Realism About the Black Experience

Realism About the Black Experience

Shelby Steele’s argument (“The Memory of Enemies,” Dissent, Summer 1990) has two intertwined parts. First, he asserts that since the early 1970s the opportunity-structure in American society offers more space for social mobility and achievement than black Americans have effectively seized. Second, inasmuch as the late-1960s civil rights legislation outlawed formal discrimination, this lack of black mobility cannot be attributed as such to American racism. Instead, Steele and other neoconservatives attribute this black deficiency to blacks’ obsessive identity-dependence upon a historical victim status, though classic racist victimizing realities are—according to neoconservatives—now minimal, not maximal features of American life. In short, in Steele’s phrase, blacks suffer not from American racism but from a self-imposed “enemy-memory”; and what is particularly bad about this “enemy-memory” is that this “dangerously powerful memory . . . can pull us [blacks] into warlike defensiveness at a time when there is more opportunity for development [mobility] than ever before.”

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Duggan | University of California Press Gardels