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October 30, 2005

Shelby Steele & The Rejection of Economics

There are plenty of interpretations going around regarding Shelby Steele's recent op-ed in the WSJ.

Shelby Steele impressed me once. A long time ago basically with his one article in Harper's "The Content of our Character" - long before the book was published. Since then, not. I haven't reviewed his work and probably won't. Interestingly enough, I dismissed him much in the same way some liberals have attempted to dismiss me, through a rationale that said he had 'problems' with being black. Then again, I was a Progressive myself at the time, and I had not yet started to play fast and loose with black identity.

I happen to know that Shelby's twin brother is Claude Steele, the originator of the theory of 'Stereotype Threat' and that colleagues of mine in the academy rapped with him. It was through this part of the Kwaku Network that I discovered that Shelby... well he got slapped on the back of the head for having a name like Shelby. Of course, this is entirely unfair, but that's how identity politics works - first determine that 'authenticity' of the messenger...

In the end, I tended to dismiss him on the basis of his comparitively lame academic career as an associate prof at a state school, and thus headed into the long and troublesome romances with Cornel West and Bell Hooks (er excuse me) bell hooks.

Steele's mojo is, of course, assuaging white guilt. I would bet that he's halfway right. But since I don't like his style, I pay him little mind. He's too squishy anyway. If it aint hardball politics and economics, I'm not particularly interested.

Steele writes:

The broad white acknowledgment of racism meant that whites would be responsible both for overcoming their racism and for ending black poverty because, after all, their racism had so obviously caused that poverty.

This is a perfect thumbnail description of white liberalism of the sort that is like thumbnails on the chalkboard to me. And it is because Shelby Steele attacks this obvious (to me) fallacy almost exclusively, he is relatively worthless.

One of the places I start is with Glenn Loury's thesis, which is that colorblindness is insufficient to correct the legacy of white supremacy. The (to borrow a term) STRUCTURAL RACISM of the construction of ghetto plantations, puts many blacks in a hole. Just because nobody is digging new holes doesn't mean the playing field is level. There are still lots of blacks in the hole. Colorblindness doesn't fill the hole.

Steele's dialect fails to acknowledge that there are better reasons to fill the holes in the ghetto. It doesn't matter who lives or lived in New Orleans, the dikes should be repaired, the neighborhoods rebuilt, the holes filled up. But continuing the trope of white guilt and black responsibility begs questions of black economies and white economies, as if it were America's business to keep two separate balance sheets.

Steele concludes somewhere strange and unusual:

And our open acknowledgment of our underdevelopment will clearly give whites a power of witness over us. It will mean that whites can hold us accountable for overcoming inferiority as we hold them to accountable for overcoming racism. They will be able to openly shame us when we are not fully at war with our underdevelopment, just as Bill Bennett was shamed for no more than giving a false impression of racism. If this prospect feels terrifying to many blacks, we have to remember that whites witness and judge us anyway, just as we have witnessed and judged their shame for so long. Mutual witness will go on no matter what balances of power we strike. It is best to be open, and allow the "other's" witness to inspire rather than shame.

This is an argument that obviously has some currency in the annals of 'race relations' but what it is supposed to mean is completely alien to me. What blacks owe themselves is the willingness to understand their capacities under the premise of liberty that citizenship grants. How much of this effort is wasted in matters of exorcising ghosts of whitefolks' assessments can only be testament to internal demons best explained by psychiatrists. That any of this touchy feely accounting translates into political influence is testament to all the things that are wrong with identity politics be they white or black. So no prescriptions or adjustments to such psychic ledgers are going to get us any closer to the nation needs. We need people with houses not made of the strawmen of racial identity politics, but of the bricks of bankable skills bound by the mortar of our educational and economic infrastructure.

Methinks Shelby Steele doth huff and puff too much.

Posted by mbowen at October 30, 2005 08:14 PM

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not huff and puff. more like pine and whine.

