A Dream Deferredby Shelby Steele
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/em>/em>… See more details below
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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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.
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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