Dream Deferred: The Second Betrayal of Black Freedom in America

Dream Deferred: The Second Betrayal of Black Freedom in America

by Shelby Steele
     
 

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From the author of the award-winning bestseller The Content of Our Character comes a new essay collection that tells the untold story behind the polarized racial politics in America today. In A Dream Deferred Shelby Steele argues that a second betrayal of black freedom in the United States—the first one being segregation—emerged from the

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Overview

From the author of the award-winning bestseller The Content of Our Character comes a new essay collection that tells the untold story behind the polarized racial politics in America today. In A Dream Deferred Shelby Steele argues that a second betrayal of black freedom in the United States—the first one being segregation—emerged from the civil rights era when the country was overtaken by a powerful impulse to redeem itself from racial shame. According to Steele,1960s liberalism had as its first and all-consuming goal the expiation of America guilt rather than the careful development of true equality between the races. This "culture of preference" betrayed America's best principles in order to give whites and America institutions an iconography of racial virtue they could use against the stigma of racial shame. In four densely argued essays, Steele takes on the familiar questions of affirmative action, multiculturalism, diversity, Afro-centrism, group preferences, victimization—and what he deems to be the atavistic powers of race, ethnicity, and gender, the original causes of oppression. A Dream Deferred is an honest, courageous look at the perplexing dilemma of race and democracy in the United States—and what we might do to resolve it.

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Editorial Reviews

Alan Wolfe
The fact is that we still need facts. Their near-total absence from A Dream Deferredguarantees that the book will not produce the serious arguments against affirmative action that conservatives ought to be providing. —The New Republic
Michael Anderson
...Steele's central thesis [is w]hat white people really want is not to reform an unjust society but to restore their own sense of virtue....[Steele writes] 'The United States has to accept its past as proof of its need for principles today.' — The New York Times Book Review
Los Angeles Times
The perfect voice of reason in a sea of hate.
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.
Chicago Tribune
Steele's skill compares with that of James Baldwin, Richard Wright, or Frederick Douglass.
Los Angeles Times Book Review
Sweeping in its formulations. . . . Perceptive. . . . Steele is a clever critic.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
In these essays, self-described black conservative Steele (The Content of Our Character) denounces what he calls unsuccessful liberal intervention to promote equal opportunity for African-Americans. The author, a fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, argues that blacks have been twice betrayed: first by being oppressed by slavery and segregation, second by government-mandated group preferences that rob blacks of their self-esteem. Such programs he sees as rooted more in white guilt than in a desire to help blacks become more competitive in our society. He points out that blacks relying on their own initiative have managed to excel in music, sports and literature. On the other hand, he sees programs of affirmative action, set-asides, group preferences or welfare payments as the product of white assumptions of black inferiority. Steele's solution to problems such as inner-city joblessness, teenage pregnancy and high crime rates is devotion among blacks to principles of personal accountability, hard work, delayed gratification and other forms of individual effort, though he doesn't spell out how to implement these goals. His analysis tends to be repetitious or based on sweeping generalities without research data; however, he then charges that contradictory evidence is the result of bias among academics. This is a contentious work that is likely to reignite old arguments.
Library Journal
Steele (senior fellow, Hoover Institution) has taken on a tough role: that of African American conservative. Here he argues that "white acceptance of affirmative action and the promotion of afrocentric ideology are rooted in a need to expiate the shame felt by a culture that historically mistreated black Americans, rather than an effort to create a society based on racial equality."
Peter Berkowitz
...Steele shows [his] scars....He is older, angrier, and understandably less patient with those who refuse to weigh his care on its merits....[His] position is informed by a complex appreciation of America's tragic racial history....At the core...is a simple thought: race is an inescapable fct, but the demands of human dignity are more urgent. -- Commentary
Jonathan Yardley
A book of considerable importance. -- Washington Post Book World
Los Angeles Times
The perfect voice of reason in a sea of hate.
LA Times Book Review
Sweeping in its formulations. . .Perceptive. . . .Steele is a clever critic.
Kirkus Reviews
A black conservative confidently explains the motivations of white liberals. Steele, author of The Content of Our Character, which won a National Book Critics Circle Award, and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford, sets the tone for the book by defining a black conservative as one who "dissents from the victimization explanation of black fate when it is offered as a totalism." In other words, he identifies himself in relation to a potentially serious argument after all subtlety is removed and what remains is a rigid orthodoxy to be promoted or attacked. Not surprisingly, Steele attacks, but why expend energy demolishing this straw man unless you are intent on writing a polemic? The answer, of course, is that this is a polemic, and there is no room for subtlety between the covers of this volume. Somehow Steele has convinced himself that criticizing a flawed mainstream position automatically guarantees the truth of his own beliefs. Apparently, this specious logic excuses proceeding in a manner he would not tolerate in his opponents: while criticizing the work of a liberal social scientist because "rough inference and unexamined correlations" replace "rigorous science," Steele offers only inference and anecdote to support his own pronouncements. It also seems to bestow an unusual ability to see into the minds and hearts of those with whom he disagrees and to explain their deepest emotions. As a result, Steele explains that racial politics since the advent of affirmative action have been a function of white guilt and that shame has produced policies that reinforce white dominance and encourage black feelings of inferiority. There is undoubtedly an element oftruth here, but serious discussion of it will be foreclosed by Steele's overreaching claim to have uncovered the sole motivating factor of liberal race policies. A contribution to that genre of political writing that appeals to those seeking arguments to buttress previously held policy preferences without promoting serious thought or improved public policy.