Posted by: Lester Spence at October 30, 2005 10:34 PM

"This is an argument that obviously has some currency in the annals of 'race relations' but what it is supposed to mean is completely alien to me."

It means that as long as they can observe each others behavior, blacks and whites can and will be forced to deal with the legitimate claims and critiques from the other side.

It means that each side has legitimate concerns where the other is concerned that cannot be resolved by the act of tracing the cause of concern to white racism or black failure. I think Steele wanted to impress upon us the point that solutions to legitimate concerns must fall outside of the jurisdictions of "blame white racism" and "blame black failure." Whites have just as many legitimate concerns about blacks as blacks do about whites.

Also, it seems as if Steele's arguments are virtually unassailable except by means of the ad hominem attack. For you to dismiss his arguments on the basis of his academic career or on the basis of his perceived "authenticity" is nothing more than an informal fallacy as far a logic is concerned. That's pure ad hominem Cobb, and really quite below you.

Posted by: Negrorage [TypeKey Profile Page] at October 31, 2005 08:45 AM

I dismissed Steele's logic because he postulates that the greatest problem revolves around the question of shame. I took the liberty of rewriting his article and substituting references to shame with references to wealth, life expectancy and safety (contrasted with references to pverty, death and crime). In re-reading the article, it became obvious to me that Steele uses "shame" as a euphemism for the MATERIAL essence of the problem. By positing the problem as an essentially emotional/perceptual problem, he has changed the basis for an historical interpretation based on the material/resource/energy/options/choices/etc. distinctions between the collective "white America" and the collective "black America." And, of course, the international dimension (not unlike batteries) is not included.

Here's the link: http://www.prometheus6.org/node/11417#comment

Posted by: Temple3 [TypeKey Profile Page] at November 3, 2005 07:38 AM


What if the only real difference between black and white is the persistence of perception along the lines Steele describes? What if blackfolk and whitefolk take on these roles uncritically? What if blackness is not an active, dynamic intellectual construct - that it is just an adopted set of attitudes one inherits blindly from their parents and the same for whiteness? Then whites no more stand for white supremacy than blacks stand for black cultural nationalism - they just expect *something* to operate those machines of advantage for them, and they retain the same attitudes as if something were going to change.

In that case all you have is a debtor race and a creditor race, but nothing gets settled.

Posted by: Cobb [TypeKey Profile Page] at November 3, 2005 07:58 AM

Your example assumes their is neither cognition nor responsibility - simply reaction. If this were the case, then the motive factors in this recent bit of history are entirely beyond the realm of human influence...that may well be true. In the interim, it would interesting to hear your explanation of how Africans and Europeans reversed roles in terms of wealth, life expectancy and safety since 1400 - without cognition or responsibility.

Folks definitely adopt roles uncritically, but that is beside the point - because when options that are not default options are presented, they're usually rejected. For example, in NYC none of the charter schools teach any history relating to black folk. Not a single one. Is that the operation of "an adopted set of attitudes one inherits blindly"? If it is, then there is little reason for folks who believe themselves "aware" to do much more than IMPOSE their WILL on the sleeping horde. In which case, we have a few conscious actors scripting the set of attitudes that will be adopted. And if that's the case, it could be argued that the most effective individuals have a definite view of "blackness" - and it ain't cultural nationalism for black folk.

Blackness is also [to the architect/practitioner/supporter/beneficiary of white supremacist practice] a tangible, contemptable "other." As such, the MATERIAL resources under the control of such an APSB (architect.practitioner.supporter.beneficiary) are directed in a manner that leads to significant disparities in Wealth, Life Expectancy and Safety. Are you suggesting this is really more the result of accident or uncritical acceptance than active malice? I would suggest it doesn't matter - unless you have distinct operational solutions that work in one case and not in the next.

