THE CONTENT OF OUR CHARACTER: A New Vision of Race in America by Shelby Steele

THE CONTENT OF OUR CHARACTER: A New Vision of Race in America

Email this review


Previously published (in Harper's, Commentary, The American Scholar, etc.), these collected essays by the eloquent, idealistic, controversial black San Jose State English professor seem certain to make a signficant offering to America's unending race debate. Shelby's closely reasoned ethico-politico vision combines Booker T. Washington's ""bootstrap"" emphasis on black individual achievement with Martin Luther King's anti-militancy. Several key assumptions undergird these disparate essays, which cover subjects ranging from black middle-classdom to affirmative action to race and college politics: that racial debate in America is tainted and restricted by the ""politics and its party line"" of each race, which impose a ""totalitarianism"" over original thought (like Steele's own, perhaps); that government must consider blacks and whites not race groups but as ""competing power groups"" in order to revise social administration successfully; that white and black America both seek racial ""innocence"" in race relations, but that white guilt and black feelings of inferiority mar this attempt. Steele also argues that blacks have a ""hidden investment in victimization and poverty,"" a legacy of black-power movements of the Sixties, when martyrdom, not achievement, became the theme of black politics; that a ""politics of difference"" that bestows affirmative action and entitlement of blacks devalues achievement and responsibility and falsely rewards historical suffering; and that black ""awe"" of white achievement creates psychological ground for black failure. Steele may be seen here by some to be praising conventionally ""conservative"" values (if not policy) as a key to black success; for this he may emerge as something equivalent to the Allan Bloom of race relations. In any case, his book's stylish argument is guaranteed to move (and anger) many.

Pub Date: Sept. 17th, 1990
Publisher: St. Martin's