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780060931049
Publisher:
HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date:
10/28/1999
Series:
Harper Perennial
Edition description:
1ST
Pages:
208
Sales rank:
917,461
Product dimensions:
5.31(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.46(d)

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Chapter One

I felt a familiar anger rise when the editor asked me over the phone to write about "the loneliness of a black conservative." Unless this was to be one of those serendipitous matchups of writer and subject where the charm is in the incongruence, the request all but stated that I was an obvious choice to map out this new territory of American loneliness. But the anger I felt was immediately diffused by an equally familiar sense of fatalism. There was no point in arguing. To be called a black conservative is, in fact, to be one, or at least to pay the price for being one. Besides, my life has been varied enough that I can now lay reasonable claim to many black identities, black conservative among them. As for loneliness, it is no doubt a risk that trails every effort to define one's beliefs. Most people could empty half of any room simply by saying what they truly believe. If, somehow, you come by the black conservative imprimatur, you will likely empty a lot more than half the room before you say what you believe.

I realized, finally, that I was a black conservative when I found myself standing on stages being shamed in public. I had written a book that said, among many other things, that black American leaders were practicing a politics that drew the group into a victim-focused racial identity that, in turn, stifled black advancement more than racism itself did. For reasons that I will discuss shortly, this was heresy in many quarters. And, as I traveled around from one little Puritan village (read "university") to another, a common scene would unfold.

Whenever my talk was finished, though sometimes before, a virtual militia of angry blackstudents would rush to the microphones and begin to scream. At first I thought of them as Mau Maus, but decided this was unfair to the real Mau Maus, who, though ruthless terrorists, had helped bring independence to Kenya in the 1950s. My confronters were not freedom fighters; they were Carrie Nation-like enforcers, racial bluenoses, who lived in terror of certain words. Repression was their game, not liberation, and they said as much. "You can't say that in front of the white man." "Your words will be used against us." "Why did you write this book?" "You should only print that in a black magazine." Their outrage brought to light an ironic and unnoticed transformation in the nature of black American anger from the sixties to the nineties: a shift in focus from protest to suppression, from blowing the lid off to tightening it down. And, short of terrorism, shame is the best instrument of repression.

Of course most black students did not behave in this way. But the very decency of the majority, black and white, often made the shaming of the minority more effective. So I learned what it was like to stand before a crowd in which a coterie of one's enemies had the license to shame, while a mixture of decorum and fear silenced the decent people who might have come to one's aid. I was as vulnerable to the decency as to the shaming, since together they amounted to shame. And it is never fun to be called "an opportunist," "a house slave," and so on while university presidents sit in the front row and avert their eyes. But this really is the point: The goal of shaming was never to win an argument with me; it was to make a display of shame that would make others afraid for themselves, that would cause eyes to avert. I was more the vehicle than the object, and what I did was almost irrelevant. Shame's victory was in the averted eyes, the cowering of decency.

Today a public "black conservative" will surely meet a stunning amount of animus, demonization, misunderstanding, and flat-out, undifferentiated contempt. And there is a kind of licensing process involved here in which the black leadership --normally protective even of people like Marion Berry and O. J. Simpson -- licenses blacks and whites to have contempt for the black conservative. It is a part of the group's manipulation of shame to let certain of its members languish outside the perimeter of group protection where even politically correct whites (who normally repress criticism of blacks) can show contempt for them.

Not long ago I heard a white female professional at a racially mixed dinner table call Clarence Thomas an incompetent beneficiary of affirmative action -- the same woman whom I had heard on another occasion sneer at the idea that affirmative action stigmatized women and minorities as incompetent. Feminists who happily vote for Bill Clinton are free to loathe Clarence Thomas. In a sense Thomas Sowell, Walter Williams, Ward Connerly, Stanley Crouch, myself, and many, many others represent a new class of "unprotected" blacks. By my lights there is something a little avant-garde in this. But, as with any avant-garde, the greater freedom is paid for in a greater exposure to contempt and shame.

The Czech writer Milan Kundera -- a man whose experience under the hegemony of the Communist Party taught him much about the shaming power of groups over the individual -- says that shame transforms a person "from a subject to an object," causes them to lose their "status as individuals." And to suffer this fate means that the group -- at least symbolically -- has determined to annihilate you. Of course we have no gulags in black America, but black group authority -- like any group authority -- defines itself as much by who it annihilates as by who it celebrates. Thus it not only defines group, it also defines grouplessness. And here, on this negative terrain, where his or her exclusion sharpens the group identity, the black conservative lingers as a kind of antithesis.

But is this loneliness? I'm not sure.

A Dream Deferred. Copyright � by Shelby Steele. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

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