Under the Skin: Shelby Steele on Race in America

Monday, July 30, 2001

ROBINSON: Shelby, let me quote you. "Today ideology is identity, thus it is not altogether absurd for President Clinton to consider himself black." Explain.

STEELE: Since the 1960s the black American identity has moved away from a culturally based identity to a highly politicized identity that is focused on the idea of government programs, government preferences, and a kind of preferential liberalism. To be black in America today means that you must subscribe to preferential liberalism, and if you don’t then your identity itself is kept from you. The black conservative who does not agree with preferential liberalism is by definition not black. So we say Clarence Thomas is not black, Colin Powell is marginally black, and Condoleezza Rice is marginal.

Peter Robinson (left) and Shelby Steele on the set of the television program Uncommon Knowledge, which airs on public television stations throughout the country. Illustration by Taylor Jones for the Hoover Digest.

ROBINSON: And Shelby Steele?

STEELE: Shelby Steele is probably not black because I’m against the use of racial preferences. That political position in effect denies me my racial identity. Racial identity—it’s why we see 90-some percent of the black vote coming out for whatever Democrat runs for president.

ROBINSON: George W. Bush made the most concerted, extensive effort to reach out to African American voters of any Republican presidential candidate in memory, and yet he received only 8 percent of the black vote. That’s 4 percent less than Bob Dole received in 1996—it’s even a percent less than Barry Goldwater received in 1964. Why did W. do so badly?

STEELE: Well, again, I think that though Bush reached out and did everything he really could do—

ROBINSON: —Was his reaching out too clumsy?

STEELE: No, I don’t think it was. I think it was a well-done effort for the most part, but at the end of the day he was seen as a conservative—he was against the preferential liberalism of government programs and government preferences. He instead talked about black problems by talking about values, saying that we needed to raise expectations, that we needed to ask more of blacks, that we needed to ask them to work harder. In the culture of today, those values seem conservative, and conservatism is seen as antiblack.

I oppose any sort of racial preference. Distinctions based on race are the same distinctions that caused me to go to a segregated school when I was a kid. Any time that we give racial distinctions play in public policy, someone’s going to be hurt.

ROBINSON: Again let’s compare Bush, who got 8 percent of the black vote, with Dole, who got 12 percent. How do you explain the drop in black support? Was it that African American voters sensed that George W. Bush was a more serious and thoroughgoing conservative than Bob Dole?

STEELE: Yes. Black America sensed that Bush was going to do the worst of all possible things. He was going to pay attention to black problems, but he was going to do it through a focus on conservative values—on all these conservative ideas that are antithetical to preferential liberalism. So he was far more dangerous than Dole.

ROBINSON: So African Americans sensed that he was genuinely conservative and that he cared about them?

STEELE: Right. His mistake was to care about them—to try to apply conservative values to black American problems.

ROBINSON: One of the most persistent patterns in American politics for at least a century and a half is that as an ethnic group becomes more prosperous it begins to vote more Republican: Irish, Italians, Slavs—and the story gets repeated again and again and again. When an ethnic group is poor it’s solidly Democratic. As it moves into the middle class it begins to split its vote between the parties. Between 1949 and 1996 the percentage of African Americans who identified themselves as middle class rose from 12 percent to 41 percent. Today 42 percent of all African Americans and 74 percent of all married African Americans own their own homes. Nearly a third of all African Americans live in the suburbs. So large numbers of black Americans have indeed moved into the middle class. But African Americans have hardly even begun to vote Republican. Why?

STEELE: A lot of the move into the middle class on the part of blacks has been different than it was for other ethnic groups. For the most part blacks have held government jobs. Even though there has been an increase in the black middle class, the psychology of the group is still liberal, still supportive of big, interventionist government.

ROBINSON: You mentioned that identity politics begins with the 1960s. Let me give you two quotations. Martin Luther King Jr., 1963: "I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character." Coretta Scott King on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, 2001: "Today we call you to commemorate Martin Luther King Jr. by opposing the attack on affirmative action." Martin Luther King says "judge us by the content of our character." His own wife says in 2001 "give us affirmative action," which is explicitly based not on character but on race. How did this happen?

