Across the great divide (Part 1)
"A Dream Deferred: The Second Betrayal of Black Freedom in America" By Shelby Steele, HarperCollins, 185 pages
BY GARY KAMIYA
"Integration" is a forlorn word today. In the glory days of the civil rights movement it was a talisman of brotherhood, a call to arms that united black and white alike. But the exhaustion and apathy that follows long disillusionment has stripped it of its aura. It is one of those lofty concepts that most people still nominally believe in, but in the age of "diversity" and "multiculturalism" it has become irrelevant, even faintly embarrassing.
Yet the integrationist dream of Martin Luther King Jr. and his followers has not failed. It has simply not succeeded -- and the way that it has not succeeded has shaken the idealistic faith of its proponents. The course of black-white relations in America has wandered into lost byways and sad dead ends that the men and women who risked their lives in Selma and Birmingham could never have dreamed of.
By many measures, race relations have never been better. The underclass, with its nightmarish litany of ills, remains a huge and seemingly intractable problem. But more African-Americans than ever have joined the middle class. Overt acts of bigotry have been exiled to society's fringes. Practically no whites will confess to holding racist views. And even interracial marriages, the ultimate racial taboo, are increasingly common.
But these advances have not produced integration, as it was once assumed they would. Blacks and whites, even of the same social class, still tend to self-segregate. Race relations on campus and in the workplace are often strained and distant. And the differences in attitude are even more troubling.
There is a massive perception gap between middle-class whites -- even, increasingly, liberals -- and middle-class blacks on racial issues. Many middle-class blacks burn with racial anger and resentment, feeling that though they may have superficially made it into white society's promised land, they are still not fully accepted, still subject to a thousand racial slights and subtle insults. African-Americans often feel that try as they might, whites just don't get it. How can a white person understand the naked, existential mark of blackness -- a mere color so overdetermined, so stigmatizing, that simply to open one's American door is to walk into alienation?
For their part, middle-class whites, even liberals, are no longer as willing as they once were to extend unlimited credit to black charges of racism. Denying that they themselves are prejudiced, they increasingly regard what they see as the black fixation on racism as a phantom pain that has lingered on long after the wound has healed, and the whole array of race-conscious remedies as a cure that is worse than the disease. Fearful of being stigmatized as racists, and painfully aware of the still-vast gap between black and white Americans, they rarely voice these feelings, but their suspicions, driven underground, gradually calcify into resentment -- a resentment partially, if not largely, responsible for the growing national turn against racial preferences.
This racial chasm is a tragedy, for blacks and whites need each other. Like the Platonic myth in the Symposium, they represent each other's missing halves. The question is how to get those halves to meet.
Once, during the civil rights era, the answer seemed so clear. It was clear to my mother, a white woman who after World War II dared to marry a Japanese-American farm boy she met on the Berkeley campus. A few weeks ago, we were walking along and arguing about affirmative action. She supported it; I didn't. I was in full swing, declaiming how preferences only benefited those who didn't need them, when something in the tone of her voice interrupted my speech. She said, "God, we had such high hopes. And when I see what's happened now ..." I looked over at her, and her eyes were filled with tears.
So our short honeymoon of racial innocence is over. The clear-cut villains and heroes of the civil rights movement era are gone. Like a mistrustful, wounded married couple, blacks and whites seem to have abandoned all hope of romance, or even benign tolerance, and are just trying to figure out how to talk to each other without making their mutual estrangement worse.
For 30 years, the dominant story we have told ourselves about race has been one of white guilt and black victimization. But that story is no longer adequate -- neither to blacks nor to whites. In different ways, three new books -- Shelby Steele's "A Dream Deferred," Tamar Jacoby's "Somebody Else's House" and Howard Kohn's "We Had a Dream" -- challenge that story. Refusing to dehumanize blacks by seeing them as permanent victims and rejecting the facile white guilt that allows disengagement, Steele's and Jacoby's books assert that America's failure to integrate is in large part due to the moral distortions and psychological burdens created by race consciousness -- whether '60s Black Power or liberal color-coding. Kohn's book, an extraordinarily intimate narrative about the lives of a few people in integrated Prince George's County, Md., eschews ideology or univocal conclusions for psychological depth, but its idiosyncratic story also ends up flouting conventional racial wisdom. Following early works like Richard Rodriguez's "Hunger of Memory," and along with other recent works like Dinesh D'Souza's "The End of Racism," Jim Sleeper's "Liberal Racism" and Stephen and Abigail Thernstrom's "America in Black and White," these books represent a potent revisionist attack on perhaps our most deeply held moral orthodoxy.
Shelby Steele's "A Dream Deferred" is essentially a harder-edged and more theoretical exploration of the ideas in his groundbreaking first book, "The Content of Our Character" (1990). In his introduction, Steele acknowledges that his new book contains "what I hope is a tolerable amount of repetition." The reworking of earlier themes doesn't seem to me to be a defect: As Steele argues, "my experience of writing about America's racial conundrum is not unlike that of poor Sisyphus, who was forever bracing himself for yet another trudge up the same mountain."
Steele's recurring theme has been to unmask the dubious motivations behind the race-conscious remedies embraced by white liberals and blacks. For Steele, '60s liberalism's "first and all-consuming goal was the expiation of American shame rather than the careful and true development of equity between the races." America's racial politics is lofty moral posturing designed to assuage white guilt -- grant whites what he calls "redemption" -- and give blacks cheap power. In the long essay that makes up more than half the book, "The Loneliness of the 'Black Conservative,'" Steele points out that a "black conservative" may not be conservative at all, by conventional definitions: not necessarily a Republican, or a libertarian, or a neocon. Rather, this despised outcast is simply "a black who dissents from the victimization explanation of black fate when it is offered as a totalism -- when it is made the main theme of group identity and the raison d'Ítre of a group politics."
