Recorded on January 25, 2018.
Shelby Steele, a Hoover Institution senior fellow and author of Shame: How America’s Past Sins Have Polarized Our Country , joins Peter Robinson to discuss race relations in the United States. Steele tells stories about growing up in segregated Chicago and the fights he and his family went through to end segregation in their neighborhood schools. He draws upon his own experiences facing racism while growing up in order to inform his opinions on current events. Steele and Robinson go on to discuss more recent African-American movements, including Steele’s thoughts on the NFL protests, Black Lives Matter, and recent rumors about Oprah Winfrey running for office.
About the Guest:
Shelby Steele is the Robert J. and Marion E. Oster Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution. He specializes in the study of race relations, multiculturalism, and affirmative action. He was appointed a Hoover fellow in 1994. Steele has written widely on race in American society and the consequences of contemporary social programs on race relations. Steele holds a PhD in English from the University of Utah, an MA in sociology from Southern Illinois University, and a BA in political science from Coe College, Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
Peter Robinson: During football season this past autumn, many players, many African-American players, knelt in protest during the national anthem. In the words of our guest today, "They were not speaking truth to power. They were mindlessly loyal to a black identity that had run its course," close quote. Author Shelby Steele on Uncommon Knowledge now.
Peter Robinson: Welcome to Uncommon Knowledge. I'm Peter Robinson. We're shooting today from the Hauck Auditorium of the Traitel Building, a new building of the Hoover Institution here at Standford. A native of Chicago, Shelby Steele taught English literature for a number of years at San Jose State University. Then, in 1990, his book, The Content of Our Character: A New Vision of Race in America, established him as an author of national importance. Now a fellow at the Hoover Institution, Dr. Steele is the author of a number of books, including White Guilt: How Blacks and Whites Together Destroyed the Promise of the Civil Rights Era and Shame: How America's Past Sins Have Polarized Our Country. Dr. Steele is also a frequent contributor to the Wall Street Journal, where he recently published a column headlined "Black Protest Has Lost Its Power". Shelby Steele, welcome.
Shelby Steele: Thank you. Good to be here.
Peter Robinson: The protests. Again, you wrote, of the players who took a knee during the national anthem in this last football season, "They were mindlessly loyal to a black identity that had run its course."
Shelby Steele: Yes. Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Peter Robinson: Wow. That's quite a claim. Go ahead and, but just explain what you mean by that.
Shelby Steele: Blacks, obviously, have undergone, in the course of America, the three, 400 years that America's been around, and victimized blacks, and slavery and segregation and all those things we're all very much aware of. My point is that out of that came an identity, a group identity, that has been, for better and worse, focused, grounded in the idea of blacks as victims, and black victimization has become the sort of centerpiece of that identity. That identity, I think, in the case of the NFL protestors is sort of dislodged from reality and functions just pretty much on its own. Once they felt called upon to make some symbolic protest against American racism, they sort of mindlessly went along with that without ever stopping to investigate whether there really was oppression, to what degree of oppression is involved in American life today for blacks. My argument is that not very much, and yet the incongruence of not, refusing to kneel for the national anthem when this country, despite its sins, also was a country that, for the last 60 years, has truly transformed itself morally, and Americans today are a different people in regard to all these issues. I thought the protest was an obsolescent gesture that no one found much meaning in.
Peter Robinson: You said in a recent interview on the Ricochet podcast, quote, "This is not segregated America. I grew up in segregated America, so I know the difference," end quote. Let's talk a little bit about Shelby Steele as a young man. I have a few experiences here that you've written about, notably in Shame, your last book, and that I've heard you talk about, because we've been friends for years. Your elementary school in a Chicago suburb, your parents joined other parents in suing to change that ... What was that school like?
Shelby Steele: That school was an elementary school in a school district where there were only two schools. One was all white, and one was all black. We would see the white kids drive to school in the school bus in the wintertime, while we sort of ...
Peter Robinson: You had to walk to school?
Shelby Steele: We had to walk. We got their textbooks when they were worn out. We got their teachers when the teachers began to have problems, a nervous breakdown or something. They'd be transferred to our school.
