Shelby Steele and Racial Truth

Shelby Steele’s Wall Street Journal essay on the exploitation of Trayvon Martin is both moving and powerful.  Moving because Dr. Steele, a man who grew up in segregation and who himself was no stranger to wounding racism, has throughout his career as a writer refused to play the role of the aggrieved victim, a role that as been assigned to people who share the hue of his skin by the likes of the Reverends Sharpton,  Jackson, and Wright.   And the essay is especially powerful because Dr. Steele is courageous in contrasting what he calls the “poetic truth” —an ennobling narrative propagated by the civil rights establishment and mainstream media that sees racial injustice and inequality as among America’s defining traits—with the ugly and  lamentable actual truth.  Dr. Steele writes,

…Trayvon’s sad fate clearly sent a quiver of perverse happiness all across America’s civil rights establishment, and throughout the mainstream media as well. His death was vindication of the “poetic truth” that these establishments live by. Poetic truth is like poetic license where one breaks grammatical rules for effect. Better to break the rule than lose the effect. Poetic truth lies just a little; it bends the actual truth in order to highlight what it believes is a larger and more important truth.

The civil rights community and the liberal media live by the poetic truth that America is still a reflexively racist society, and that this remains the great barrier to black equality. But this “truth” has a lot of lie in it. America has greatly evolved since the 1960s. There are no longer any respectable advocates of racial segregation. And blacks today are nine times more likely to be killed by other blacks than by whites.

If Trayvon Martin was a victim of white racism (hard to conceive since the shooter is apparently Hispanic), his murder would be an anomaly, not a commonplace. It would be a bizarre exception to the way so many young black males are murdered today. If there must be a generalization in all this—a call “to turn the moment into a movement”—it would have to be a movement against blacks who kill other blacks. The absurdity of Messrs. Jackson and Sharpton is that they want to make a movement out of an anomaly. Black teenagers today are afraid of other black teenagers, not whites.

These are things which many of us might think to ourselves and utter in private to a friend, but would never have the guts to broadcast. We –and I speak particularly of my own generational cohort here–have been trained to see a fact like the homicide rate among blacks as inherently racist.  It’s as though certain facts are too ugly, too offensive to ever speak out loud.

So perhaps it should be no surprise that the first comment I received upon posting a link to Shelby Steele’s essay on Facebook was from a young woman who decried it as a “racist essay.”

  1. Mimi
    Diane Ellis, Ed.

    Severely Ltd.: That is some beautiful writing as well as profoundly true. I am going to look for his books. · 3 hours ago

    I was compelled to look for more of his writing this morning.  His book White Guilt looks fascinating.

    Also, when I was a brand new assistant on Uncommon Knowledge,Peter interviewed Dr. Steele.  In this interview, Shelby Steele discusses Obama and the politics of race. · 5 hours ago

    I have followed your link and have watched the Uncommon Knowledge interview with Shelby Steele.  Steele was spot on about Obama and the last election, and predicted so much of what has come about since Obama took office.  I would love to see a new interview with Shelby Steele at Uncommon Knowledge where the last few years in politics are reviewed and then talk about the upcoming election.  It would be a great interview, I am sure.

  2. outstripp

    Racism is their Means of Production. Without it, they would be delivering pizza.

  3. Tom Lindholtz

    That is why it is so crucial to have messages like this come from people who are themselves Black.  In a rational world it wouldn’t matter the color of the skin of a speaker.  It would only matter the truth of his words.  But we do not live in a rational world.  And so it is important to have truthful messengers who can bring truth to people regardless of their own prejudices.

  4. Kervinlee

    I was mightily impressed with that column; I forward it along to selected friends. Dr. Steele always seems to be able to see right to the bottom of things –  ”White Guilt” was a very great book. In 2007, I think, he wrote a very astute piece in the WSJ on the 50th anniversary of the Little Rock Nine. His thesis in that piece was that that event was the death knell of white supremacy – a doctrine that was then widely accepted by both white and black – its ignorance stood completely exposed and discredited as television brought for all to see, in the U.S. and the rest of the world, the folly of racial segregation. White supremacy had been shamed to death.

    I always look forward to Dr. Steele’s insights; I wish his work would appear more often.

