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The Content of Our Character: A New Vision of Race in Americaby Shelby Steele
Synopses & Reviews
I'm Black, You're White,
"Race and Power in an Era
It is a warm, windless California evening, and the dying light that covers the redbrick patio is tinted pale orange by the day's smog. Eight of us, not close friends, sit in lawn chairs sipping chardornnay. A black engineer and I (we had never met before) integrate the group. A psychologist is also among us, and her presence encourages a surprising openness. But not until well after the lovely twilight dinner has been served, when the sky has turned to deep black and the drinks have long since changed to scotch, does the subject of race spring awkwardly upon us. Out of nowhere the engineer announces, with a coloring of accusation in his voice, that it bothers him to send his daughter to a school where she is one of only three black children. I didn't realize my ambition to get ahead would pull me into a world where my daughter would lose touch with her blackness," he says.
Over the course of the evening we have talked about money, past and present addictions, child abuse, even politics. Intimacies have been revealed, fears named. But this subject, race, sinks us into one of those shaming silences where eye contact terrorizes. Our host looks for something in the bottom of his glass. Two women stare into the black sky as if to locate the Big Dipper and point it out to us. Finally, the psychologist seems to gather herself for a challenge, but it is too late. "Oh, I'm sure she' be just fine," says our hostess, rising from her chair. When she excuses herself to get the coffee, the psychologist and two sky gazers offer to help.
With four of us now gone, I am surprised to see theengineer still silently holding his ground. There is a willfulness in his eyes, an inner pride. He knows he has said something awkward, but he is determined not to give a damn. His unwavering eyes intimidate even me. At last the host's bead snaps erect. He has an idea. "The hell with coffee," be says. "How about some of the smoothest brandy you've ever tasted?" An idea made exciting by the escape it offers. Gratefully, we follow him back into the house, quickly drink his brandy, and say our good-byes.
An autopsy of this party might read: death induced by an abrupt and lethal injection of the American race issue. An accurate if superficial assessment. Since it has been my fate to live a rather integrated life, I have often witnessed sudden deaths like this. The threat of them, if not the reality, is a part of the texture of integration. In the late 1960s, when I was just out of college, I took a delinquent's delight in playing the engineer's role, and actually developed a small reputation for playing it well. Those were the days of flagellatory white guilt; it was such great fun to pinion some professor or housewife or, best of all, a large group of remorseful whites, with the knowledge of both their racism and their denial of it. The adolescent impulse to sneer at convention, to startle the middie-aged with doubt, could be indulged under the guise of racial indignation. And how could I lose? My victims — earnest liberals for the most part — could no more crawl out from under my accusations than Joseph K. in Kafka's Trial could escape the amorphous charges brought against him. At this odd moment in history the world was aligned to facilitate my immaturity.
About a year of this wasenough: the guilt that follows most cheap thrills caught up to me, and I put myself in check. But the impulse to do it faded more slowly. It was one of those petty talents that is tied to vanity, and when there were ebbs in my self-esteem the impulse to use it would come alive again. In integrated situations I can still feel the faint itch. But then there are many youthful impulses that still itch, and now, just inside the door of midlife, this one is least precious to me.
In the literature classes I teach I often see how the presenceof whites all but seduces some black students into provocation. When we come to a novel by a black writer, say ToniMorrison, the white students can easily discuss the humanmotivations of the black characters. But, inevitably, a blackstudent, as if by reflex, will begin to set in relief the various racial problems that are the background of these characters' lives. This student's tone will carry a reprimand: the class is afraid to confront the reality of racism. Classes cannot be allowed to die like dinner parties, however. My latest strategy is to thank that student for his or her moral vigilance and then appoint the young man or woman as the class's official racism monitor. But even if I get a laugh — I usually do, but sometimes the student is particularly indignant, and it gets uncomfortable — the strategy never quite works. Our racial division is suddenly drawn in neon. Overcaution spreads like spilled paint. And, in fact, the black student who started it all does become a kind of monitor. The very presence of this student imposes a new accountability on the class.
From one of the most respected intellectuals in the country today, this New York Times bestseller and winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award offers a powerful examination of race in America — reissued to coincide with the publication of Steele's new HarperCollins hardcover, A Dream Deferred, in October 1998.
In this controversial essay collection, award-winning writer Shelby Stelle illuminates the origins of the current conflict in race relations--the increase in anger, mistrust, and even violence between black and whites. With candor and persuasive argument, he shows us how both black and white Americans have become trapped into seeing color before character, and how social policies designed to lessen racial inequities have instead increased them. The Content of Our Character is neither "liberal" nor "conservative," but an honest, courageous look at America's most enduring and wrenching social dilemma.
About the Author
Shelby Steele is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution and Stanford University, and is a contributing editor at Harper's magazine. His many prizes and honors include the National Book Critics Circle Award, an Emmy Award, a Writers Guild Award, and the National Humanities Medal.
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