Peter Robinson: You experienced it.
Shelby Steele: Yes. It was abusive. There's no doubt about it. It was a horror, and even among segregated schools, this one was particularly bad. My parents did, they actually led the protest. My mother and father organized the parents and boycotted that school, and so there were no students going to it. Eventually, they prevailed. The teachers were fired. The principal was fired, and a new school was started up.
Peter Robinson: Beginning when you were a little boy, you saw real segregation and real abuse, ...
Shelby Steele: Yes. Everywhere.
Peter Robinson: ... and protest when there was something to protest.
Shelby Steele: Well, that's the point, I think. In the '60s, when we think about the protests that sort of began, became really severe in the '50s and mounted all the way to the '60s, and I think of 1964 and the Civil Rights Bill as the point at which America capitulated and apologized. "We were wrong. Here's a huge piece of legislation affirming our commitment to not do this anymore." Now, that bill has a lot of problems that have subsequently come to hurt us, but as a historical gesture, it was one of the great moral acknowledgements of any society in, ever. It was a really remarkable event, and blacks, in a sense, deserve an enormous amount of credit for protesting in that era, because there was ... There was no debate in America about whether or not there was racial discrimination. Everybody knew there was. The question was what we're going to do about it, and blacks' protest pushed that, I think, all the way to the point where America finally did capitulate.
Peter Robinson: Rosa Parks was genuinely a great figure.
Shelby Steele: She was genuinely a great figure.
Peter Robinson: Martin Luther King Jr. is genuinely a historic figure.
Shelby Steele: Genuinely. These people sacrificed enormously. They took every kind of risk imaginable. They achieved truly great, something truly great. It was a moment when black America, as I say in the article, touched greatness. We extended democracy past the barrier of race, so historically, that was, in a sense, our gift to America.
Peter Robinson: Now, you write in Shame about a trip that you took to Africa at the age of 23. Let me quote Shame. "This entire trip was organized around visits to cities like Algiers, cities associated with independence movements and revolutions that had swept the third world in the 1950s and '60s. I wanted to see if there was some counterpoint to the American way of life that was better." What did you see?
Shelby Steele: I didn't find that, but I think ... You know, I was coming of age. I was a college student. I was just out of college. I was working in the War on Poverty programs, and there was a point, because after the civil rights victories in the sort of late '60s, where black people began to create this identity that we call blackness, and it was angry, and it was resentful, and it was separatist, and it was the illusion in it, somehow, that we would get farther as a separate unified people than we would by joining America and becoming regular citizens. I confess. I was caught up in that. I wanted to see, and what was so seductive about it is that it said blackness is the answer to all of your anxieties about life, what you should do, where you should, should I go to graduate school, should ... Well, if you're just really focused on blackness, those issues kind of go away, or at least, that was the illusion. I was seduced by that, and so, yes, my wife and I took a trip to Africa, beginning in Algeria, where we, excuse me, we met with the Black Panthers who were in exile there. Then, we traveled south of the Sahara and to Ghana, where Nkrumah had been the president, to Senegal, where Léopold Senghor, these great sort of romantic, ...
Peter Robinson: Anti-colonialist figures. Right?
Shelby Steele: ... anti-colonialist, sort of revolutionary figures, you know, dramatic to their countries, and it was a good lesson learned very quick. Those countries were not doing well. They were disorganized. They were overwhelmed with corruption. There was no sort of common direction. They were lost. They couldn't go back to being a colony again, and yet, they also did not know how to go into the future and build a new nation. I learned a lot there. It transformed me. It made me realize that your racial identity is a passive thing. Your racial identity is not an agent of change. It is not going to build a new life for you. It is not going to do all the things that life calls upon you to do for yourself. In fact, it's a delusion in which you can waste an awful lot of time.
Peter Robinson: Back to your recent piece in the Wall Street Journal, Shelby, quote, "Racism is endemic to the human condition just as stupidity is. We will always have to be on guard against it, but now, in the United States, it is recognized as a scourge. What has happened is that black America has been confronted with a new problem, the shock of freedom," close quote. The shock of freedom as a problem. Explain that.