Posted by: Temple3 [TypeKey Profile Page] at November 4, 2005 04:15 AM

I am coming to believe that those who truly understand modernism and humanism are the voices who are squashed, and that their voices are saying and have always been saying that civilization is for the civilized. They have always been willing to teach and they have always been willing to accept all comers. Why? Because they fully understood how they have worked to inherit and implement ideas of universal humanism from the Greeks. That in fact, they bothered to learn another language (Latin, Greek) to understand those lessons more clearly.

So what I'm saying is that when people say Shakespeare is good for blacks, they don't do so to insult 'black pride' or diminish blackfolks. They do so because they have learned something of value themselves and have found it transcendent. If it is the metier of blackness to reject all dead, 'white', male literature, then the lockout is all but guaranteed.

America, at its core, recognizes its concepts of democracy comes from the Greeks, and it is perfectly reasonable to assume that the Greeks thought the whole thing out. So should we be fussing about Jefferson's slaves? Maybe we should be studying how Jefferson screwed up in terms of what he failed to learn from the Greeks or the Romans.

My point is that blackness and whiteness are two narrow contexts of human existence. The progress of the African American cannot be bound to that tiny universe.

Posted by: Cobb [TypeKey Profile Page] at November 4, 2005 07:42 AM

You've backed yourself into an evolutionary blind alley getting caught up in the triune evils of public obstinacy, middle-class satiety, and apologetic indignity. Having hemmed yourself in on multiple fronts, it's now down to the point of clutching at a shred of political and rhetorical dignity by re-presenting your view as modernist and humanist in the Greek tradition, which is some pure-de-pure bullshit cause you just can't bring yourself to admit that the GOP and its minions whom you've supported have wrought a global and domestic cluster fuck of epic proportions.

My ace boon Noam Avrom wrote most pointedly about what's wrong with your little picture in Hegemony or Survival and as far as I'm concerned, not only does the interpersonal communion of blackness have a cognitive, practical, and aesthetic value uniquely its own, it is historically and presently the instantiated collective unconscious attempt to protect America from itself.

If you participated more fully in it, and felt it for yourself, I believe you might recognize. As for these continuing attempts to defend the indefensible, you're tilting at windmills brah. You really need to stop set tripping on behalf of Mr. Charlie, put down the cockamamy political abstractions and commence to dealing with the real magne.

Please put down the white invented pipe of abstract politics used to defuse
culture/communion-based arguments.., in protecting ourselves from the enemy within, we're attempting to do God's work of

Protecting America from itself, preserving humanity

A diehard rationalist, Chomsky views the American state, a superpower, as an institutionalized irrationality that needs to be prevented from both self-destruction and world destruction - through strategic recourse by all thinking minds to the "second superpower": "world public opinion" (pages 253, 10). He backs up even this philosophical-sounding claim by invoking the massive empirical evidence of global opinion polls that have typically cast a thoroughly negative light on the actions of the US government.

Chomsky deems US polity destructive because its "basic principle is that hegemony is more important than survival" (page 231). As such, he views the peculiar framework of the economic globalization of the 1990s, orchestrated to a great extent by the US ruling elite, as yet another step toward self-destruction - especially because it equates the economic structure of the neoclassical market with the political structure of democracy.

Posted by: cnulan [TypeKey Profile Page] at November 4, 2005 12:24 PM

oh you kill me.

So you're suggesting that a trope of insurgent rebellion which is strictly non-violent is going to save the American superpower state from itself. That ultrablackified proles who reject interchangeable modernity are somehow going to undo the power structures of America in the context of global markets.

Hell, these people can't even stay married. How are they going to undo military state capitalism? You really kill me.

Posted by: Cobb [TypeKey Profile Page] at November 4, 2005 03:37 PM

Point of information:

The US is not patterned after Greek notions of democracy. It's much closer to the Roman conception of a republic. I'll let you do the legwork to determine if that's important - and even if Jefferson is important. Gotta guess it won't be because in order to get to your positions, you've gotta ignore history. Your choice.

Posted by: Temple3 [TypeKey Profile Page] at November 8, 2005 05:06 AM