Shelby Steele on Race and America Today

The author of 'The Content of Our Character' addresses a crowd at the Freedom Center's annual retreat.

The celebrated Shelby Steele, author of The Content of Our Character and other masterpieces, shared his insights about race and America at the Freedom Center's annual West Coast Retreat this past April 5-7, 2019 at the Terranea Resort in Rancho Palos Verdes, California. Check out the video and transcript below:


Steele: Somebody left this odd book up here.  I don't who did it.  Some people go to no lengths.  Well it's very nice to be here, and I was here it must have been a good while; maybe 10 years ago.  But I've watched what David does a great deal.  I'm a fan of David Horowitz as a writer.  He is in the community of people who are conservatives who are writers.  David is right there at the top.  He is amazingly on every level – political, personal – he's just someone well worth reading at all times.  Anyway I greatly admire his work and always look forward to it.

I want to talk a little bit today about race relations in America – a nice narrow subject.  But I do want to my metaphors that I want to base a little bit like a drone – sort of above the action and you have a certain angle of vision on it that makes it clearer or hopefully makes things clearer than they sometimes are down on the ground when you're immediately immersed in it.  So I want to say a little bit about liberalism and conservatism and, again, how race plays into all that.  I think that everything changed in the 1960's.  The '60's I think are clearly the most transformative decade in all of American history including the decade of the Civil War when we clearly were greatly divided.  But in the '60's, the divisions became more culturally profound.  The implications for the American experiment were deeper in many ways.  And so I think you always have to go back to the '60's and so I'd sort of like to start there.

What made the 1960's the most transformative decade in American history?  I think when all is said and done, and there is a lot to be said and done, it comes down to one thing – that in the '60's, American was given the idea of its own evil.  It had never really been there before.  Certainly we all knew slavery was a lousy thing, was horrible.  We knew we didn't treat women as well as we should, and we knew many things.  But in the '60's, there were so many profound movements – the Civil Rights movement certainly was the leading movement, but there was also the beginnings of the women's movement.  There was a huge generation alienating anti-war movement where many millions on young people became disaffected from their home country.  It was, again, a decade of great turmoil; and there was the subtext of this was that we had not really paid attention to who we were.  There was a capacity for evil in our society that we had ignored, and it was now coming out and demanding to be dealt with.  As a black American growing up in segregated America, it was evil.  It was, I remember very distinctly and I'm also very good at forgetting, it was bad.  It was horrible, and it was stupid and meaningless.  If you want a sandwich in this Italian deli, your white friend got these wonderful green peppers and dripping with au jus sauce; and you can have that, but you have to stand on the other side of the threshold to get it.  And my son will bring it over to you.

Well every day to do that to a people indicates there was something – it wasn't just a social evil and racism was not just a social convention.  There was an intent to hurt, to inflict suffering; and it went on for centuries.  And it destroyed an unimaginable number of lives.  And its affects are still sadly with us today.  So America in that simple sense has this problem of was equal.  So in the '60's, I think America underwent a moral fall.  What is a fall?  Well I think the greatest fall story of all time certainly must be Adam and Eve.  Adam and Eve living in Eden, in the Garden of Eden, and paradise and every one of their needs being met; fruit dripping from the trees and so forth.  But God said all of this is contingent on you not partaking of the forbidden fruit; and maybe God forgot it, but Adam and Eve were human beings.  So of course you're going to bite of the forbidden fruit.  That's what human beings do.  Human beings do that.  And Adam and Eve did that, and so they came to know corruption of some kind within themselves.  And they were cast out of the Garden of Eden and they fell, literally, from paradise down to reality.  And it was a fall really from innocence in paradise to knowledge in reality, and that is always the reward of a fall – it is that it is where we learn.  It is where we get knowledge of reality, and I think America sensed the '60's with regard to race as been getting a lot of knowledge about reality and what the reality of American life and how it was just a little bit different than the Disney vision that we all grew up with.

So there was a great loss of moral authority in the United States of America in the 1960's, and I don't think we have fully recovered.  But, again, I remember as a youth growing up in segregated America there was even then there was a kind of unity.  We understood the same principles, the same values, didn't matter what your race was, everybody had pretty much a kind of Americana vision of the world and so forth.  Since that time, we I think have gotten far away from that.  And we have today what is called, for lack of a better way to say, and Adam and Eve problem regarding race in America.  The people who were oppressed for four centuries were finally won enormous amount of freedom in the '60's, and so they began to come into freedom in the '60's.  But they still lived with the same people who had oppressed them.  And so there was this tension in society; and the people who had oppressed them now had some degree of certainly of guilt about this.  This was a full **** to American's credit; America fully recognized, stood up to, faced what it had done; has to be given credit for that.  But then the people who did it to them were right there; and they're saying oh it was nice of you to apologize, but you did this and I'm still suffering from that and you owe me something.  And so we got again, you can begin to see the kind of political tensions that come out of that.  It's just blacks having a kind of bounty of moral authority as victims and whites losing moral authority as oppressors.  And whites in that sense have had to live with that deficit of moral authority since.  That's caused us many, many problems most of which have to do with in many cases eating up our own society in order to win back the innocence that has been lost.

