Authors: Shelby Steele

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American sociologist

Identity: African American

Author Works


The Content of Our Character: A New Vision of Race in America, 1990

A Dream Deferred: The Second Betrayal of Black Freedom in America, 1998


Shelby Steele’s first book, The Content of Our Character: A New Vision of Race in America, which contained several of his essays on social issues primarily affecting African Americans, was a bombshell. The book was denounced by many African American leaders, and despite Steele’s harsh criticism of nonblacks for their attitude in racial situations, his book was applauded by millions, both black and white, and earned for its author numerous honors and much critical acclaim.{$I[AN]9810001573}{$I[A]Steele, Shelby}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Steele, Shelby}{$I[geo]AFRICAN AMERICAN/AFRICAN DESCENT;Steele, Shelby}{$I[tim]1946;Steele, Shelby}

Shelby Steele

(Hoover Institution, Stanford University)

Steele grew up in an all-black community south of Chicago. His father, who left school in the third grade, believed in education as the route to success and pushed his children in that direction. This strong parental influence contributed to Steele’s philosophy about how African Americans should gain equality. Steele contended that too many African Americans have come to rely on the preferences demanded by affirmative action programs or on the leverage provided by allegations of racial prejudice rather than on individual initiative. His criticism of racial quotas in the job market and in college admissions, his contention that preference programs such as affirmative action are enslaving, and his call for African Americans to examine their own prejudices put him at odds with many who labeled him a traitor to his race. He was angrily accused of providing comfort to whites, of being an “Uncle Tom,” and of being simplistic.

Steele’s philosophy was formed, in part, by a strong family that included a twin brother, two sisters, and interracial parents. His father grew up in the South before eventually making his way to Chicago, where he married a white social worker. As a child, Steele attended an all-black elementary school; in high school, he excelled in an integrated environment, and as a senior, he was student council president. His parents involved Steele in the Civil Rights movement in the 1960’s, and he became a follower of both Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X. His early affection was for King. As a student at Coe College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, he became involved in student civil rights groups adhering to King’s philosophy. Later in his college experience, he adopted a more militant stance in keeping with his new role model, Malcolm X, who preached Black Power. During this period, he wore African-style clothing and led campus protests. He also began to identify with what he later called “victimized black Americans”–a condition that he came to rail strongly against and that he views as a weakness in African Americans who claim to be victims as a way of avoiding individual responsibility and initiative.

After receiving his degree from Coe in 1968, Steele entered Southern Illinois University and received a degree in sociology in 1971. He then earned a Ph.D. in English literature in 1974 from the University of Utah. Before completing his education, he married Rita Steele, a white student who eventually became a clinical psychologist. Following his graduation from the University of Utah, Steele began teaching literature at San Jose State University in California. The birth of his two children, Steele contends, gave him another look at his racial identity, and he began to have different ideas about the opportunities that were available to African Americans. This led to several thoughtful essays that appeared in such highly regarded magazines as Harper’s, American Scholar, and Commentary. In 1989, he won a National Magazine Award, and one of his essays was named in “The Best American Essays 1989.” In 1990, several of his previously published essays were combined with new material in The Content of Our Character: A New Vision of Race in America. This book, the title of which echoed a phrase used by Martin Luther King, made Steele a literary and philosophical celebrity. He became the subject of numerous articles and interviews that appeared in such publications as Time and The New York Times. He also hosted a Public Broadcasting Service documentary on the murder of a young African American boy by a group of whites in the Bensonhurst section of Brooklyn, New York.

Steele’s book was named a Book-of-the-Month Club alternate selection and was honored with a National Book Critics Circle Award. The book caused a heated debate, primarily between scholars and leaders in the African American community, and opened up new thoughts and new ideas about how racial equality might be fully achieved. Those who disagreed with Steele accused him of not fully understanding the depth of racism in America and claimed he was too far removed from those on the lower social rungs of the community to understand the reality of their situation. Yet supporters, many labeled as “new black conservatives,” defended Steele’s philosophy and called for individual achievements as a way for African Americans to gain full acceptance in the larger society and to remove their own feelings of inferiority. In 1994, Steele was appointed a senior fellow of the Hoover Institute at Stanford University, a public policy research institution devoted to the study of politics and economics founded by President Herbert Hoover in 1919.

A Dream Deferred, Steele’s second book, expanded his critique of black victimization and affirmative action, likening government intervention in racial relations, no matter how well-intentioned, to the worst practices of slavery, segregation, and even Nazi Germany and Soviet Communism. Steele makes a distinction between civil rights–the rights owed to any person in the United States, regardless of color–and affirmative action, which singles out color and ethnicity to give one group rights not shared by all. Such racial preference programs, he argues, serve more to assuage white guilt over racism than to assist blacks in bettering their lives, and leave the roles of victimizer and victim intact and dysfunctionally codependant. Steele’s writings thus served to open up a new debate that continued to affect the discussion of American racial problems into the twenty-first century.

BibliographyCooper, Matthew. “Inside Racism.” The Washington Monthly 23, no. 9 (October, 1990). Takes some issue with Steele’s comments about affirmative action but generally supports his ideas.Loury, Glenn C. “Why Steele Demands More of Blacks than of Whites.” Academic Questions 5 (Fall, 1992): 19-23. Provides an overview and analysis of the controversy aroused by The Content of Our Character.Prager, Jeffrey. “Self Reflection(s): Subjectivity and Racial Subordination in the Contemporary African American Writer.” Social Identities 1 (August, 1995): 355-371. Compares Steele’s The Content of Our Character and John Wideman’s Philadelphia Fire (1990) to reveal these authors’ confrontation with self-expression and self-definition in the American society which denies African American individuality.Vassallo, Phillip. “Guarantees of a Promised Land: Language and Images of Race Relations in Shelby Steele’s The Content of Our Character.” ETC: A Review of General Semantics 49 (Spring, 1992): 36-42. Analyzes the language Steele uses to make his case in his book, especially his coinage of phrases such as “race-holding” and “harangue-flagellation ritual” to frame his argument.
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