By Lise Funderburg
Shelby Steele’s first book, The Content of Our Character, sparked outrage over its indictment of liberal American policies and attitudes towards race. A Dream Deferred expands Steele’s critique, comparing government interventions (like affirmative action) to the most damaging practices of slavery and segregation, Soviet Communism, and Nazi Germany.
While Steele zealously praises civil rights victories, terming the movement that effected them “the greatest nonviolent revolution in American history (one of the greatest in all history),” he concludes that a simultaneous outcome–the stigmatization of whiteness–has led to disaster. Shamed whites try to prove their innocence through redemptive acts, according to Steele, and he has always disdained the “moral self-preoccupation” of post-’60s white liberals, which “made them dangerous to blacks–ready to give them over to an ‘otherness’ in which nothing is expected of them.”
Steele, a self-described black conservative, complains, “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.” He contends that victimization is the greatest hindrance for black Americans: while white liberals see blacks as victims to assuage guilty consciences, blacks parlay their status as victims into a currency that turns out to have no long-term buying power. Steele’s conclusion: the only way for blacks to stop buying into this zero-sum game is to adopt a culture of excellence and achievement untrammeled by set-asides and entitlements.