I think that one of the most important things that came out of this fall and this existential situation where you have both groups living together and yet having this history and having this knowledge of that history between them and having different vested interests in their own point of view.  I think one of things that came out of that, the most important thing, was that we created a situation in America where innocence of the evil past was power.  If whites could show that they were really not like that old ugly racist America then they could have moral authority again.  They could begin to recover it.  Our institutions could begin to have legitimacy again.  And political parties and so forth could begin to have power again if they could somehow achieve innocence of that past and verify it – say I'm not like that.  I'm innocent of all of that.

Stanford University in the early '90's stopped teaching Western Civilization.  Many other universities and colleges followed suit.  When I went to college, Western Civilization was the heart and soul of a liberal arts program of the college – everybody took it.  You had to, it was unthinkable.  But in the early '90's, Stanford decided well there had been a lot of racism in that history, a lot of colonialism, a lot of imperialism, and we want to show that we are innocent of that so we'll wipe the class out.  Virtue signaling – what will be called virtue signaling today.  You may have noticed that in many television commercials today, they have interracial couples, interracial children, interracial everything – almost driven to – I should be able to get some work.  Well they're signaling we, the people who are selling this product, we are innocent.  We're not racists.  We're way above that.  Look and they create an optic of innocence that they then show to the world.  When I was born, I was called a colored person.  A few years later when the Civil Rights movement took shape and became stronger, I became a Negro.  Then when I was in college and black militancy became the thing, I was black and little flames coming off that word!  Then most recently, I am now an African American.  I've been to Africa many times, and Africans let you know immediately you are not an African.  But this is a language that we can speak about this group of people and still maintain our innocence.  And see I use the word African American.  I don't use the word Negro, and I know because I'm not racist.

So at any rate, innocence for whites became almost everything and blacks, since the '60's, have found enormous power in setting the terms of innocence.  I'll give you your innocence if you give me X, Y, and Z.  We created, of course, the grievance industry around this principle.  Blacks present their grievance, their victimization; whites through its institutions pay off.  I thought it was just a scream yesterday, the news you may have seen.  All of the Democratic candidates running for office coming into Reverend Al Sharpton's has a conference every year, and every one of these people appeared and they all in front with Reverend Al standing right there glaring them in the eye and the cameras right there declared their devotion to reparations.  Well Reverend Al is still working that – I'll give you your innocence but here's what you're going to give me – quid pro quo.  And that sort of quid pro quo situation defines in many ways our relationship and has injured us enormously.

The American liberalism in the '60's saw, smelled out, the power that was to be had in this whole – in innocence.  And liberalism in a sense became a political ideology built around gaining innocence of the past and using it as moral authority, legitimacy, and power today.  And if you look at liberalism, that's pretty much what you see.  I think of Nancy Pelosi's saying to that President Trump's wall, the border wall that he wants, is an immorality, immorality; thereby brilliantly really transforming the issue of the wall into a potential source of power for white Americans, black Americans, too, at this point.  If you come with me and you accept as she's saying, you accept that this is an immorality.  Then in supporting the wall, you join that evil, racist, sexist, bigoted old America.  That's who you are a part of.  If you join me and fight against this wall, you're innocent.  You have power, you have entitlement.  You should be elected for office.  The Democratic Party, the liberals of America, I think is entirely based on this kind of – this is their power.  Their favorite word is resist.  What that sort of means is that because it leads with innocence, it's resist.  I say resist because I'm innocent of all those sins; and what you're resisting is that old evil, that old ugly racist evil.  And so in resisting, you are innocent and you are legitimate and you are entitled and so forth.