STEELE: Martin Luther King was speaking to an America that had not yet fully acknowledged its wrong in slavery and segregation. And so it became a major theme in the civil rights movement to lead with our humanity, to lead with what we have in common, to deemphasize race because race is a barrier to our rights. After America admitted its wrong in the 1964 Civil Rights Bill, the 1965 Voting Rights Act, and so forth, it gave blacks moral authority. And all of a sudden the very racial identity that we had deemphasized because it kept us behind the walls of segregation we now embraced because it brought us social programs, affirmative action, and advantages in American life that other groups did not have. That’s how I think it happened.

ROBINSON:: But you believe that emphasizing racial identity corrupted the civil rights movement?

STEELE: We made a mistake when we based our claim on American society on our race rather than on our humanity. We reestablished race as a powerful force in American life, and since that time we’ve all been preoccupied with what we created, an identity politics, in which each group pursues its rights based on its race rather than on its citizenship as Americans. It wasn’t wrong for us to expect that after four centuries of repression there would be some assistance. But it was profoundly wrong of us to turn around and embrace race ourselves because we thought it would bring us certain advantages.

ROBINSON: Would you then have argued for temporary affirmative action?

STEELE: I oppose any sort of racial preference. Distinctions based on race are the same distinctions that caused me to go to a segregated school when I was a kid, so I know the other side of it. It’s evil, and any time that we give racial distinctions play in public policy we hurt people—someone’s going to be at the wrong end.

What we should have done is what we did begin to do in the mid-1960s, which was to focus on the problem of racial discrimination in a fierce and tenacious way. We should have quintupled the size of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and really ferreted out the evil of discrimination in our society. I think we would be better off today had we done that.

ROBINSON: End discrimination. Don’t reverse it. Don’t flip it on its head. Just end it.

STEELE: Right. Make discrimination the paramount social evil in American life.

ROBINSON: Let’s talk about education. African Americans consistently lag behind whites in education. Listen to a couple of figures. Average SAT scores of college-bound high school seniors in 1976: the white verbal score, 451; the black verbal score, 332. The white math score, 493; the black math score, 354. The scores in 1995, almost 20 years later? Almost nothing had changed. White verbal, 448; black verbal, 356. White math, 498; black math, 388. Why is the gap so persistent?

STEELE: Because we have sent a message to young black Americans that you simply do not have to compete. American universities are profoundly guilty in this regard. We’ve sent the message for more than 30 years now that your SAT scores will be evaluated on a standard that is far lower—in many cases, 200 or 300 points lower—than the SAT scores of white students. In other words, we’ve put in place a disincentive to excellence, a disincentive to performance. I think it’s probably 80 percent of the reason that white and Asian scores have increased while black scores have stagnated.

ROBINSON: Richard Atkinson, president of the University of California, has proposed simply ending the use of SAT scores as a qualification for admission. Do you favor that?

STEELE: I think it’s another one of these horrible examples of destroying the standards of merit and excellence in order to bring in more blacks and Hispanics—students who we know are not going to meet those standards. The universities are eating themselves alive, destroying themselves in order to get a sort of moral victory that comes from having the right number of black students.

ROBINSON: In effect, to make the white admissions officers feel good?

STEELE: To make the white admissions officers feel good, to give the university a moral authority among and within the community of universities around the nation that now see diversity as the first variable in whether or not they are excellent institutions. But it all keeps in place this disincentive for black students to pursue excellence. White America is saying we’re going to let you in here no matter how you perform. The people who claim to love us the most are the people who are injuring us by taking away our incentive to development. These people are our enemies, not our friends.

ROBINSON: So what do you do about it? How do you begin to close the educational gap?

STEELE: Well, one thing you do is the exact opposite of what the UC president is proposing. You do what Prop 209 did. You say we’re not going to have racial preferences—

ROBINSON: —Abolish the double standard outright?

