: it is an endorsement of the power of free will and of the primacy of the individual.

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