Content of Our Character: A New Vision of Race In America

Overview

In this controversial essay collection, award-winning writer Shelby Stelle illuminates the origins of the current conflict in race relations—the increase in anger, mistrust, and even violence between black and whites. With candor and persuasive argument, he shows us how both black and white Americans have become trapped into seeing color before character, and how social policies designed to lessen racial inequities have instead increased them. The Content of Our Character is neither "liberal" nor "conservative," ...

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Overview

In this controversial essay collection, award-winning writer Shelby Stelle illuminates the origins of the current conflict in race relations—the increase in anger, mistrust, and even violence between black and whites. With candor and persuasive argument, he shows us how both black and white Americans have become trapped into seeing color before character, and how social policies designed to lessen racial inequities have instead increased them. The Content of Our Character is neither "liberal" nor "conservative," but an honest, courageous look at America's most enduring and wrenching social dilemma.

In this controversial collection of essays, award-winning writer Shelby Steele tackles the tough question "Why, after 25 years of legal change and ebbing prejudice, are blacks worse off today?" A critically acclaimed national bestseller and winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award.

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Editorial Reviews

Chicago Tribune
Steele's skill compares with that of James Baldwin, Richard Wright, or Frederick Douglass.
Los Angeles Times
The perfect voice of reason in a sea of hate.
Wall Street Journal
One of the best books on race in America to appear in the past twenty-five years.
New York
Elegant, personal pieces. Brilliant.
New York Times Book Review
Steele has given eloquent voice to painful truths that are almost always left unspoken in the nation's circumscribed public discourse on race.
George Will
If you read no other book. . . make it Shelby Steele's The Content of Our Character.
Newsweek
New York
Elegant, personal pieces. Brilliant.
Los Angeles Times
The perfect voice of reason in a sea of hate.
Chicago Tribune
Steele's skill compares with that of James Baldwin, Richard Wright, or Frederick Douglass.
Wall Street Journal
One of the best books on race in America to appear in the past twenty-five years.
New York Times
Steele has given eloquent voice to painful truths that are almost always left unspoken in the nation's circumscribed public discourse on race.
New York Magazine
Elegant, personal pieces. Brilliant.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780060974152
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 9/28/1998
  • Series: Harper Perennial
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 192
  • Sales rank: 402,073
  • Product dimensions: 5.31 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 0.43 (d)

Meet the Author

Shelby Steele is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution and Stanford University, and is a contributing editor at Harper's magazine. His many prizes and honors include the National Book Critics Circle Award, an Emmy Award, a Writers Guild Award, and the National Humanities Medal.

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One



I'm Black, You're White,
Who's Innocent?



Race and Power in an Era
of Blame


It is a warm, windless California evening, and the dying light that covers the redbrick patio is tinted pale orange by the day's smog. Eight of us, not close friends, sit in lawn chairs sipping chardornnay. A black engineer and I (we had never met before) integrate the group. A psychologist is also among us, and her presence encourages a surprising openness. But not until well after the lovely twilight dinner has been served, when the sky has turned to deep black and the drinks have long since changed to scotch, does the subject of race spring awkwardly upon us. Out of nowhere the engineer announces, with a coloring of accusation in his voice, that it bothers him to send his daughter to a school where she is one of only three black children. I didn't realize my ambition to get ahead would pull me into a world where my daughter would lose touch with her blackness," he says.

Over the course of the evening we have talked about money, past and present addictions, child abuse, even politics. Intimacies have been revealed, fears named. But this subject, race, sinks us into one of those shaming silences where eye contact terrorizes. Our host looks for something in the bottom of his glass. Two women stare into the black sky as if to locate the Big Dipper and point it out to us. Finally, the psychologist seems to gather herself for a challenge, but it is too late. "Oh, I'm sure she']] be just fine," says our hostess, rising from her chair. When she excuses herself to get the coffee, thepsychologist and two sky gazers offer to help.

With four of us now gone, I am surprised to see the engineer still silently holding his ground. There is a willfulness in his eyes, an inner pride. He knows he has said something awkward, but he is determined not to give a damn. His unwavering eyes intimidate even me. At last the host's bead snaps erect. He has an idea. "The hell with coffee," be says. "How about some of the smoothest brandy you've ever tasted?" An idea made exciting by the escape it offers. Gratefully, we follow him back into the house, quickly drink his brandy, and say our good-byes.

