African-American conservative Steele (A Dream Deferred, 1998, etc.) charges guilty white liberals and their black enablers with unleashing a moral relativism that is corrupting America.
The author frames his book around a drive up the California coast during which he pondered the Bill Clinton–Monica Lewinsky affair. Why is it, he asks himself, that President Eisenhower would have been drummed out of office for a sex scandal like Clinton’s, while Clinton would certainly have been impeached if he had used the racial slur Eisenhower allegedly employed on the golf course? The answer, Steele asserts, is a fundamental change in American culture. The success of the civil-rights movement in the 1960s showed that America’s power structure lacked moral authority. For white Americans, the only way to regain that authority has been to “disassociate” from racism, which Steele says is now more frowned upon than adultery. The result has whites straining to appear benevolent toward blacks, while African-American leaders take advantage of “white guilt” to gain handouts such as affirmative action. Steele, who made the same points in his National Book Critics Circle award-winner The Content of Our Character (1990), contends that white liberals see blacks for their skin color instead of their individuality. (“Most of today’s conservatives,” he contends, “sound like Martin Luther King in 1963.”) Black leaders, on the other hand, fail to call upon African-Americans to exercise personal responsibility. Steele has some noteworthy insights into the ways blacks and whites relate, but his arguments suffer from his tendency to establish and then gleefully demolish straw men and from his sweeping generalizations based on personal experiences. Steele claims, for example, that the racial discrimination he encountered as a child did little to harm his self-image and then applies his experience to all blacks. This is the same form of argument he finds offensive in others.
Aims to provoke, but will appeal mainly to those already in the choir.