STEELE: Abolish the double standard outright so you put back an incentive for blacks to compete with other young people. My guess is that you will very quickly see an upswing in black performance because they will have to compete, so they will work harder.

ROBINSON: What about at the precollege level, getting education straightened out at the elementary and secondary level? Would you be in favor of charter schools, voucher programs—that kind of thing?

STEELE: Sure.

ROBINSON: Do you buy the argument that the failure of public schools disproportionately harms black students?

STEELE: Yes, I do. That’s the community that is most reliant on public schools.

ROBINSON: So it wouldn’t surprise you that polls show that 40 to 50 percent of African Americans favor voucher programs—a higher level of support than in virtually any other ethnic group in this country?

STEELE: No.

ROBINSON: Okay. Now here’s the surprise. Kweisi Mfume, president of the NAACP, has stated: "The attacks of the right on our children’s future have solidified around a concept of exclusion and selective opportunity called vouchers. No other scheme poses a greater danger that no child should be left behind." Here you have a black leader violently opposed to an idea to which, according to the polls, ordinary African Americans are quite receptive. How do you explain this?

STEELE: I call this group in my last book the "grievance elite," and I think the NAACP, sadly, is among that crowd. That elite’s purpose is to keep alive the idea of victimization, and they are very much in league with the teachers unions, with this whole ideology of preferential liberalism, government intervention, money infusion, and so forth. Vouchers are a conservative idea. They’re an idea that tries to introduce choice in a situation where there is none now, and competition in a situation where there is none now. These are very threatening ideas to a grievance elite that is entirely grounded in preferential liberalism. They see this as a terrible threat—vouchers get in and then what? For the first time a schism is developing between black American leadership and black American people.

ROBINSON: Is there any pressure being brought to bear on the grievance elite?

STEELE: Absolutely. I think they are scared to death of this.

ROBINSON: Of their own people, their own constituents?

STEELE: That’s right. I’m sure there are people out there in local chapters of the NAACP who are very much in favor of vouchers. I think that group is growing and that at some point the leadership is going to have to make some accommodation with them.

ROBINSON: Let’s turn to the black family. Once again, a few statistics. Percentage of births out of wedlock for African Americans in the 1960s, 22 percent; in 1994, 70 percent. In other words, more than two-thirds of African American children are born out of wedlock. Among whites during the same period the percentage increase in out-of-wedlock births is even greater,rising from 2 percent to 25 percent. Yet as the sociologists Stephan and Abigail Thernstrom note, "A social pattern with devastating economic consequences has become the norm in the black community while it is still the deviant pattern among whites."

STEELE: You’re right. It is a tragedy beyond the reach of politics, beyond the reach of government. When that many children are born out of wedlock and are raised without fathers, then obviously all sorts of problemsensue. Again my feeling is—and this is something a little bit complicated—but imagine that, when we became free in the mid-60s and won the victories of the civil rights movement, we had gone away to our own country. Now I’m not advocating this, but imagine we had done what the Jews did when they left Europe and built their own nation. They built a very strong nation, they worked hard, they made the desert bloom. They put into practice all of the conservative principles of hard work and nation building. But we stayed in precisely the same country that had victimized and oppressed us. We became enmeshed, I believe, with the larger need in society to redeem itself, to have moral authority, and to say no, we are not a racist nation, we are not the kind of nation that did that to you. Instantly in the early 1970s we get welfare without any expectation of personal development or family responsibility whatsoever. Nothing damaged the black family in America, including slavery, the way that those welfare policies did. And now we are seeing the results.

ROBINSON: What do you do about it?

STEELE: We have to acknowledge that there isn’t always something you can do about it. There isn’t always something that the government and groups within society are smart enough to figure out to do. There are going to be many millions of black human beings lost to this 30-year enmeshment. They will not be recovered, and that’s history. I think that what we need to do now is be honest about how we got here and stop these paternalistic policies that rob us of decency, of dignity, of a sense of competency, of competitiveness.

ROBINSON: So you support the welfare reforms that the Republicans in Congress passed and President Clinton signed?

