The nomination of Clarence Thomas to the U.S. Supreme Court in July focused America’s never-ending racial debate on whether the road to black advancement is better paved by self-reliance or affirmative action—or both. Author Shelby Steele, who supports Thomas’s nomination, is an outspoken advocate of self-help who believes many blacks have done less than they could to overcome the legacy of racism and slavery. The son of a black truck driver and a white social worker, Steele, 45, grew up in Phoenix, Ill., and attended Coe College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. In 1974 he earned a Ph.D. in English from the University of Utah, then joined the faculty of San Jose State University in California, where he is now a professor of English. A collection of his essays, The Content of Our Character: A New Vision of Race in America, won the 1990 National Book Critics Circle Award. He recently discussed color and capability with correspondent Wayne Edwards.
Why do you oppose preferential treatment based on race?
Any time you have one group of preferred people and another group of unpreferred people, you are laying the groundwork for racial tension. [Preferences] stigmatize blacks in the workplace and in universities. They make black people wonder if they would be there if not for the color of their skin—wonder whether they have the competence to really compete with whites.
But didn’t Clarence Thomas benefit from affirmative action in some ways?
He made it by the self-help that put him in a position to benefit from affirmative action later in life. I don’t know if he would have gotten to the Supreme Court without affirmative action, but the man would have succeeded. His grandfather taught him the habits of hard work, and he studied hard in school and did very well against tremendous odds. In other words, he helped himself. The catch-22 for judge Thomas is that the very people who are in favor of racial preferences turned around when he was nominated and said, “Well, you got where you are because of affirmative action.” I’m not saying racial preferences have never been of any benefit to blacks. But today I think they’re doing more harm than good.
Are you against all forms of affirmative action?
No. I’m for programs that break the chronic cycle of poverty—like Head Start, or teaching teenage mothers how to parent, and more money for inner-city schools. And I’m for economic-based affirmative action—that might give priority to poor blacks, for instance, over middle-class whites. But I feel there should be equal treatment of middle-class blacks and whites.
You’ve accused civil rights leaders of placing too much emphasis on “black victimization.” What do you mean?
Historically blacks have based our identity on our victimization by whites. We ask the government and society to redress us for what whites did to us. That has been the greatest power that we have ever wielded in America. But I think we have neglected other, more enduring, sources of power, such as self-help, becoming educated or seeking economic development. I think we can look at the example of Jews and Asians in the U.S. They’ve developed through education, developed economically and now do better than majority whites by many standards.
Why do you think so many black leaders are infuriated by your stance?
They feel threatened because their jobs are dependent on the victimization strategy. They still see the white man as their meal ticket. They think if they talk about self-help, they lose leverage with the government because they sacrifice the moral authority of being victims. But seeking redress from society and helping ourselves are not mutually exclusive.
How do you respond to people who accuse you of minimizing racism?
I certainly don’t deny that racism is still a factor in America. But I don’t think it is nearly the factor that poverty and isolation are. Also pernicious is the self-imposed isolation from white America that some blacks seem to choose. The danger is that we don’t learn how the system works, what knobs to push and pull and how to get ahead. You see blacks on campus self-segregating in the name of blackness. Whenever we segregate—whether we choose to or are the victims of Jim Crow—we are the losers.
In your book you write that some middle-class blacks, including yourself, sometimes feel a marginal black Identity. Why is that?
Because in the last 25 years, being black has been equated with being a victim. We have a victim-focused black identity. And the higher someone moves in society, the less black they become. This becomes so absurd that I frequently hear Colin Powell’s blackness questioned by other blacks. I never hear the blackness of the crack dealer in Harlem questioned. We ought to be saying that Colin Powell is the real black. The cat who’s selling crack, he’s not a real brother. He’s an Uncle Tom, because he’s harming his own people.
Some of your critics claim that since you’ve been so closely associated with whites—you had a white mother, are married to a white woman, and so on—you’re not qualified to speak for blacks in general.
I would say that precisely because I have had such a rich and various exposure to the world both inside and outside the black community, I have the perspective to see things about race that I would never have been able to see had I been isolated.
Did having a white mother and a black father influence your views on race relations?
Yes. It was an absolute gift, the greatest source of insight and understanding. I think that I was born to understand race, that I was just put in a situation that very few people, black or white, are in. I could be rocked on the knee of my white grandfather one week and rocked on the knee of my black uncle the next week. So race was demystified for me. I never could see white people as just some unified group who hated blacks. I knew there were many who didn’t. I knew they were complicated people, just like black people were complicated. And I could experience on a visceral level the absurdity of racism more deeply than most Americans could.