An autopsy of this party might read: death induced by an abrupt and lethal injection of the American race issue. An accurate if superficial assessment. Since it has been my fate to live a rather integrated life, I have often witnessed sudden deaths like this. The threat of them, if not the reality, is a part of the texture of integration. In the late 1960s, when I was just out of college, I took a delinquent's delight in playing the engineer's role, and actually developed a small reputation for playing it well. Those were the days of flagellatory white guilt; it was such great fun to pinion some professor or housewife or, best of all, a large group of remorseful whites, with the knowledge of both their racism and their denial of it. The adolescent impulse to sneer at convention, to startle the middie-aged with doubt, could be indulged under the guise of racial indignation. And how could I lose? My victims -- earnest liberals for the most part -- could no more crawl out from under my accusations than Joseph K. in Kafka's Trial could escape the amorphous charges brought against him. At this odd moment in history the world was aligned to facilitate my immaturity.

About a year of this was enough: the guilt that follows most cheap thrills caught up to me, and I put myself in check. But the impulse to do it faded more slowly. It was one of those petty talents that is tied to vanity, and when there were ebbs in my self-esteem the impulse to use it would come alive again. In integrated situations I can still feel the faint itch. But then there are many youthful impulses that still itch, and now, just inside the door of midlife, this one is least precious to me.

In the literature classes I teach I often see how the presenceof whites all but seduces some black students into provocation. When we come to a novel by a black writer, say ToniMorrison, the white students can easily discuss the humanmotivations of the black characters. But, inevitably, a blackstudent, as if by reflex, will begin to set in relief the various racial problems that are the background of these characters' lives. This student's tone will carry a reprimand: the class is afraid to confront the reality of racism. Classes cannot be allowed to die like dinner parties, however. My latest strategy is to thank that student for his or her moral vigilance and then appoint the young man or woman as the class's official racism monitor. But even if I get a laugh -- I usually do, but sometimes the student is particularly indignant, and it gets uncomfortable -- the strategy never quite works. Our racial division is suddenly drawn in neon. Overcaution spreads like spilled paint. And, in fact, the black student who started it all does become a kind of monitor. The very presence of this student imposes a new accountability on the class.

I think those who provoke this sort of awkwardness are operating out of a black identity that obliges them to badger white people about race almost on principle. Content hardly matters. (For example, it made little sense for the engineer to expect white people to anguish terribly much over his decision to send his daughter to school with white children.) Race indeed remains a source of white shame; the goal of these provocations is to put whites, no matter how indirectly, in touch with this collective guilt. In other words, these provocations I speak of are power moves, little shows of power that try to freeze the "enemy" in self-consciousness. They gratify and inflate the provocateur.

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Sort by: Showing all of 4 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted July 23, 2003

    Great Book

    I felt that Mr. Steele's insight was very beneficial. I think he approaches the issue of racism from a different point of view than is normally taken. He points to an important fact in racial relations, and its that we use our innocence as power. I think he does a great job in getting across his feelings on affirmative action, which I agree with him. I also feel that we should focus more on the development of minorities in our society, rather than just giving them a certain position in society. I also agree with him in his assertion that collective racial identity tends to eradicate individualism in our society, which is the reason people are not suceeding as they wish. Very enjoyable read.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 13, 2001

    Steele's offers Idealism, but No Solution

    Although I agree with some of Steele's thoughts on affirmative action, it is clear that he does not offer any solutions besides an idealistic and somewhat cavalier point of view. He clearly ignores the voice of the past and furthermore, naively insists that we live in a country where racism is merely a thing of the past. Next time around, please look at history more carefully before telling Americans that it should be forgotten, Mr.Steele.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 26, 2001

    Hits A Home Run

    Although I have only been able to read an excerpt form the total book, I am convinced that Mr. Steele is correct in his view of the ethical situation that affirmative action places on America. Things that are given to us are seldom appreciated more than the things that we must work for. I thoroughly intend to read the complete text as soon as I am able, but from what I have read for my business ethics class, I say say on Mr. Steele!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 6, 2009

    No text was provided for this review.

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