Shelby Steele: Well, if you have been an oppressed people, and we were, obviously, truly oppressed for centuries, we learned all sorts of things in order to survive that. I won't go into a long list, but we learned how to reinvent ourselves. We learned how to live with this oppression, with this sort of negative force in your life. We were, I think, miraculous. We created a great music out of this. We did other things that were, that had a worldwide impact. We expanded the idea of democracy and made freedom an absolute. We did all those things. The one thing we never did, never had a chance to do, was to live in freedom. We were never free. We were always in a position of calculating our fate through those who dominated us. We were never actually just free to do, to invent ourselves as we wanted to, and that, the fact that beginning in the '60s, when we began to confront freedom, when America backed up and said, "Okay. Discrimination is wrong. Here are a bunch of laws to support that," we're confronted, "Well what do you do with freedom? What are you going to do now?" Historically, it scared the hell out of us. We would be fantasizing if we denied that. Who wouldn't be? Freedom is a frightening thing. It places such a burden of responsibility on you, on the person who has it. You're now responsible. Your reputation is based, now, on what you do. Well, combined with that was the fact that four centuries of oppression had left us, in many ways, underdeveloped, so when freedom comes, freedom then says, "We're not oppressing you anymore. You're responsible for your underdevelopment, and you fix it or you don't. It's up to you." That was ... Freedom requires a wholly different orientation toward the world, and we became afraid. What happens then, again, is you, when you're afraid, you don't know how to move forward. You start to move backward.
Peter Robinson: Shelby, the argument would be, and I know what the argument is, because your piece in the Wall Street Journal created ... Let's put it this way. There was a response on the internet. You can Google Shelby Steele and some of the quotations I've just read, and you will get a response. The argument would be, "No, no, no, no. Stop there. We're with you. Everything you've said makes perfect sense right up until you get to the point that we're free now." As you say, the era of black oppression is over. "No, it's not. There's still all kinds of racism endemic to this ... " How do you ...
Peter Robinson: Here's some statistics I found. 2015, black households at the 20th and 40th percentiles of household income, that is lower middle class and pretty poor people, earned an average of 55% as much as white households at those same two percentiles, and that's exactly the same figure as in 1967, and so the answer is, "Dr. Steele, just look at the ... We have an ... " I shouldn't say we. "African Americans haven't made an iota of progress. Of course, this has to be because we're still oppressed." How do you deal with that argument, Shelby?
Shelby Steele: It's a corruption, and it's a corruption, because if you look that the statistical difference from then up to now, who says that's because of racism? Maybe it's because you haven't yet developed the value system to, the ideas with which to thrive in freedom. Maybe you don't know what to do with the opportunities that surround you. It's understandable. You were oppressed, and people have not pointed out to you the challenge of freedom. What do people do with freedom when they don't know how to handle it? They reinvent their oppression, even as it has faded away. They make it up in their mind all over again. "Racism is around every corner. There is systemic racism. There is structural racism. There are micro-aggressions, and there's white privilege." All of this, this is designed, again, to ... is the shock of freedom and not knowing.
Shelby Steele: I mean, you look at today's black leadership. They have no clue of how to move ahead. All they can think to do is ask for more from the government. Well, we've asked for the ... The government has given us almost everything. Nowhere in history has a government paid off its people more than America has in the last 60 years, and yet, we are, by most socioeconomics measures, farther behind white America than we were in the '50s, when we had none of these social programs and so forth. Freedom is a ... It comes with a judgementalism. It judges you. If you don't know how to thrive in freedom, it means that you are at fault. You are, and the worst word you can use regarding blacks, you are inferior. It's a chilling idea, but it's at the heart. It is the heart of the shock of freedom, because freedom now is saying, "You can't use oppression as an excuse anymore. If you're not doing well, it's not because of oppression. For goodness sakes, we've got affirmative action. We've got everything to help you. If you're not doing well now, it's on you."
