The Race Problem and “Moral Innocence”

The Race Problem and “Moral Innocence”

In January 1988 Commentary magazine published an essay by a black professor of English at San Jose State University. “On Being Black and Middleclass” introduced Shelby Steele as a new interpreter of American race relations. Since then, Steele’s work has appeared regularly in some of our most prominent intellectual journals. Steele appears on national television and is quoted widely in editorials. At the university where I worked, one of his essays was distributed by an administration in search of campus racial quietude. Steele’s recent visibility may have more to do with ideological “utility” than with the power of his arguments. He has captured attention for having successfully appealed to sentiments floating around in the popular mind. He has tapped into the enduring American ideology of individual achievement and self sufficiency. Yet one cannot ignore the obvious.

Much of his intellectual capital lies in his blackness. His lack of profundity is concealed by the novelty of his voice as a nonliberal black. It is probably for this reason that Steele has become the black intellectual-of-choice among neoconservatives and establishment liberals.

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