I'm in the process of making a documentary film on the situation of a few years ago – Ferguson which exposed white policemen shooting Michael Brown and all of things that happened after that still much of it is still going on.  But in Ferguson, one young man Michael Brown was shot by a white policeman.  In the year 2016, 762 black kids were shot and killed on the south side of Chicago, in 1 year; 3,000 were wounded in 1 year.  President couldn't -- no mention of anything in the newspaper, no news coverage of what is clearly on a genocidal level.  No objection to it.  Ferguson, one kid is shot and killed, 6 months is later exonerated of any racial intent; that tells you where the power is.  There's no power if a black finger is pulling the trigger that kills a black kid, who cares?  Make the finger white, you open up a reservoir of power that is amazing.  So all of a sudden in Michael Brown's case, President Obama is involved and making comments.  Eric Holder, the Attorney General of the United States, flying over Chicago to get to Saint Louis and have an investigation of Michael Brown and the FBI involved in another explanation; America fighting over the meaning of this kid's death.  Maybe he just acted up and got shot.  But no, America knows there's power there and so if they can establish that he was killed and there was some racial animas involved, which they've never proven but it they could, then that would become a part of the scenario, the story that America's still a racist country, white people are still guilty, black people are still entitled.  So Michael Brown's death there was a lot to win, a lot to lose in that situation.

Well liberalism does that.  Liberalism understands that America has had a difficult time dealing with this old reality of evil.  Still can't quite figure out what to do, and it is a dilemma in our society particularly for whites but for blacks as well.  You have situations like the almost funny Jussie Smollett story.  Really just not tragic, just filled with **** really.  But Jussie wasn't that stupid.  He was incompetent, and he failed to pull off his own hoax.  He wrote checks to his co‑conspirators.  But his analysis of American society was right on the money.  He said these stupid white liberals will buy this every day, my career will take off, I will get money and from any number of different sources, I can thrive.  All I got to do is put this noose around my neck.  His calculation was based on the perception that white people could be had.  When the news first broke, they were had.  It was really only the fact that his incompetence caught up with him.  Otherwise think if it had been proven that what was it two white kids would actually have beaten him up and poured bleach on him and so forth.  Suppose that had stood up.  It would have had an enormous affect.  It would become an iconic incident proving that America is unrelentingly racist and therefore blacks stand in the – but he was incompetent so it didn't work.

The greatest ingenuity of modern liberalism, I think, is the fact that it learned to survive by offering people not liberalism as an ideology or as a politics but liberalism as an identity of innocence.  My wife hates it when I tell this story but her bridge group – she's a very good bridge player – you can imagine, I'm sure some people here in situations these days are very tense.  Is somebody going to utter the T word?  Because politics can swarm forward and wipe out the whole thing but many of these ladies, basic were as things have unfolded in the last few months clearly are liberal; are on the left.  But not because they've really thought seriously or carefully about politics or what their real feelings are or anything but because they want to be seen as decent people and the one thing I can be sure of is that liberals are seen as decent people.  They're seen as being separate from that old, evil America; that racist America.  They're innocent and so I am a liberal.  I am an innocent.  You are a conservative.  I don't have to draw the conclusion there and so these women have a certain power because they're, as liberals, they are in a sense dissociating themselves from the ugly America and proving it by saying they're a Democrat.  That's powerful.  So today, you look at the achievements of modern liberalism over the last 60 years.  They're absolutely, 100 percent a failure.  They've achieved nothing.  Trillions of dollars; liberalism is the most failed system of public policies in American history.  Certainly if not way beyond that but who cares?  It gives me an identity.  It gives me my innocence.  It gives me a way to walk through the world saying I'm on the side of the good.  You're probably a conservative.  You're probably on the side of evil.  You probably secretly have dark friends who are white nationalists.  You know?  But I'm free of that.  I think the great power that liberalism took on after the 60s was this ability to sell you an identity; to give you an identity.  That's just kind of beautiful and who can hate a liberal, really, on a personal level?  They are so shrouded in innocence.

This identity works in another way and American liberalism has made Donald Trump a symbol of American evil.  He's called a racist constantly, a bigot.  Every low, despicable quality in the human condition is assigned to him and then when we, sort of, build up this hateful icon, then we really hate him and the measure of our hatred for Donald Trump is the measure of our innocence.  In hating him I confirm myself.  You know, because I don't like to hate.  I'm not a hateful person.  But with Donald Trump, I have to.  That's too much.  I have to.  So in liberalism, hatred is a business.  It's a business.  You make your bona fides as a liberal by the degree of your hatred and leveraging it and so forth.