STEELE: Absolutely. The welfare reform that the Republican Congress put forth and President Clinton finally signed is the most effective social program in America in 40 years. It got more people off the welfare rolls than any other program since the 1960s.

ROBINSON: Are you aware of any decline in the out-of-wedlock birthrate, or has it at least stabilized?

STEELE: What I hear is that there has been actually a slight decline, but—

ROBINSON: But it’s possible that to some extent the welfare reform may even have a salutary effect on the out-of-wedlock birthrate?

STEELE: If you stop paying people to have babies out of wedlock, you would probably get a decline. If you in fact become responsible for having those children yourself then you’re probably going to think twice about it.

ROBINSON: Suppose you were advising George W. Bush. What would you tell him?

STEELE: There are two things that he should do. Number one, he should continue to do what he has been doing, which is to spell out at least in a broad way how conservative values can attack the problems of poverty in America without regard to race.

He is in a cultural war against preferential liberalism, and he’s got to attack it in some way. Policies such as his faith-based programs and his call for accountability in education through testing make common sense to black Americans just like they do to other Americans. And as he continues to make arguments in support of those programs, he’s going to be very effective in the long run.

But the big bugaboo confronting his presidency is affirmative action. Its symbolic importance far outweighs the actual practice of it, but it is where the culture war has its sharpest divide. He has avoided that issue up to this point because it would require spending so much political capital to take it on. At some point in his presidency he is going to have to stand up and make a clear intellectual argument as to why it is a barrier to poor and middle-class blacks—how it keeps them out of American life, how it alienates them, stigmatizes them, gives them a disincentive to excellence. He’s going to have to make that argument.

ROBINSON: Shelby, can he do that? Let me play out this scenario for you, okay? George W. Bush starts thinking about a major speech on affirmative action, in which he does everything that you want him to do, demonstrating why affirmative action harms African Americans. Then his political guy Karl Rove says, Mr. President, you’re going to be denounced by every black member of Congress except J. C. Watts, but let me get on the phone and see if I can get a few people to go public supporting you. Karl Rove then gets in touch with you, Tom Sowell, Walter Williams—can you name a fourth? There’s almost nobody out there to back Bush up.

STEELE: There are many people out there. Remember, 30 percent of blacks in California voted for Prop 209, voted against affirmative action. They’re there, but again, the price they pay for coming out is the same price that he’s going to pay for coming out. They’re going to be abused by the other side. If they’re white, they’re going to be called racists. If they’re black, they’re going to be called Uncle Toms.

But what better thing could Bush do with his presidency? Why pursue this office at such great expense if you don’t want to use a good bit of the capital to make the point that we can’t solve the problems of poverty through preferential treatment? I can guarantee that somewhere between 74 and 88 percent of the American people are against preferential policies. So he’s going to get a great deal of support beyond Shelby Steele and Thomas Sowell and Walter Williams.

Many black Americans do not like affirmative action. Look at the political price that the black leadership in America has paid for supporting affirmative action. The leadership has become more and more isolated, is seen as more and more corrupt. They’ve used up more of their moral authority. We have leaders like Jesse Jackson now in deep trouble. That leadership has paid an extremely high price for supporting these divisive policies.

ROBINSON: Assuming that between now and the year 2004 George W. Bush does just what you say, what percentage of the black vote does he get in 2004?

STEELE: (Laughing) He couldn’t do worse than he did in 2000.

ROBINSON: One final question, Shelby. It’s in the nature of a prediction about the current black leadership, the "grievance elite" as you call it. Do we simply have to wait a generation or two for the black leadership to turn over? Or can political change among African Americans happen more quickly than that?

STEELE: I think it will happen more quickly. Again, look at the stature of the black leadership in America today as opposed to the 1960s. In those days, there was genuine and profound moral authority. Today? Look at Kweisi Mfume, Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton. They simply lack the stature and the moral authority.

ROBINSON: So the attachment of African Americans to racial preferences is a kind of Berlin Wall? It could fall at any moment?

STEELE: It could fall at any moment. I can tell you that in the black community there are already rumblings.