Shelby Steele

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Shelby Steele
Born (1946-01-01) January 1, 1946 (age 76)
Chicago, Illinois, U.S.
Alma mater University of Utah
Southern Illinois University Edwardsville
Coe College
Institutions Hoover Institution
San Jose State University
Main interests
race relations, multiculturalism, affirmative action

Shelby Steele (born January 1, 1946) is an African American author, columnist, documentary film maker, and a Robert J. and Marion E. Oster Senior Fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution, specialising in the study of race relations, multiculturalism and affirmative action. In 1990, he received the National Book Critics Circle Award in the general nonfiction category for his book The Content of Our Character.[1]

Early life and education

Steele was born in Chicago to a black father and a white mother. His father, Shelby Sr., a truck driver, met his mother, Ruth, a social worker, while working for the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). His twin brother is Claude Steele, who is currently Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost at UC Berkeley, and formerly dean of the School of Education at Stanford University.

Steele received a B.A. in political science from Coe College, an M.A. in sociology from Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, and a Ph.D. in English from the University of Utah. Steele met his wife, Rita, during his junior year at Coe College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, where he was one of 18 black students in his class. Steele was active in SCOPE, a group linked to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), and he met Rita at an activist meeting. In 1968, Steele graduated from Coe and went on to earn his master's degree in sociology from Southern Illinois University–Edwardsville. Steele attended the University of Utah, where he taught black literature and studied for his Ph.D. After earning a Ph.D. in English in 1974, Steele was offered a tenured position at the university but turned it down owing to hostility encountered as part of an interracial couple in Utah. Steele accepted a position at San Jose State University as a professor of English literature, teaching there from 1974 to 1991.[2]


Steele is a self-described "black conservative".[3] He opposes policies such as affirmative action, which he considers to be unsuccessful liberal campaigns to promote equal opportunity for African Americans. He contends that blacks have been "twice betrayed": first, by slavery and oppression and, second, by group preferences mandated by the government that discourage self-agency and personal responsibility in blacks.[4]

The great ingenuity of interventions like affirmative action has not been that they give Americans a way to identify with the struggle of blacks, but that they give them a way to identify with racial virtuousness quite apart from blacks.[4]

Steele believes that the use of victimization is the greatest hindrance for black Americans. In his view, white Americans see blacks as victims to ease their guilty conscience, while blacks attempt to turn their status as victims into a kind of currency that will purchase nothing of real or lasting value. Therefore, he claims, blacks must stop "buying into this zero-sum game" by adopting a "culture of excellence and achievement" without relying on "set-asides and entitlements."[4]

Barack Obama

A Bound Man

Steele wrote a short book, A Bound Man: Why We are Excited about Obama and Why He Can't Win, published in December 2007. The book contained Steele's analysis of Barack Obama's character as a child born to a mixed couple who then has to grow as a black man.[5] Steele then concludes that Barack Obama is a "bound man" to his "black identity." Steele gives this description of his conclusion:

There is a price to be paid even for fellow-traveling with a racial identity as politicized and demanding as today’s black identity. This identity wants to take over a greater proportion of the self than other racial identities do. It wants to have its collective truth—its defining ideas of grievance and protest—become personal truth.... These are the identity pressures that Barack Obama lives within. He is vulnerable to them because he has hungered for a transparent black identity much of his life. He needs to 'be black.' And this hunger—no matter how understandable it may be—means that he is not in a position to reject the political liberalism inherent in his racial identity. For Obama liberalism is blackness.

After Obama won the 2008 U.S. presidential election, Steele defended his analysis and claimed that the subtitle of the book was simply a marketing device that he had only put "about 30 seconds" of thought into.[6] He explains Obama's victory by likening him to Louis Armstrong, donning the "bargainer's mask" in his bid for white acceptance. In his analysis, he takes whites—who he claims have for decades been stigmatized as racist and had to prove they are not—"off the hook." On Uncommon Knowledge, an interview program for the Hoover Institute hosted by Peter Robinson, he said: "White America has made tremendous moral progress since the '60s.... And they've never given themselves credit for that. And here is an opportunity at last to document this progress."[7]

On Israel

Steele has been critical in what he describes as the "world opinion" of Israel.[8]

At every turn "world opinion," like a schoolmarm, takes offense and condemns Israel for yet another infraction of the world's moral sensibility. And this voice has achieved an international political legitimacy so that even the silliest condemnation of Israel is an opportunity for self-congratulation.

Rock bands now find moral imprimatur in canceling their summer tour stops in Israel (Elvis Costello, the Pixies, the Gorillaz[sic], the Klaxons). A demonstrator at an anti-Israel rally in New York carries a sign depicting the skull and crossbones drawn over the word "Israel." White House correspondent Helen Thomas, in one of the ugliest incarnations of this voice, calls on Jews to move back to Poland. And of course the United Nations and other international organizations smugly pass one condemnatory resolution after another against Israel while the Obama administration either joins in or demurs with a wink.



Documentary films



  1. 1.0 1.1 "Past winners of the National Book Critics Circle Award". National Book Critics Circle. Archived from the original on 2007-01-01. Retrieved 2007-01-21.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  2. [1]
  3. Steele, Shelby (1991-09-01). The Content of Our Character: A New Vision of Race in America. Harper Perennial. ISBN 0-06-097415-X.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 Steele, Shelby (2006-05-02). White Guilt: How Blacks and Whites Together Destroyed the Promise of the Civil Rights Era. HarperCollins. ISBN 0-06-057862-9.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  5. Shelby Steele, The Obama Bargain, The Wall Street Journal, March 18, 2008
  6. Cohen, Noam (2008-11-10). "'Why Obama Can't Win' Author Defends Analysis". The New York Times. Retrieved 2010-05-23.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  8. Israel and the Surrender of the West
  9. "Brief information about Shelby Steele". PBS. Retrieved 2007-01-21.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>

External links