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.”