HomeSchool Reform NewsShelby Steele Knows How We Got to Critical Race Theory

Shelby Steele Knows How We Got to Critical Race Theory

By Jane Shaw Stroup

I recently glimpsed a TV exchange between Fox News host Mark Levin and Shelby Steele, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution. As I walked by, Levin was asking Steele to explain why critical race theory has been embraced on college campuses and in K-12 classes. Steele said that the cause goes back to the 1960s, when “social morality” was added to  American culture.

I didn’t quite get it, but I was intrigued—I had been around in the 1960s and a civil rights worker to boot—so I bought Steele’s 2006 book White Guilt. [1]

If you read White Guilt, I promise you that you will understand why it is possible for critical race theory to be so prominent.  I promise that you will understand how Confederate statues and so many others can be torn down, why the nation has become so rigidly divided between red and blue, why the New York Times’ 1619 Project is being hailed for its insights; why people are being “canceled” for slips of the tongue, and much more.

Shelby Steele. Photo courtesy of the Hoover Institution.

This book will remind you of conclusions you may have already come to, such as: the War of Poverty was a failure; our public schools are disasters; and  elites composed of university officials, politicians, government bureaucrats, and public school teachers’ unions (to name a few) are perpetuating damage to blacks—in fact, creating an entirely new way to harm blacks.

It’s a short book, less than 200 pages, yet it is multi-layered. It is primarily a logical argument shedding light on why we have  taken such a mistaken direction. But it also resonates emotionally, as Steele remembers painful personal experiences with analytical clarity. And there are other layers. The book’s content emerges as Steele drives from Los Angeles to northern California in 1998, listening to the radio and the national chatter about Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky, chatter that kicks off his “Chautauqua-like contemplation” and is surprisingly relevant to the story.

The Argument

Steele’s major argument is this: For several centuries, racism reflected a complacent acceptance of white supremacy in the United States. Even those who disapproved of white supremacy benefited from it and few attempted to overturn it. But the civil rights movement of the 1960s did overturn it. The movement forced white Americans to acknowledge that much of what is good in America—especially its “fidelity to democratic principles”—had been closed to African Americans. The movement, says Steele, “disciplined America with democratic principles, establishing the point that one’s race could not mitigate one’s rights as an individual.” [2]

This development gave blacks freedom at last, but it had enormous ramifications for whites as well. Whites lost the moral authority they had held for so many years (because so few had challenged it). After their fall, they experienced what Steele calls “white guilt.” This guilt shaped whites’ response to blacks.

Instead of merely accepting African Americans as equals, whites began to feel they had to prove that they weren’t the racists of the past. White guilt “makes the legitimacy of American institutions contingent on proving a negative: that they are not racist.” White Americans coped with this change by adding a new “social morality” to the culture: anti-racism. [3]

The New ‘Systemic’ Racism

While the overt bigotry of the past was nearly eradicated, a new idea of racism, linked to Marxism, took its place, a “new and second kind of racism [that] might be called globalized racism. This is racism inflated into a deterministic, structural, and systemic power.” [4]

Blacks found they could manipulate whites by accusing them of systemic racism, and whites fell all over themselves to “dissociate” themselves from racism. Thus today “American institutions, from political parties and corporations to art museums and private schools, not only declare their devotion to diversity but also use racial preferences to increase the visibility of minorities so as to refute the racist stigma. . . . “[5]

That devotion to diversity has only grown since Steele’s book was published. White guilt quickly spawned affirmative action. Not only does affirmative action violate  the spirit of equal opportunity, the concept behind it—the assumption that victims of racism should be given the trappings of success without achieving that success—engenders tremendous harm to those it supposedly helps. It destroys the sense of responsibility that is so essential to success—a sense of responsibility that many blacks had for centuries past, even though the full rewards of that responsibility were closed to them.

The Impact of Guilt

To illustrate the operation of this guilt,  I will conclude with a somewhat long passage from the book, one that encapsulates the harm.

If a young black boy cannot dribble well when he comes out to play basketball, no one will cast his problem as an injustice. No one will worry about his single-parent home, the legacy of slavery that still touches his life, or the inherent racial bias in ­a game invented by a white man.  His deficiency will be allowed to be what it is—poor dribbling. And he will be told to “tighten his game.” . . .  [T]he standard of excellence for dribbling will be so high that many will not reach it and nothing less than virtuosity will satisfy it. When and if he meets this standard . . . he has at last earned entrée into a fraternity of nothing other than excellence. Surely he will feel proud of himself as a result.

But if this boy’s problem is reading or writing rather than basketball, white guilt will certainly prevent even a modified version of this natural human process from occurring. Career-hungry academics will appear in his little world, and they will argue that his weaknesses reflect the circuitous workings of racism. . . .

The boy will not be asked to truly work harder. Nor will he be guided in the mastery of sentence structure, parts of speech, and verb tenses. . . . And all through the torpor of a day structured to spare his feelings around reading, writing, and arithmetic, he will long to be on the other side of that window, where everything is asked of him. [6]

Now that you have read this passage, you will never forget it.

Originally published by Jane Takes On History. Republished with permission.

Jane Shaw Stroup
Jane Shaw Stroup is the higher education editor for School Reform News at The Heartland Institute.

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