Steele takes aim at all policies and attitudes that foreground race. Even "affirmative" race consciousness simply reverses and repeats the sins of racism, he argues: It locks whites into a position of guilty superiority (guilty, since their final redemption is forever withheld by power-mongering blacks; superior, since black uplift is made to depend on white largesse) and holds back blacks by forcing them to invest in their own victimization. It allows both races to avoid doing the hard work of actual uplift, which Steele insists can only come from the traditional American middle-class virtues: individual effort, education, self-improvement. (He points out that those areas where blacks have been most successful, such as music and athletics, are precisely those in which there are no interventions.)
Above all, Steele argues for the power and agency of the individual. Liberals, he argues, refuse to look at blacks as individuals because they have bought into what he calls a "sociological" view in which blacks are seen as "specimens." Like Marxism, the liberal view of race is essentially structural, not individual: Explanations involving individual responsibility are always superseded by those based on history -- in this case, the fact of racism. For a white to criticize an individual black, under this theory, is to engage in "ahistorical thinking" -- a dialectical condemnation of the sort critiqued in Czeslaw Milosz's classic study of totalitarian ideology, "The Captive Mind."
Even if one accepts that African-Americans' and liberals' willingness to use blackness as a moral bartering-chip was necessary or at least understandable as a response to racism (Steele was more forgiving of that move in his first book; now he regards it as catastrophic), it was always acknowledged that at some point this hyper race-consciousness would have to be dispensed with. But Steele is not content to wait for some never-to-be-defined future time when blacks will be regarded by whites as the same as everyone else, as human beings who don't need special programs or preferences. He insists that the time is now. He eloquently refuses to be a "black man," insofar as that means anything. Race, he passionately argues, must not mean anything: "In American life race will always be an opportunity for evil." He insists that whites practice the Golden Rule: If they argue that affirmative action is necessary for blacks, he asks, would they want their own children to benefit from it? Beneath the genteel surface of his prose burns a deep anger, a refusal to be patronized, to be turned into a Noble Historical Exhibit.
So far, these arguments are similar to that made in "The Content of Our Character." But Steele, now a research fellow at Stanford University's conservative Hoover Institution, takes things one important step further in his new book: He argues that all top-down social interventions that aim at moral improvement, not just race-conscious remedies, are destructive. "When redemptive liberals make interventions the agents of change over people, they avail themselves of one of the most popular formulas for power in the twentieth century," he writes, comparing America's embrace of redemptive racial politics to post-World War I Germany's embrace of Aryan supremacy and turn-of-the-century Russia's attempt to create a classless society. Steele calls the abstract ideals that are to be embodied through social change "ideas-of-the-good," and rejects them out of hand: "This kind of 'good,' of course, is a recipe for power. The real goal of those who espouse it is the interventionism it demands from government ... We are fortunate to wrestle with our shame and our ideas-of-the-good within a society that still treasures freedom over the 'good.'"
In effect, this rules out all governmental interventions that aim at some moral ideal. It's unclear if he has really converted to full-bore libertarian conservatism of the Hayek-von Mises school, as that position would indicate, or if it's just that his evil eye for "right-thinking" liberals willing to sacrifice principle for the racial "good" has led him to temporarily align himself with laissez-faire doctrine. In any case, there is a new, genuinely conservative note here not found in his first book.
I think Steele is on shaky ground here. Bleeding-heart rhetoric can indeed represent a kind of moral blackmail, but it's hard to accept that all efforts at redemptive public intervention should be ruled out. Suppose a government decides that income disparity should be rectified by progressive taxation, and mounts a highly moralistic PR campaign to sell this idea-of-the-good. By Steele's argument, this would be nothing but a naked power play intended to maximize governmental power, one that would violate the principle of freedom. Is this really where Steele wants to end up?
In fact, I don't think Steele has to reject all governmental activism to argue against race-conscious remedies. His other points are strong enough that such a foundational argument isn't necessary. But Steele is drawn to foundational arguments by temperament. He always posits a principle first, and only looks quickly at the world to see how well it conforms to it. Almost all of his arguments are philosophical; his evidence is largely anecdotal -- telling encounters at dinner parties, brief conversations with a few people. This loftiness gives his arguments both moral grandeur and admirable internal consistency, but it can also make them feel somewhat disembodied. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that they are deeply embodied in his existential experience. But is it legitimate for Steele to extrapolate out from his own passionate beliefs that racial preferences are degrading for all?
I think Steele overstates the destructive effect that racial preferences have on African-Americans. People can incorporate worse contradictions than being the recipient of affirmative action without being degraded. I believe the most damaging negative consequence of racial preferences is the artificiality they introduce into race relations. We have lived with that tortuous artifice for so long that we no longer see the damage it has done -- the substitution of politeness for real communication, the way it has frozen true integration in its tracks. As Steele writes, "Once in the color-and-numbers game, the full and complex humanity of blacks -- who they really are and what they really need -- becomes inconvenient."
The habit of seeing blacks as a special case is hard to break. It has goodwill behind it, as Steele acknowledges. But there comes a time when goodwill reifies, when it becomes an excuse for avoiding actual communication -- when the best of intentions interfere with the possibility of moving to the next level.
Many blacks and liberals will dismiss Steele's arguments as reactionary and hard-hearted, or at best perverse and counterproductive. But Steele is not a writer for today, he is a writer for tomorrow. And just as Daniel Patrick Moynihan's 1965 warning about the crisis of the black family, once rejected as beyond the pale, is now seen as prescient, so I believe Steele's day will come.
Back to the top
© 2000 Cable News Network. All Rights Reserved.
Terms under which this service is provided to you.
Read our privacy guidelines.