Shelby Steele: One of my points about the protest, the NFL protest, and the same with Black Lives Matter is that there's this sort of hysterical protesting that when the ... They can't even articulate what they're protesting against, when if racism is so virulent, it ought to be obvious. When I was a kid, it was obvious. No one denied it. It was visible to everybody every day, and that was the beginning and the end of it. Today, where is it? Where are you being stopped? "Well, I want to rise. I want to be a politician. I want to be the president." Okay. You want to be the CEO of such and such a corporation. Okay. You can do anything you want. The reality and the problem that occupies black America today is the fact that we are, at last, a free people.
Peter Robinson: All right. Shelby, you said a moment ago, "The federal government's given us everything." Here. Let me read you ... You know this, well. ... President Johnson's 1965 commencement address at Howard University. Quote, "You do not take a person who has been hobbled by chains and bring him up to the starting line of a race and say, 'You're free to compete with the others.' Equal opportunity is essential but not enough," close quote. This notion that there has to be compensation for all those years of oppression is fundamental to all policy concerning African Americans for the last half century and more.
Shelby Steele: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Peter Robinson: What I want to know is, in your view, was Johnson correct in 1965, but that view is wrong now, that measures were necessary, affirmative action, transfer payments, all of that was necessary, but at some point, it began to become, to hold African Americans back? I just want to know what you're thinking. Or was it wrong to begin with, or do we still need it now? What is your thinking on that. It's so basic to the federal government's relationship with African Americans, even today.
Shelby Steele: Yes. That speech has been quoted ... I've quoted it I don't know how many times. You can't bring somebody up to the starting line that's been oppressed and expect them to compete. What that is really about is not about black people, because black people were in the position of coming into freedom. You can do what you want. You can help them or not, but they're going to have to deal with it in some way. That statement was about what I've written a good deal about, white guilt, and it was a horrible historical, as far as I'm concerned, mistake, because what Johnson was saying was, "We oppressed you. Now, we're going to lift you up and redeem you."
Peter Robinson: You're still our responsibility."
Shelby Steele: "Your fate remains in our hands."
Peter Robinson: Right.
Shelby Steele: "You don't see your fate as being in your hands. It's now in our hands, the government's hands, every kind of philanthropic group's hands, everybody's hands but yours." We then had to have had 60 years of white guilt. Why did America spend, I've heard the figure as high as 22 trillion dollars in that time, spent on all manner of welfare and programs and so forth, educational programs, none of which have ever worked, but it is ... White guilt is a very specific thing. It is not a genuine feeling of guilt, nothing to do with that. It is the terror, the literal terror of being seen as a racist. Everybody knows in America, that's the bottom line. If you are seen as a racist, openly, in public, you are ruined. You have no life.
Shelby Steele: Whites live, and we have not acknowledged this enough, 90 ... What Johnson was doing is saying, "I can't have you call me, and I can't have you call this country a racist, and so I'm going to give you a whole bunch of things." I worked in those programs, so I know them intimately. They were just sort of, what we would say, jump off the toilet programs. Anything, well just something we can throw money at to say we're not racist. We don't care whether it works. We have no ... We're not going to follow up if it ... We had school busing for how many decades ruining the public school system? No one even asked a question about it. What was the point of that? All these bad ideas. School integration is going to ... School integration did absolutely nothing. Black students were still unable to compete, because the focus was on what the government was going to do and this sort of thing and not on what black students do. White guilt has been a real driver of these corruptions, and these football players down on their knees know that.
Peter Robinson: And if-
Shelby Steele: They know that the owners are going to capitulate and throw something their way, and if-
Peter Robinson: Roger Goodell, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell. Quote, "They're talking about equality issues, making sure that we're doing everything we possibly can, we in the NFL are doing ... " Or we in the United States, actually. I'm not sure what he meant. "We're doing everything we possibly can to give people an opportunity, whether it's education or economic." What do you make of that statement?
Shelby Steele: What in the world has that got to do with football? That is just a perfect white guilt statement. He may as well just say, "I'm innocent. I'm innocent. I'm innocent. I'm innocent. I'm innocent. I'm not a racist. I'm not a racist," and he will find a way [inaudible 00:25:00] I understand he has, give millions of dollars to some cause called social justice. Well, what is that? I can tell you what that is. That's a lot of hustling ... That's a lot of black hustlers stepping forward to take that hundred million dollars and put it in their pocket and make the ... Those, again, you create a whole class of hustlers. You make black leaders ... Black leadership today is pretty much nothing left but hustlers who work white guilt.
