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A DREAM DEFERRED: An Interview with Shelby Steele By: David Gergen
FrontPageMagazine.com | Wednesday, December 09, 1998

PBS NewsHour with Jim Lehrer | November 30, 1998

, editor-at-large of U.S. News & World Report engages Shelby Steele, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, and author of A Dream Deferred: The Second Betrayal of Black Freedom in America.

DAVID GERGEN: Shelby, let's go right directly to the subtitle of your book, The Second Betrayal of Black Freedom in America. What did you mean by that?

SHELBY STEELE: What I meant by that was that there a very specific kind of liberalism that I think came out of the victories in the civil-rights movement. I call it redemptive liberalism.

And my point there is that that liberalism and the racial policies, particularly like the form of welfare that we began to implement in the early ‘70s, affirmative action and so forth, that these policies really had more to do with the redemption of the moral authority that white America and American institutions had lost than they did with the actual uplift of these—this race that had been kept down for three centuries, and that at this point I think it is clear, at least to me, and it's what I'm arguing, that this new redemptive liberalism constitutes a second betrayal in the sense that it has encouraged in black America more dependent thinking, I call it in the book contingent thinking, where we feel that our fate in America is contingent on the manipulation of white attitudes and institutions.

DAVID GERGEN: Let's go back—the whites, in effect, feeling ashamed because of the past racism in the society—felt a sense for their own moral redemption and to do that embraced policies that were not really going to solve the problems of blacks in terms of helping the development?

SHELBY STEELE: Right. Exactly. And, again, many whites—well, I can see them now saying, I don't feel ashamed, I didn't do anything, and I don't feel any guilt, and many whites have said that to me. And I think they're right in many ways. Many whites don't feel it. It has come to be a stigma, though, and it's just—out of the fate of history—that whites—when blacks became equal, then whites had to admit that in the past there had been these wrongs. And so now there is the stigma that we can use against whites—that they're racist. And if they step over the line just that much, we can say, that's racism. If they start talking about self-help in relation to blacks or responsibility in relation to blacks, we can say you are a racist. And that throws them back on the defensive. And so whites are in this position of always having to prove a negative, that I'm not a racist, and these policies, I think, come out of that.

DAVID GERGEN: When liberal America embraced affirmative action, when it embraced the welfare reforms of the kind that you're talking about, didn't people feel they would actually work? What was wrong with that—with the embrace that occurred?

SHELBY STEELE: Well, this is—it was fascinating to talk about this in the book. I compared the Great Society to the New Deal. In the New Deal, you know, Roosevelt was very experimental. He tried this program; he tried that one. Sometimes they worked, sometimes they didn't. If he found that they didn't work, he threw them out. And he changed them. We've had 40 years almost of affirmative action and we can't—and debating this is going to take probably 20 years for it to go. We can't get rid of these policies. We don't—we never measure them by their effectiveness in terms of what we asked them to do. We measure them by their—what I call ulterior effectiveness. They give whites away. If I support affirmative action as a white, I can show racial goodwill. That's the real purpose that that policy serves.

DAVID GERGEN: Whereas, if you come out against affirmative action—

SHELBY STEELE: If you come out against affirmative action, you're a racist. So affirmative action gives whites a way to prove this negative—I'm not a racist. That's its real function and its real purpose. Not until recently have we even bothered to ask whether it was effective or not.

DAVID GERGEN: So, the whites have gained what you would call—what you call in the book—an illusion of moral redemption.


DAVID GERGEN: And you believe that black civil-rights groups increasingly have bought into that for their own reasons.

SHELBY STEELE: For their illusion of power, what—the shame, the fact that we can keep whites, as they say, on the hook, and one of the charges against someone like myself was that we are letting whites off the hook.

The fact that we can keep whites on the hook in the sense of shame has been black power for the last 30 years. To me, that's the betrayal. Black power should be in our talents, our own abilities, our own entrepreneuralism, our own aggressiveness in American life, our own competitiveness, and it should not be in the manipulation of white attitude in this way.

DAVID GERGEN: I want to come back to your assumption that affirmative action simply has not worked—or race-sensitive policies have not worked.

As you know, the former president of Harvard, Derek Bok, and the former president of Princeton, Bob William Bowen, have joined together in a study which has just come out of some 45,000 students going to the top 28 universities, or 28 of the top universities in the country. And their findings of looking at the scores, the graduation rates, and the careers afterwards were that a great number of these blacks, in fact, a huge majority who were admitted to these universities with race-sensitive policies did very well. The universities have done very well in their careers, have strengthened the black middle class, and have even a higher rate of civic participation than whites. Does that—their argument is—hey, it worked.

SHELBY STEELE: I think that data proves exactly the opposite. For one thing, the data shows is they admit that the gap in academic performance, while blacks are in school and even in graduate school, never closes, never closes. There's still this gap. And then it's interesting to me that then when they're out of college, the only variable of all the variables that they can find where blacks are competitive with whites is community service. I have nothing in the world against community service. But what I'm much more interested in is the closing of the gap of skill levels and performance. Are blacks twenty years out, are they the heart surgeons in Beverly Hills? Are they in the level of performance—has that gap finally closed?

DAVID GERGEN: Let me ask you this. You teach at Stanford in California and California has recently wiped out its racial preferences for admissions to universities. Now, some 50 percent of the people in California public schools, students from California public schools, are minorities. And we know that with the wiping out of racial preferences that the enrollment rates of minorities has plunged.

SHELBY STEELE: It's plummeted.

DAVID GERGEN: In a variety of schools. What then would you do to ensure that half that population in California who are minorities have a better shot of—

SHELBY STEELE: One of the fascinating—one the things that I would do—because one of the problems I think is that the blacks who have—who are no longer in—making it into Berkeley who did under affirmative action. That is not a disadvantaged group of black students. That's our elite. That's the best and the brightest that black America has produced. Those kids ought to be asked to compete with their peers from preschool all the way up so that when they get to be 18, they are competitive, and they haven't been asked that precisely—affirmative action has locked them out of the competition. And I think that's had a—one of the things that's had an effect on lowering their competitiveness with their peers. So just by getting rid of affirmative action, it forces us to ask more of the people that we're trying to help. And I have no doubt that those numbers are going to very slowly, not quickly, but slowly creep back up again.

DAVID GERGEN: Should we do more to help prepare them?

SHELBY STEELE: Absolutely. The entire focus—it seems to me—of reform has just simply got to be from—really from birth on, certainly from preschool on. That's when the public sector becomes involved. But I taught for 20 years at a state school and I saw 60 percent of our students come in failing the English equivalency exam. And I can tell you it's very difficult to try to make up the skills that have not been developed when someone is 18 and older.

DAVID GERGEN: So the real question is—the challenge is to develop the skills early.

SHELBY STEELE: The real challenge has to be in the earlier grades.

DAVID GERGEN: Shelby Steele, I wish we could go on, but thank you for joining us again on the NewsHour.

SHELBY STEELE: Well, thank you so much for having me.

Copyright © 1998 MacNeil-Lehrer Productions and PBS. All Rights Reserved.

DAVID GERGEN is editor-at-large of U.S. News & World Report and had previously served in the Nixon, Reagan and Clinton White Houses.

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