  5. G.A. Dean

    Dr. Steele, with typical insight, points to the broader tragedy of this incident in his penultimate paragraph. By adopting a “group identity” based on racial distinction and victimization, rather than “common humanity”, the black political culture has painted itself and black Americans into a corner. There can be no escape from an identity based on continual victim-hood, and a “poetic truth” cannot be overcome and reversed by actual progress in racial relations. Any victories will be as poetic as the “truths”.

  6. flownover

    Diane,

    A perversion of Pavlov in your training racism sublimation to knee jerk self-indict ?

    Do you think it was the TV zeitgeist ? That Fonz did this to you ?

    Shelby Steele is still right in my mind that Obama would never get elected, he didn’t see the country get stoned on benefits , victimology , and an array of diversions that left a big backdoor open and the light on.

  7. tabula rasa

    I can’t really put into words how much I admire men like Shelby Steele, Thomas Sowell, Walter Williams, and Allen West, black men who combine intelligence and bravery in order to confront and expose the racialist garbage that men like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton spew.

    I am always amazed at how calm they remain in the face of the criticisms they take from the Jacksons and Sharptons (though Congressman West is good at genuine righteous indignation at the proper moments).

  8. flownover

    Tabula

    And Justice Thomas remains silent . What a rock he is . These papier- mache weathervane felons can’t lose credibility as their cred is proved up on terms we don’t care to ken.
  9. Give Me Liberty

    He nails the true tragedy of the post Civil Rights movement.

    And this points to the second tragedy that Trayvon’s sad demise highlights. Before the 1960s the black American identity (though no one ever used the word) was based on our common humanity, on the idea that race was always an artificial and exploitive division between people. After the ’60s—in a society guilty for its long abuse of us—we took our historical victimization as the central theme of our group identity. We could not have made a worse mistake.

    It has given us a generation of ambulance-chasing leaders, and the illusion that our greatest power lies in the manipulation of white guilt. The tragedy surrounding Trayvon’s death is not in the possibility that it might have something to do with white racism; the tragedy is in the lustfulness with which so many black leaders, in conjunction with the media, have leapt to exploit his demise for their own power.

  10. Severely Ltd.

    That is some beautiful writing as well as profoundly true. I am going to look for his books.

  11. Bill Dempsey

    Too bad black American’s don’t read Dr. Steele. Just today, a 78 year old white man was beaten by a gang of young blacks as they yelled “take this for Trayvon Martin”. This is just the start of revenge violence in the name of Martin no matter what the investigation finds. The left in this country feeds off this kind of racial violence. Thank you NBC News.

  12. nyconservative

    Shelby Steele is a national treasure…..for some time I have said that the black community has been used by the left and made into perpetual victims.There is an entire industry built up over the years that depends on racial strife for their existence,the likes of Sharpton and Jackson being prime examples.The day that the black community casts these phony racial hucksters aside will be the day the sad travesty will come to an end.

  13. Retail Lawyer

    “These are things which many of us might think to ourselves and utter in private to a friend, but would never have the guts to broadcast. We –and I speak particularly of my own generational cohort here–have been trained to see a fact like the homicide rate among blacks as inherently racist.  It’s as though certain facts are too ugly, too offensive to ever speak out loud.”

    Diane,  the above is pretty interesting.  The seeing of a fact is understood to be racist!  And then there are the legions of Facebook thought police.   I am sure you are on to something here.  It is similar for the Boomers, but I suspect it is much worse for younger, supposedly  ”post racial” people.  What “training” are you referring to – how did this happen?  What do you suppose are the effects of this cognitive dissonance? 

    My favorite part of the essay was where Steel talks about the players getting a chance to once again ennoble themselves by standing up to white racism.  Or earn money, feel relevant, keep the hustle going just a bit longer.  Won’t work at all with Hispanic racism, though, so now we have “White Hispanics”.

  14. Tom Riehl

    Mr. Steele steals two bases in the first paragraph as he states supposedly factual premises for his article.  I’ll leave it as an exercise for the reader to find them.  Be brave and post a reply! 

     P.S. I admire Mr. Steele in general.

