Skip to main content

Awards & Honors: 2004 National Humanities Medalist

Shelby Steele

In all of his work, social critic Shelby Steele applies the universal teachings of philosophers such as Jean-Paul Sartre and Thomas Jefferson to illuminate the plight of blacks in present-day America. "The mistake everybody makes when they look at race is to look at race," he explains. "You will never get anywhere that way. I try to bring universal insight on the human condition to bear on what is, in a historical sense, a local situation."

"My work has been a little controversial," Steele says from his Monterey home, about two hours down the California coast from Stanford University, where he has been a research fellow at the Hoover Institution since 1994. "Not to me, of course--to others."

His first book, The Content of Our Character: A New Vision of Race in America, argued that self-doubt and fear of racism in the black community hindered advancement as much as racism itself. It earned him a 1990 National Book Critics' Circle Award, and a wave of disapproval from some black leaders. Many are appalled by his firm stand against affirmative action, which he has called "the greatest force in opposition to black uplift in society today."

"There is absolutely no other way under the sun to gain the respect of your fellow man than to become competitive with him," says Steele. Affirmative action, he says, prevents that, keeping the most talented blacks from vying on an even level with their peers.

The son of a black truck driver and a white social worker who met in the Civil Rights Movement, Steele was raised in a working-class Chicago suburb, where he attended segregated public schools and developed a personal understanding of race relations. "Everything I've ever learned or read, I've put through that filter," he says.

After graduating from Coe College in Iowa, he went on to earn a master's degree at Southern Illinois University and a PhD in English from the University of Utah. He taught African American literature in East St. Louis, Illinois, and later lectured at San Jose State before moving to Stanford.

His essays have appeared in Harper's, Commentary, the New Republic, and the New York Times, as well as in his second book, A Dream Deferred: The Second Betrayal of Black Freedom in America. A recurrent guest on Nightline and 60 Minutes, he also won an Emmy for his writing on the 1991 documentary Seven Days in Bensonhurst.

The Hoover Institution is only a few hundred yards from the Stanford University office of his brother, Claude, his identical twin and ideological opposite. As a professor in Stanford's psychology department, Claude Steele also lectures and writes on race. But while their subject matter overlaps, the brothers rarely interact, and-- to put it diplomatically--each counts the other among those who find his work "controversial."

Steele is undaunted by criticism launched at him from figures such as Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, or officials at the NAACP, all of whom he considers "self-appointed leaders" who have been "completely, 100 percent determined by white guilt."

White Guilt happens to be the title of his third book, due out next year. In it, he argues against the symbiosis between black leaders who "rather than insist on the development of their own people keep hammering away at the larger society" and a white establishment looking for a way to avoid the stigma of racism. "So these white institutions create policies such as affirmative action to give themselves moral authority, not to help blacks," Steele argues.

Steele sees himself as something of a whistle-blower, exposing "this corruption of race in America." He continues, "We need to stop relating to each other in this way and move beyond the idea that race is a profound determinism. That's an evil, and I'd like to make a tiny contribution to ending all of that."

In many respects, Steele adheres to the original optimism of his parents and their peers. The day he arrived in Washington, D.C. to receive his Humanities Medal, Condoleezza Rice became the second consecutive black American to be appointed Secretary of State. "I wouldn't have expected anything else once the barriers had been removed," he says. "What's interesting is how true it was, the message of the Civil Rights Movement--that what's important is our humanity, not our race."

By Victor Wishna