Peter Robinson: All right, so what is to be done? What is to be done? Let's just work our way through a couple of the obvious problems here. We've got poverty. African Americans are disproportionately poor. Two-fifths of African American households receive Food Stamps. That's a much higher percentage than for any other ethnic group, and we've got inequality. I mentioned a moment ago that the lower income groups among African Americans were, earned only 55% as much as the same, their counterparts, their white counterparts. Turns out, even if you go up the income scale, you've got upper class and middle class blacks earn about two-thirds as much as their white counterparts, which is the same figure as half a century ago. You've got disproportionate poverty, and even among African Americans who are doing well, they're not doing as well as their white counterparts. What do you do?
Shelby Steele: The first thing I think you do is you name the reasons why, and certainly, racism is no longer a reason. If it is a reason, it is 18th or 20th on the list of reasons. It is not worth your time, is not worth focusing on or worrying much about. There are no important forces in American life advocating for racism. As blacks, we need to ask ourselves why we have become so dependent on this delusion that we live in a society that is intent on keeping us down. That's over with. It isn't that kind of ... It's just over with. We need to face ourselves more frankly, you guys, as 75% of all black children are born out of wedlock. Do you understand the kind of dysfunction? Just that statistic alone, that's a problem, and then who's going to fix that? The government? There has to be ...
Shelby Steele: Right now, we have an identity as blacks that's victim-focused, "We're victims," which basically is designed to tap into white guilt and get them to give us all kinds of little, basically crumbs, and we're just sort of locked into that. There's no examination of how self-reliance, more personal responsibility for one's decisions in life, that these are the things that now determine our fate. Again, I blame a lot of this on the original oppression. That was not an experience that taught us these things, these values and principles that other people take for granted. Well, we've now got to take up those principles. We've now got to stop thinking of ourselves as victims and think of ourselves as free men and women in this world with every kind of opportunity. Life is tough for everybody, no doubt about that, but free people are free to move from one thing to another, to find themselves, to find their voice, to find out what they can do in life. To me, that's blackness. That's blackness, or it ought to be.
Shelby Steele: What passes for blackness now is just a kind of mindless mimicry of anger and resentment that is, struck me with the NFL as really an instance of pathos, where it's sad. It's just sad to see these football players out there on their knee when they can't even articulate what they're protesting against. I can tell you that Martin Luther King knew what he was protesting against. He articulated it as superbly as is possible, and people responded. The country responded. These players today and Black Lives Matter and other sorts of groups are pathetic. There's no nice way to say it. They just sadden you. They don't inspire you. They sadden you.
Peter Robinson: Affirmative action? Still need it? Do away with it?
Shelby Steele: As I've said, you know ... I have an ambivalent position on affirmative action. As I've said, if the Ku Klux Klan had invented a social policy to keep black people down, they could not have done a better job than affirmative action, but I have a very mild point of view about these matters. No. Affirmative action just basically says what's important about you is the color of your skin, the very thing that was important about us when we were oppressed. When do we get to be human beings? When do we get to be people who compete on their own merit? Now, I get accepted at Harvard, and I'm at Harvard, and I'm on the campus, and everybody there knows I wouldn't be there were it not for affirmative action. They're going to rub that in my face, and they're going to diminish me, and so I'm fighting all over again for my humanity. Wasn't one fight enough? We now have to overcome the blemish, the diminishment that affirmative action imposed on us, again, driven by white guilt. Whites are so blind to the humanity of blacks that they put a program like this, force them into it. It's not ...
Peter Robinson: That's right. You can't opt out of it.
Shelby Steele: You can't opt out of it. You're in it, and then you have to make ... You have to rationalize that by saying you're a victim, and we're back in the same game again. "I'm a victim, and so therefore, I deserve this, and I don't have to become competitive." Affirmative action is a sort of archetypal re-oppression of people. That is an oppressive system that you've inflicted on black Americans so that you can get an optical, an optic that shows you to be innocent of racism even as you are practicing.
