THE CONTENT OF OUR CHARACTER: A New Vision of Race in America. By Shelby Steele. St. Martin's. 175 pages. $15.95.
AS A BLACK analyst of America's racial scene, Shelby Steele seems somewhat anomalous. He is neither preacher nor politician nor sociologist. He is a middle-aged professor of English who has an appropriately fine gift for powerful prose and an uncommonly sharp bulljive detector tuned in to the empty rhetoric that often passes for sound racial discourse these days.
Steele seized his moment of national fame through two cover-story essays in Harper's magazine that quickly were followed by others in Commentary, the American Scholar and the New York Times magazine. His work, collected and expanded into the book-length "The Content of Our Character," examines America's perplexities of race with crackling good prose from the viewpoint of a man who has made it and wonders why others have not.
Small wonder that George Will, Charles Krauthammer and other conservatives enthusiastically quote Steele's attacks on affirmative action. While he defies easy labels, his vision is decidedly neoconservative, the voice of a former liberal who turned away from the movement when the multiracial coalition of Martin Luther King Jr. broke down into racial "power groups." (Steele's title is drawn from King's avowed dream that we all be judged "not by the color of our skin, but by the content of our character.")
Steele is an unabashed assimilationist. He pulled himself up by his bootstraps from the struggling black Chicago suburb of Phoenix in the 1950s to the comfort of a teaching post at San Jose State University and marriage to Rita Steele, a clinical psychologist who, for the sake of this discussion it is significant to note (as Steele does), happens to be white.
Steele says little about the perils of social prejudice and institutional racism. Their two children, Steele writes, are "the sole representatives of their race in their classrooms, a fact they sometimes have difficulty remembering." As head of "the only black family in our suburban neighborhood," Steele admits, "(f)or me to be among large numbers of blacks requires conscientiousness and a long car ride, and in truth, I have not been very conscientious lately."
Steele asserts that "the real trouble" between the races is that they have become "competing power groups" who use "the distinction of race" to "sanction each other's pursuit of power in relation to the other."
As a result, he writes, public discussions of race have become "virtually choreographed," with angry blacks on the one side speaking "in tones of racial entitlement" and slightly befuddled whites on the other showing obligatory deference to black authority on the subject.
He speaks through colorful anecdotes of such psychological impediments as the "black anti-self," a self-destructive tendency fueled by "integration shock," the sudden realization after racial barriers have fallen that you must sink or swim on your own merits and will not be given a break out of consideration for race. Those who are not up to the challenge turn to a defense mechanism Steele calls "race holding," in which they refuse to recognize that racism has declined and instead argue all the harder that it is worse than ever.
A "struggle for innocence" showed itself when the civil-rights movement began in the '60s to "seek racial as well as moral power, and thus it fell into the fundamental contradiction that plagues it to this day," a contradiction conservatives called "reverse discrimination."
Steele sees affirmative-action programs leading blacks further down the grim road of entitlements based on "victimization" at a time when African Americans should be about the business of taking better advantage of the golden opportunities the post-civil rights era has brought.
"I think the civil rights movement in its early and middle years offered the best way out of America's racial impasse: In this society, race must not be a source of advantage or disadvantage for anyone," he writes.
The refreshing nature of Steele's language and perspective on this perplexing subject make "The Content of Our Character" a worthy addition to America's tradition of Emersonian essayists.
Steele is such a pleasure to read that he might even persuade you to believe he is right. Unfortunately, he has not persuaded me.
My objections begin with his annoying condescension toward those blacks who stubbornly refuse to fit themselves into mainstream European-American ways as easily and comfortably as he apparently has.
It seems a little too simplistic for him to blame on their own anxieties the reluctance of blacks to melt into the melting pot. And it seems a little too glib for him to shrug off housing discrimination and other episodes of everyday racism and to expect all other blacks to do the same.