Skip to main content

Opinion Shelby Steele: 'Once you think of yourself as a victim, there’s no hope for you'

Shelby Steele, The Hoover Institution fellow and author, most recently of Shame: How America’s Past Sins Have Polarized Our Country.

Simon Hayter/The Globe and Mail

In this series, Rudyard Griffiths, chair of the Munk Debates, Canada's leading public-affairs forum, discusses issues and trends just over the horizon with renowned analysts and policy-makers.

Why is America, from Ferguson to Baltimore to the Black Lives Matter movement, experiencing a swell of black protest and anger?

I think we have come to a place in black America, sadly from my point of view, where we have once again begun to rely on our history of victimization as our primary source of power to wield within society. There is a great deal of dysfunction, frankly, and struggle within black America today. We're still far behind in most areas of life even though we have enjoyed, over the last 40 or 50 years, a degree of freedom that was unthinkable before the civil-rights movement. One of the ways we deal with this contradiction is to say, "This has nothing to do with us. It has once again to do with the fact that America is a fundamentally racist society, and we are victims." This pervasive sense of victimization is, in my view, the source of many of black America's difficulties.

Story continues below advertisement

What do you mean?

Blacks have experienced a history of victimization in America, beginning obviously in slavery and then another 100 years of segregation. I grew up in segregation. I know very well what it was about and all of the difficulties it placed on black life, and how we were truly held down before the civil-rights movement.

But that reality began to break up beginning in the sixties, all the way up to today, where we are not being held back any more. You can do pretty much anything you want to do in America as a black, including become president. Still, the legacy of our victimization, of our suffering and exclusion from the mainstream of American life, has left its mark. Our levels of performance in school and in employment are not much better than at the time of the civil-rights movement. In many cases, they're a little bit worse than they were before desegregation.

Rather than look at the reasons for why this is the case and try to understand them and move forward, many people continue to use victimization as a rationalization for our lagging behind American life. The fate of black America has been in our hands pretty much completely since the sixties. To continue to talk about victimization as the cause of black weakness and suffering in society today is a travesty that no one benefits from.

You think the idea "flat freedom" is a solution to what ails black America. What are you getting at?

Well, flat freedom is simply that we all enjoy the same rights and privileges and freedoms, period. Freedom in America was not always flat. Racism made it un-flat, so that some people had privileges over other people. Since that time, change in American life has come. We are now in a position where we might actually achieve flat freedom.

Let me give you an example. Most universities in America are practicing un-flat freedom and preferring certain groups over other groups in terms of admissions. What I would like to see is a flat freedom where, if you apply to a university, never in a thousand years is our race or our ethnicity taken into account. We simply compete as equals at all times. Under this scenario, maybe my group then begins to struggle. Maybe we're not going to be in universities to the degree that we once were under racial preferences and un-flat freedom. I think this is a critical incentive to become competitive, to evolve, to compete with those groups that are doing so well, rather than running away from that competition.

Story continues below advertisement

Competition is what is going to make us excellent and make us ultimately perform at the same level as other groups in society.

What about mass incarceration of black Americans or the extent to which they bear the brunt of growing economic inequality?

You're absolutely right. It is tough for a lot of people, but it's only going to stay tough as long as they continue to argue for racially preferential policies. It's Pavlovian. If you keep being rewarded for victimization, you keep thinking of yourself in those terms. It becomes an element, a theme, in your identity, your group identity and the way you see yourself as a person in American society. That's the kiss of death. Once you think of yourself as a victim, there's no hope for you. You can't redeem yourself. You can't redeem your children. You can't raise them to become truly independent individuals who function and are competitive in society. It is worse than, or certainly as bad as segregation was. Well over 70 per cent of all black children are born without a father. My God, that's human devastation. It's going to be very hard to raise up people who come out of situations like that. They're going to have to work three or four times as hard to become competitive with the rest of society. But there is no other way.

But what about all the people who won't be able to compete through no fault of their own? Are they written off by American society?

I didn't say it was easy. You can't snap your fingers and have all those barriers go away. But the point is that the desire for society to see us as victims who need to be helped by preferences only adds another barrier to our advancement. And it's the worst possible barrier because it's psychological. Before one has even tried to get in the game, to become educated or successful, you say to yourself, "Well, I can't do that." You then do the bidding of evil, in effect, of a blindness, a stupidity in society about human affairs, the idea that you can have a system of racial preferences make up for 300 years of slavery and 100 years of segregation. You know, please – that is not possible.

This interview has been edited and condensed

Story continues below advertisement

Subscribe to The Next Debate podcast on iTunes or visit http://www.munkdebates.com

Report an error Editorial code of conduct
Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to feedback@globeandmail.com. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters@globeandmail.com.

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff.

We aim to create a safe and valuable space for discussion and debate. That means:

  • Treat others as you wish to be treated
  • Criticize ideas, not people
  • Stay on topic
  • Avoid the use of toxic and offensive language
  • Flag bad behaviour

Comments that violate our community guidelines will be removed.

Read our community guidelines here

Discussion loading ...

Cannabis pro newsletter