  15. Tom Riehl

    Okay, the two items:

    He states that Martin committed no crime.  Well, that remains to be seen; it is entirely possible that he attacked Zimmerman.  Patience while the investigation is underway is needed. 

    Also, Zimmerman was a volunteer neighborhood watcher, and to characterize him as a hunter of cliches is ad-hominem.   All I’ve read paints him as a bit zealous, but not on any kind of idealogical mission.

    Those items being addressed, I do admire Mr. Steele for tasking the race baiters.

  16. SMatthewStolte

    Although I appreciate essays like this, I don’t think they get to the crux of the cultural divide. The reason that Diane’s Facebook friend could call this a racist essay is that there are two fundamentally distinct & opposed conceptions of what racism actually is. On the one hand, racism can be understood as a perspective on the world — a perspective, which sees the world in terms of race. That’s my view, and it sounds like Steele’s view, too. 

    But the other view takes racism to be something like a system of group ‘privilege’, in which members of the privileged class make use of various overt & covert tools to maintain their privilege & dominance. These tools include social modes of thought; and the colorblindness that we conservatives advocate is accused of reinforcing the system of white privilege, by pretending, at crucial moments, that race doesn’t exist. In other words, my definition of racism — my definition is racist (in this other sense). 

    Steele’s appeal to brute facts, as if the facts alone can make the case for us, is naïve. One can have the facts right but the story wrong. We need more.

  17. SMatthewStolte

    I said that Steele appeals to brute facts. But it occurs to me now that these words might have been too abbreviated. He plainly uses rhetorical techniques to tell our side of the story, and he uses them well. But what I find dissatisfying is that there’s really no attempt made to address the disagreement itself, no attempt to meet the race-theoretical perspective head on. Instead, the people who preach this perspective are simply called ambulance chasers and liars. Well, they may very well be. But they have such a theoretical framework behind them that pot shots at them will do very little good in the long run. 

  18. Schrodinger

    We live in a world of debased language. The term ‘racism’ has become meaningless. Ture racism is an inherent belief in the superiority of one’s own race over all others. The Hitler was a true racist. There is an insignificant number of racists in this country.

    Bigotry, on the other hand, is pervasive and exists in ALL racial groups. The incident of the 78 year old beaten by black youths is a prime example of bigotry. A bigot projects a negative stereotype of an ethnic group onto a random individual from that group. Hence, a black who believes whites are “racists” will project that stereotype onto a white stranger.

    My sense is that there is an acceleration of bigotry in all ethnic groups due to the divisive language employed by the current administration and the President in particular. I, for one, admit that I have more bigotted thoughts these days than I did even five years ago.

  19. Aaron Miller
    tabula rasa: I can’t really put into words how much I admire men like Shelby Steele, Thomas Sowell, Walter Williams, and Allen West, black men who combine intelligence and bravery in order to confront and expose the racialist garbage that men like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton spew.

    Yes, but how many blacks do they persuade? I’d like to hear their answers.

    SMatthewStolte: 

    But the other view takes racism to be something like a system of group ‘privilege’, in which members of the privileged class make use of various overt & covert tools to maintain their privilege & dominance. These tools include social modes of thought; and the colorblindness that we conservatives advocate is accused of reinforcing the system of white privilege, by pretending, at crucial moments, that race doesn’t exist.

    Interesting.

    Thomas Sowell has taken great interest in this country’s history of immigrants from various places and cultures. I suspect his most powerful argument with blacks might be reflecting on how poor peoples built themselves up through self-reliance in spite of injustices. Also, describing his hometown of Harlem before Democrats got a hold on it might help.

    More comedians like Bill Cosby could help.

  20. SMatthewStolte
    Schrodinger’s Cat: … racism is an inherent belief in the superiority of one’s own race over all others. … Hitler was a true racist. There is an insignificant number of racists in this country.

    SC, you might be right that racism is a belief in the superiority of one’s own race. But I want to suggest at least one reason to doubt it. Consider this bit of Nazi propaganda. I would call it extremely racist. But it claims  that the perspective it advocates does not consider one race to be the best race. Nazis can lie like the devil, of course. But I would say that, even without the claim to racial superiority — even if we could take the pamphlet at its word on this point — it would not be one whit less racist.