What about conservatives?  What about us as – and in all of this?  Because I think that conservatives, that we have what I call almost a tragic vulnerability and I think back to the speech that Barry Goldwater gave; the 1964 after the Republican convention and at that time in American history there was all kinds of ferment and upheaval.  The civil rights movement, the beginning of the women's right, even the ecological movement was beginning.  Anti-war, so forth and he didn't mention any of those things.  He stood at the podium, as I say, with a kind of sort of rectitude and the idea was that yes, we have problems but we have the principles to solve them and thank you very much while these people are seething.  Cities are burning down in America.  Well, I think that's a vulnerability that exists that conservatism has.  What to do when principles aren't enough.  When being right is not enough.  Being right doesn't get you anywhere.  Even when you understand and explain things it still doesn't work.  To put it specifically, this vulnerability as a conservatism has no way to extract power from America's reputation for evil.  Liberalism is ingenuity.  Its genius is that it found ways to extract power, to make itself powerful by, in a sense, stealing the thunder from America's evil.  We're the ones who will fix that for you.  We'll solve.  We'll take America to a higher ground.  We'll so forth and so on and so found all these ways I've just mentioned to claim innocence and power and so forth.  Conservatives have no such method, no device, no means of doing that.  Goldwater was a kind of example.  He was mute standing there, had no response.  Didn't vote for the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  Didn't vote for it.  Talk about a chin ear.  Well, he said, you know, it's against states' rights.  I stand by states.  Well, states' rights, it was an argument at that point being used to oppress millions of black people in the South.  Come on.  He missed that opportunity.  Conservatism has limped along since then and things, I think, as I'll mention in a minute, I hope, are beginning to change but conservatism certainly has this vulnerability.

It also has no identity of innocence to sell.  We can't say you're on the side of the good.  You're on the side of complete innocence.  You are dissociated from that old evil; that shamed America and so forth.  Conservatives have no real way of doing that.  Well, I know we're getting short here for time so I'll skip to the next one, to a couple points.

I think the opportunity that is open to conservatism today is amazing.  Liberalism has failed for 60 years.  It is completely bankruptcy.  It has no ideas.  It's so desperate that all it's been able to scratch up in the last few months is socialism.  Socialism?  It has no great menace like racism that it's fighting.  It has none of the old enemies that it won its innocence on are vigorous anymore.  This is an opportunity.  The values, the principles that conservatives stand by now have, I think, an historical inevitability.  Where else you going to go?  What else?  You look at the inner cities.  Where else are you going to go beyond self reliance, individual responsibility, hard work, individual initiative, so forth and so on.  That's the only thing that will save those communities at this point.  Old fashioned, universally effective values and principles.  We ought to be out in front of that parade and offer them in the spirit of affection.  We care about you.  Here's the way out and it will always work and what we want is for you to join the American dream.  The dream that made us who we are.  It made us the greatest nation in human history.  Just come on board.  These are old, old ideas.  They're nothing new, original, but they always work.  They always work.  You're guaranteed.  This message we now, I think, on the political right in America, have gained enough authority to take this message forward and again I don't think that we need to do it just simply as a political strategy but as human beings.  We are human beings.  We believe in human possibility, freedom, open competition, free markets, innovation, initiative.  Boy, I think that it's not a mistake that in President Trump's short stint in office so far that by some polls his approval rating in the black community is up to 40 percent.  On Election Day it was 14.  Black people just like anybody else.  If it works, it works and what an opportunity this is for the political right in America now.  Jump on this.  I'll stop there.

Michael Finch: Okay.  Thank you.  We've got time for about two or three quick questions.

Question: Yes, thank you.  Is it on?  Thank you for a lovely presentation.  I wanted to ask you, because this is something that I personally encounter.  I'm sure others here do as well talking to our other white friends and they say, oh, I'm fiscally conservative but socially liberal.  Could you please recommend a good response to that?

Steele: Well, I don't want to be called a racist.  It's kind of a, in a way, this is what, again, back to this sort of existential situation that we find ourselves in.  It goes back to the 60s.  The formally oppressed living with the formally oppressor, we've got all these little weird codes by which we navigate the, sort of, morality we need in American life today to survive.  So I'm, on social issues, I'm wild.  I'm radical.  But I'm a fiscal conservative.  Well, there's a fundamental incompatibility there but that's not the point.  The point is that I'm innocent.  Yes and I can't .....

Question: I enjoyed every little bit of this talk except when you used the language of historical inevitability and I wanted to ask you about this and this isn't something we really talked about so far this weekend.  McKenzie estimates that maybe 73 million American jobs are going to be automated away by 2030 and you know where a lot of those jobs are going to be disappearing from.  They're going to be – you know, we're seeing it now with, you know, fast food for example.  McDonalds is just automating their stores and so when we talk about – so I was just wondering if you could, maybe, address that automation issue because a lot of jobs may very well just disappear and those jobs will very well disappear from the communities that we're talking about.  Thanks.

