"Live" with Shelby Steele

"STEELE: I’ll give you my bottom line: We’ve done worse in freedom than we did in segregation. It’s abominable that we made more advances between 1945 and 1965 than we have since, but it’s the truth. According to studies by Stanford’s Thomas Sowell and Harvard’s Abigail and Stephen Thernstrom, we made up more ground with whites in the 1950s than in other decades. This is something I’m writing about in my next book.

Something people overlook is the shock of becoming free. When an oppressor finally takes his foot off your neck—whether it’s the European powers withdrawing from their colonies, or whites in America passing civil rights legislation and starting a Great Society—the group that has created an entire culture to cope with oppression is suddenly disoriented. Becoming free can give a profound shock. We don’t have the values in place for dealing with it. We don’t have the ideas. We have the mechanisms for wearing masks, for manipulating an oppressor, for surviving under harsh circumstances; we’ve become geniuses at that. But we don’t know what to do with freedom.

So when we come to freedom, we experience it as a humiliation, as an embarrassment, as a shame. Now, for the first time, we see how far behind we actually are. We see how long it’ll take to catch up with the people we suddenly have to compete with. And in some cases, we lock up in terror.

Freedom has just terrorized black Americans. We are scared to death of it. And rather than admit that, we say we’re still living in a racist society, or that the government isn’t doing its job. We make excuse after excuse after excuse. But the bottom line is that we have failed to stand up to the challenges of freedom. And that’s terrifying because it shows us just how much work lies ahead of us.
That’s why I hate to see identity politics come in, because then we’re evaluated on the color of our skin, or the group we’re supposed to belong to. If America loses that, then we’re in trouble.

Freedom is the most wonderful thing there is, but it’s also a burden, a responsibility, a struggle. When I was growing up, it was made clear to me that life was going to be exactly what I created of it. Today’s blacks don’t have that idea. Because of white guilt, we excuse failure in our black communities.

I look at black people and say, the thing you just don’t see is that you are absolutely free. There’s no excuse any more for not doing well in this society. People from other countries with language barriers and every other problem can come over here and thrive in a single generation—and you can’t because you don’t yet know how to be responsible in freedom.

No one wants to say the problem with black America is a lack of responsibility for ourselves. If you say that and you’re white, you’re going to be called a racist. If you say that and you’re black, you’re going to be called an Uncle Tom. But that’s the truth.


I’m old enough to remember segregation. Where I grew up, whites had no shame about being racist. They used to come up to me and explain that racism and segregation were God’s will. And they were perfectly comfortable with it.

Today, there’s no white person that could do that. Among whites, things have changed. No one wants white supremacists around. Sure, there are some, but America’s transformation is just amazing. It’s just amazing.

Now it’s time for blacks to make a similar transformation, to grow up, and take responsibility for their own future. If they don’t do it, they’re not going to have prospects that amount to very much. If they do do it, they’ll be able to succeed. We’ve come to a place in our history where the real onus for change is on black Americans."


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