WASHINGTON — African-American writer and social critic Shelby Steele argued on Thursday that black oppression is over in the U.S., while calling on blacks to stop blaming racism for their own inability to harness freedom.
In a pointed speech at the Heritage Foundation, Stanford University Hoover Institution senior fellow Steele also described the Black Lives Matter movement as “a comfort zone where people land because they are afraid of freedom.”
“Liberalism, I think, has effectively become the new racism,” Steele said. “It mimics segregation by seeing blacks as helpless inferiors. Black inferiority is its greatest sort of cause … and it has tended to hide reality behind empty idealism in a way that belittles blacks, keeps them down, debilitates them. It literally demands dependency from them.”
Steele is most well-known for his 1990 essay collection The Content of Our Character, a meditation on race relations in America, which earned him the National Book Critics Circle Award for general nonfiction. In 2007, he wrote A Bound Man: Why We are Excited about Obama and Why He Can’t Win. Steele also writes op-eds for The Wall Street Journal.
“We like to say that the real black is the black on the street corner doing drugs, selling drugs and shooting each other,” Steele said. “We don’t question their blackness, but we question the blackness of those who climb out of those situations, who join the American mainstream, who become successful.”
Modern liberalism, he continued, rewards failure and breeds bad faith in people and in America. The more inferior a black person is, he said, the more “black” that person is considered. This cultural dynamic encourages a sense of helplessness, and the helpless like to be surrounded by others who are helpless, he said.
Despite this, Steele contends that he maintains “good faith” in America, and though he was not born free, he considers himself absolutely free today.
“The breaking news here is precisely that, that our oppression is over,” he said. “It’s just over. We can’t organize ourselves any longer fighting against a society that doesn’t want us to be free. Society today wants us to be free. Maybe they love us, maybe they don’t, but they want us to be free, and that is a revolutionary change, a transformation probably only possible in the United States, but we are now free. The problem that we have as blacks, as minorities, is what I call the shock of freedom.”
He explained that the fantasy of freedom is that when you arrive, you automatically live in a paradise where all stresses dissolve and happiness comes fully and naturally. The reality, he said, is that freedom shows a person how small and ill-equipped they are. There are no longer any excuses to make and no one to blame, he added.
“You can chase the American dream in any form that you would like to consider doing so,” he said.
Steele admitted that many African-Americans may have educational disadvantages to their white counterparts due to the legacy of slavery and discrimination, but he said that life is not fair, and that in order to succeed in an ultra-competitive world today a person must have skills and talents. They can’t get by on the color of their skin alone, he said. He called on blacks to re-invent themselves as people who can exploit freedom and not be intimidated by it, a group of people who can educate themselves and “erect a structure” that will allow them to flourish under freedom.
“Black America today does not know itself outside of victimization,” he said, adding that African-Americans are no longer humiliated by white racism but rather an inability to adapt to freedom. He asked where “hammering away at white people” gets others.
All Americans, he continued, are responsible for their own fate and for making something of themselves.
“And if you don’t do it, you can’t blame it on white people and think that somehow that gives you a self-esteem. No, it won’t,” he said.