Steele: Let's say you're right.  What does that mitigate?  So therefore what?  We should not ask – let me say it this way.  The proof, to me, if somebody is a liberal is that they are always afraid to make what I call the big ask.  To talk to the people that you want to help, that you claim to be interested in and ask them to bring themselves forward.  Maybe we people can help.  Maybe things can ... but in any case whether things are automated today or whether they're not automated today I still have to feed my family.  I maybe have to move 2,000 miles away to do that and get some training.  In other words, there are any number of things that we all do without thinking about it but when it comes to minorities it's as though they're – Thomas Sole, my good friend, calls this the sort of snapshot where I see you now as a poor person who's on welfare, Republican systems or whatever and the presumption then as we think about public policy is that you'll always be that snapshot.  No.  People grow, they change, they try new things.  They fail, they try more new things and so automation is a problem that a lot of lower income people are going to have and it's a tough problem and there's no easy solution.  But that doesn't mean that you wait around for the government to take care of you.  One doesn't mitigate the other.  But I do feel, again, I love to talk to liberals and why don't you ask something from the people you want to help?  Why don't you ask something?  Ask them to begin to be responsible for themselves.  Not to begin to be; that's a mitigating term.  Why don't you be responsible?  Well, whites say, oh my god, I don't have the moral authority to say that to black people.  The minute I say that to black people they're going to call me a racist and I'm finished.  Well, right there we have the stalemate in American life.  Whites are saying there's no way I can say that and maintain my innocence.  Can't do it.  If I say that, my innocence is out the window and I'm going to be stigmatized as a bigot and pay the price for that.  Ask Roseanne Barr about that price. 

So the unexamined feature of all this is the situation and why Americans are in where they now live under a kind of terror of crossing the line, making a mistake ever so slightly and then looking up and their career is gone and again white America becomes too fixated on innocence and until we grow, we evolve beyond that, until we have some courageous people who say call me a racist from sun up to sun down.  I don't care.  This is what I think you should be.  This is the only way out.  There is no other way.  I wish there was but there isn't.  Same thing that your father told you when you were 5 and your mother when you were 5.  The same rules apply.  You're free and but now we live in a society.  Even the bold Donald Trump is afraid to say that.  The price he'd pay would just, that would be the nail in the coffin.  I mean, that would be the end of it and so black Americans are sitting there thinking they're doing okay.  That anybody who says individual responsibility to them is a racist.  Pull yourself up by your own bootstraps.  You're a racist.  So we're deadlocked and blacks go down every year.  They perform almost all socioeconomic measures they are worsening .... than the 1950s in relation to whites.  Highest dropout rate, lowest admission rate in colleges, black women get married at half the age and divorced.  I got my little phrase turned around here but they get divorced at twice the rate of white women and they get married at half the rate of white women. So we live in a society now as blacks where no one is going to tell us the truth.  So we live in a bubble and I understand some mine fields; very dangerous.  How do we get out of this?  Common sense tells me the only way is courage.  People have to say call me what you want but I know hard work is a good thing.  It works and you don't like this walk of life, try another one.  Do what everybody does and if you're going to have babies, get married.  If you can't get married and support your children, don't have any.  It's not the government's job to do that.  It's your job.  Why are you doing this?  What's wrong with you?  That's what everybody wants to say, isn't it?  Why are you doing this?  What the hell is wrong with you?  What are you thinking?  Well, blacks amongst themselves say that.

Finch: All right, we've got time for one last quick question and then we're going to move back into the room that we just came from.  So one last quick question.

Question: Well, thanks for your insights.  That was terrific speech.  I wanted to ask if there might be another way of looking at something that you were negative about earlier and that's the comment that people make that they're fiscally conservative and socially liberal and if one interprets that, and we see that in the modern libertarian movement, this commitment to personal liberty and choice and that means as applied in the modern political discussion, a commitment to live and let live and it seems to me that's a model not something to deplore.  Would you agree or not?

Steele: Oh, absolutely.  If I'm understanding you correctly, yeah.  Absolutely.  It is a model but beyond just being a sectarian, sort of, position for libertarians it's universally true.  This is universally true and I always try to touch base with the human condition itself because we all, in the end, are human beings and we all act out of motives that are similar and so forth and, well, much I like about the libertarian point of view because it is universally human and particularly in American.  My god, we're so blessed here to have the level of freedom that we have and opportunity.  It's not by accident that people are clawing down the border right as we speak.  I'd be one of them if I was born there where they're born.  I'd be one of them.  Human beings want freedom.  Any other questions that I?  Thank you very much.  Thank you.


Wondering what happened to your Disqus comments?

Read the Story