Peter Robinson: No matter what it does.
Shelby Steele: Yeah.
Peter Robinson: A few last questions, Shelby. To return to your column in the Wall Street Journal, quote, "The oppression of black people is over with. We blacks are, today, a free people," close quote. Response to that column among African Americans?
Shelby Steele: I'm sure that they will be apoplectic and thus prove my point, because we ... You see all the damage done over the last 60 years with, by focusing on our victimization and so forth. Well, rather than say, "Oh my goodness. In fact, it is over. Our oppression is over with. We really are a free people," we scream to high heavens that Steele is crazy, that it's laughable, "Can't you see racism everywhere? White supremacy is just infused into, literally, the air of America, so that black people are ... " Well, what ... This longing for an identity, a black identity grounded in victimization is a longing for an excuse to not accept the challenge of freedom. It is a way to escape that challenge.
Peter Robinson: Shelby, quotation here, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, in his 2003 opinion in Grutter v. Bollinger, a case that, against his wishes, permitted universities to continue affirmative action, but here's what Clarence Thomas wrote in his opinion. "I believe blacks can achieve in every avenue of American life without meddling," close quote. You're with Clarence Thomas?
Shelby Steele: Absolutely.
Peter Robinson: Here's the question. Let me give you a pretty complete list of the prominent African Americans who are with you and Justice Thomas. It's Shelby Steele, and it's Clarence Thomas, and it's Tom Sowell, and I have two fingers left. I'm sure there are some that I'm not aware of, but where ...
Shelby Steele: There are some. Yes.
Peter Robinson: Okay, so where are the other voices? Are there some young voices coming up? Are you hopeful as you survey the scene?
Shelby Steele: Yes. I am hopeful, because, you know, I think attrition solves certain problems. How long can you go on in delusion? It takes more and more labor. Again, the NFL protest was important to me, because there it was. This is so over with. This is so silly that ... And whites backed away from football. I mean, the viewership went down, the ticket sales went down.
Peter Robinson: Shelby, could I ... I don't even know how to express this exactly, but I can tell you what ... A lot of my friends were just, "Wait a minute. We just went through eight years of an African American president, and every one of those young African American men who's taking a knee is a millionaire," but you know what? Whites don't get to say, "What the heck are you guys thinking?" What they do it they just turn off the channel. There's something operating so that the ...
Shelby Steele: Everything that goes around comes around, to use an over-worn cliché. I mean, it ... One of the things I think that I place some hope in is I look for whites ... It's what I call race fatigue, that as we keep going down this path, whites are going to become more and more immune to it, and I think the NFL football protest was a good example of that. Whites have now said, "We're not going to come out in public, but privately, we don't believe you anymore. We think you're a fraud. We don't think you're that oppressed. You know, we can't say anything, because then, you'll just call us racist and we'll pay another way, but we don't buy it."
Shelby Steele: I believe that America's going to see more and more whites turning away, disbelieving. It doesn't mean that they're going to become racist. It means that they're not, they're going to see the reality, which is that, to blacks, you have not yet taken enough responsibility for the freedom that you enjoy. This is a hard thing, but I can tell you, if we got up tomorrow morning and white America said that in some symbolic way, everything would be changed.
Peter Robinson: Shelby, where do you see ... I'm just thinking back to the civil ... I mean, it is not insignificant that Martin Luther King Jr. Was the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., that the basis of so much of the moral energy of the civil rights movement was the black, the African American church. Is that institution ... Where do you see the voices? Where do those who agree with you place their feet when, to set themselves to speak and to try to pursue this, to say what you're saying?
Shelby Steele: Well, we're at a point at this time when there aren't that many, when, sad to say, blacks who do that are going to be instantly called Uncle Toms, just as whites who do that are going to be called racist. The blacks who are not in the victim-focused identity, they're going to be called Uncle Toms and rejected and so forth, but there are, I believe, millions of people on both sides, whites and blacks, who know something's wrong, who know this is not real, this can't be depended on in the future, and so, you know. More blacks voted for Donald Trump than for Mitt Romney. Where'd that come from?
