Slavery, deadly civil rights abuses, and racism have been tragic and unforgettable parts of America’s history. As a nation, we’ve been struggling hard to overcome them with many voices rising in our national dialogue and their platforms have been bolstered. This week on the Focus on the Family radio broadcast, Jim Daly sat down with a very wise, but lesser heard voice on race in America to discuss what is actually needed to lift the African-American citizen up to fully realize the American ideal and dream.
Jim’s distinguished guest on the Wednesday and Thursday episodes of the Focus on the Family broadcast is Dr. Shelby Steele, a senior fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution where he studies, writes and lectures nationally and internationally on the consequences of contemporary social programs on race relations and racial politics. Steele is an award-winning author of 5 acclaimed books on race in America and one of the nation’s rare, truly independent thinkers.
Drawing from his decades of research and careful observation, Dr. Steele boldly asserts that when one analyzes the hindrances to black citizens gaining access to quality education, better, safer housing, ennobling employment, and overall human well-being for themselves and their children, racism is not at the top of his list. His position is that the breakdown of the family is the primary contributor, as well as the demonstrable harm of well-intentioned governmental social policies.
Dr. Steele came from a life of poverty. His paternal grandfather was born into slavery and his father was a truck driver and his mother a social worker. His parents were founding members of CORE (Congress for Racial Equality), one of the early civil rights organizations in the country. He and his brother went on to accomplish highly unexpected things. Claude, his twin, is the Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost at UC Berkeley.
In the broadcast, Dr. Steele explained to Jim Daly, “Racism is on a list of problems that black America faces,” to be sure, but he added, it is not actually near the top of challenges facing black citizens today. He explained “racism is probably 32nd, 35th, something way down the line” adding “You’re talking to somebody who grew up in segregation. I can talk for hours about what I went through growing up in a society that thought racism was good manners.” Other problems stand in the way, problems of one’s own making.
Steele explains, “We in black America have created for ourselves, what I call, a victim-focused identity. Our victimization is who we are and what we bargain with… our power in American life is our victimization.” Steele holds that this is the opposite of empowerment. Steele contends “It’s a terrible irony…but we’re celebrating the very thing that has been our enemy all along.”
It is the irony in black America that “if you don’t agree that you’re victimized, you’re not black. We say you’re an Uncle Tom. You’re not true to your race.” Steele explains that the opposite is actually true, that “to be a victim is to be impotent.”
Current racial politics dictates that “I have to join…everybody else in my race, and we have to find some way to manipulate our way ahead through white America. We have to keep white America on edge. And we have to keep them feeling guilty toward us and about us.” Steele explains that this has never served his community well in the long run, but rather actually hurts his people.
Professor Steele explained the majority of government efforts and liberal proposals over the years intended to lift the boats of African-Americans have been “worse than ineffective.” He charges, based on his study and those of his colleagues, that those programs “took the place of segregation and racism and slavery.” He clarifies, “All those programs from the Great Society on that I just mentioned a moment ago, all those programs have one thing in common: They have no faith in the people they’re trying to help. They don’t believe that black people can lift themselves up out of where they’re at.”
What is the Answer?
To the question of what do black citizens need in order to create a better life for themselves and their children, Steele explains, “We as blacks have to get to the point where we say we are responsible for our fate, entirely” and not depend on what others are willing to give us. That is never a successful plan of liberation. He told Jim that his people must “stop assuming the world is our enemy” adding, “Most of the world want to be our friends these days. There’s an openness in America that is amazing. And I know it’s amazing, because I remember when it wasn’t there.”
Dr. Steele lamented with Jim, “I think that the breakdown of the black American family is the single worst and most overwhelming problem we face today, bar none.” What does Steele believe all communities must do to ensure a better, safer, more prosperous life for themselves and their children? The professor was forthright, “We need the focus on the family more than anything else, by far.”
Dr. Steele has written and produced an important new documentary, What Killed Michael Brown?, which examines the current state of race relations in America today and why our current explanations for and answers to the problem are failing us so miserably. You can watch the trailer here: