Book Review

Book Review: The Content of Our Character by Shelby Steele

Shelby Steele is a professor of English. He is also a writer. He is an activist, and was an activist in the 1960’s. He is also a conservative intellectual. Many refer to him as a “black conservative.” He is, as Cornel West defines, a “Conservative behaviorist.” That is, professor Steele argues that the current economic and political discontinuities of Americans of African descent can be attributed to the self rather than the system. To complete this picture, the counter argument, by liberals, is what professor Cornel West calls, “Liberal structuralists.” That is, the current discrepancies, and previous plight, of Americans of African descent can be attributed to the system and not the self.

This does not mean that Dr. Steele ignores America’s dark past. He does not ignore the more than 300 years of systemic slavery or the Jim Crow follow-up. He acknowledges these realities. He acknowledges that he has faced racism in his own life from time to time but at less frequency as he has moved through his life. He attributes this to the civil rights movement, and to some extent, the Black Power movement. He acknowledges this very fact in this book, which is often lost on people who are not familiar with his work. In other words, many liberals/leftist/progressives do not read his work and so many opinions of Dr. Steele are based off of the writings and rhetoric of others and probably to some degree add to the misunderstanding and ignorance of his arguments.

In his book The Content of Our Character: A New Vision of Race in America, themes develop over the course of the book: individualism versus collectivism, behaviorism versus structuralism, and development versus entitlement. Hence, these concepts are important to keep in mind because they are at the core of the opposing arguments between conservatives and liberals. Conservatives argue for individualism (this is a Lockean derived argument also known as classical liberalism), behaviorism, and development; whereas, liberals argue for collectivism, structuralism, and entitlement.

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Shelby Steele, Conservative intellectual

I think that these perceived and often accepted as dichotomous notions bear further exploration. Indeed, they are very fascinating subjects. But I would like to focus on just one idea that is really a sub-topic of these greater perceived dichotomies; that is, race-holding. As a white, straight, male, who is perceived Christian based off of recent social justice rhetoric which derives from some research and is often applied incorrectly by non-academics, I find the philosophical arguments presented by Dr. Steele to be fascinating and thought-provoking, especially considering recent events with the Black Lives Matter movement and other modern social justice organizations.

An immediate observation of the liberal/conservative contrast is that liberals tend to view social problems as structural. But more than that they view it as systemic. Hence it is collectivistic struggle. Conversely, conservatives tend to view social problems as behavioral. But more than that they view it as individualistic. Another way to view individualism is as microscopic, linear, and static. As an example, Steele proposes the idea of “race-holding” and how it perpetuates a conflicting and chaotic experience of the self in the post civil-rights era. First, Steele defines “race-holding” thusly,

as any self-description that serves to justify or camouflage a person’s fears, weaknesses, and inadequacies.

This is as Steele explains an opportunity to focus on one’s own deficiencies in the classroom, in the social context, in the political process, and in the market place. Possible examples of this could be a self-defeating attitude of a “black” student in the math and sciences; the lack of success in relationships with a diverse group of individuals from different American sub-cultures; the self perception that one is not good or smart enough to successfully run for a political office outside of the “black community” because of personal perceptions; or maybe that one does not view him or herself as intelligently capable of competing in a corporate structure or as a small business owner. But as Steele explains, this is really an issue of self-actualization and not an issue of structural racism or systemic oppression. Today’s America is much different even from the America of the 1960’s. As Steele illustrates,

The difference between the race-holder  who merely complains and the honest protester is that the latter keeps the responsibility for his condition in his own hands…His purpose is to realize himself, to live the fullest possible life, and he is responsible for this, like all [people], regardless of how society threats him.

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Shelby Steele, Conservative thinker

Thus, in the end

Whites must guarantee a free and fair society. But blacks must be responsible for actualizing their own lives.

Again, Steele is aware of the American atrocities of the past. He is aware of America’s dark past and who that greatly effected. But he is also past holding present day “whites” hostage for those past atrocities, although “whites” are an important part of the healing process. This does not mean that racism does not exist in some corners of society. Examples of these corners could be individuals, certain groups, or sub-systems of sub-systems; that is, the culture of a particular police department from the chief down to the patrol officer.

Despite these examples of the existence of racism in the American system, Americans of African descent, as Steele argues, are still responsible for their own lives and “white guilt” will not help the upward mobility of “black” Americans. In the end, Americans of African descent are responsible for their own awareness to self-actualize their own existence in this society.


Matt Johnson is an economics and science writer for The Systems Scientist. You can connect with him directly in the comments section, and follow him on Twitter or on Facebook

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Photo credit: The Globe and Mail


Copyright ©2016 – The Systems Scientist





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