Peter Robinson: You tell me. I'm puzzled by that, too.
Shelby Steele: I know people, I have friends who I never would have dreamed that they would've done anything but vote Democratic, who just liked the honesty of the man. He's not patronizing.
Peter Robinson: Let me give you a possible president and then return to the president. The possible president is Oprah Winfrey.
Shelby Steele: No.
Peter Robinson: Really? You don't think that she would have an opportunity to speak to African Americans and to say the, or you think she just wouldn't say the kinds of things that you were saying now?
Shelby Steele: She's had an opportunity to say these kinds of things, and she is just terrified, and so if ...
Peter Robinson: Okay.
Shelby Steele: In other words, she's not a person who's going to break this lock. She is ... Nothing against Oprah Winfrey. I admire her as an entrepreneur and a personality and celebrity in every way, and she's a smart lady. Maybe she will run. You know? Maybe. Who can predict what America will do? Will she break this logjam? Her popularity is based on this logjam being in place, and to say, all of a sudden, that blacks are not victims anymore, that they have to start making it, they have to pick up more self-reliance and responsibilities? Would she be so loved, so admired? She's hiding behind a, the conventional sort of, conventional wisdom, don't rock this boat. If she starts to rock the boat, I can't ... She'd ... I mean, maybe she'd be one to do it.
Peter Robinson: But if she did, you'd say more power to her, wouldn't you?
Shelby Steele: I'd say more ... I'd say she would have a chance to change history.
Peter Robinson: All right. Donald Trump. Is he racist?
Shelby Steele: No. He's not racist.
Peter Robinson: Is he helping African-
Shelby Steele: Let me say this. What is a racist? I have racist impulses. I've never met a human being who didn't. We will always have to watch out for those impulses in ourself. They are automatic. They are reflexive. They're not reflective. They're reflexive, and we will always have to watch out for that and make them utterly impermissible. The point is, is that we can't just say ... We can't use racism politically anymore. We're no longer in a place where ... Racism exists, yes, but is racism a problem? No.
Peter Robinson: I've heard you mention that you're impressed that race just doesn't seem to matter to Trump.
Shelby Steele: That's right. You know, I don't think Donald Trump is getting up in the morning and saying, "You know what? I have to figure out how to do a better job of keeping black people down today." I don't think that's the case. I think when he went to Harlem during his campaign, and he went to the black church, and he leaned over the podium, and he said, "What have you got to lose?" he spoke more honestly to black people than any person of his stature in my memory. Some black people heard that. What, are you going to keep going back to the party that keeps offering you the very things that oppress you? We're due for some changes, and hopefully they'll come sooner than later.
Peter Robinson: Last question, Shelby. Let me quote Frederick Douglass, the great, the former slave. This is 1863. "In regard to the colored people, there is always more that is benevolent, I perceive, than just manifest toward us. What I ask for the negro is not benevolence, not pity, not sympathy, but simply justice. The American people have always been anxious to know what they shall do with us. Do nothing ...
Shelby Steele: "Nothing."
Peter Robinson: ... with us. Your interference is doing us positive injury," close quote. That's Frederick Douglass speaking to white Americans in 1863. Last question, what does Shelby Steele say to white Americans today?
Shelby Steele: Well, I couldn't say anything better than that. That is ... I'm very ... I've quoted that myself. I've used it. I'm a great fan of Frederick Douglass. He's the greatest of all time. What truth. How long is it going to take us to absorb that message? So simply put, yet so absolutely true. What I would say to whites is, "Have a little more faith in yourself. Do you have ill will toward people of different races and backgrounds? Then you, obviously, know that's something you cannot indulge." That's it. That's it.
Peter Robinson: Shelby Steele, author of the classic book, The Content of Our Character, and most recently of Shame: How America's Past Sins Have Polarized Our Country. Thank you.
Shelby Steele: Thank you very much for being here.
Peter Robinson: For Uncommon Knowledge and the Hoover Institution, I'm Peter Robinson.