- Created Award winning documentary film on Seven Days in Bensonhust
- In 1990, he received the National Book Critics Circle Award
- Robert J. and Marion E. Oster Senior Fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution 1994
- 2004 National Humanist Medalist from the National Endowment for the Humanities
- Labeled in Don Beck’s book The Crucible as having second tier thinking
Shelby Steele was born on January 1, 1946, in Chicago, Illinois to a black father and a white mother. His parents met as members of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). Steele grew up middle-class. His father was a truck driver, and his mother was a social worker.
Steele speaks fondly of his childhood. His father dropped out of school in the third grade. He drove a truck by day, yet at night was a voracious reader. Shelby Steele remembers him as having the gravitas of a university professor. Unfortunately, Steele’s father never acquired a job that would fully utilize his intellect.
Steele’s mother was white. Often interviewers ask how does his status as a mixed race individual affect his work. He replies that he does not see himself as mixed race. A white woman married to a black man in Chicago was treated as a black woman. The family lived in a segregated section of the city. So in his upbringing he was never viewed as having mixed or half-white identity.
As a college undergraduate in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Steele was active in Summer Community Organization and Political Education (SCOPE). SCOPE is affiliated with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Steele earned a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science from Coe College in 1968. He was one of eighteen black people that graduated that year.
After receiving a Masters degree in Sociology from Southern Illinois University, Steele continued his studies at the University of Utah. At the University of Utah, Steele also taught black literature. Steele recounts that he turned down a tenure position at the University of Utah because of animosity he experienced harassment due to his interracial marriage. After receiving his Ph.D. in English in 1974, he left Utah to teach at San Jose State University.
The 1990 PBS documentary Seven Days in Bensonhurst, was Steele first dive into the public debate on race. The PBS documentary told the story of Yusef Hawkins, a black man lynched in New York City in 1989. Two white men had been patrolling the neighborhood looking for a black man that had been dating one of the local white women. The two white men were convicted of the crime and served jail time. The documentary won Emmy Award, the Writer’s Guild Award, and the San Francisco Film Festival Award.
Seven Days in Bensonhust focused on how Hawkins death was used for political purposes. Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson brought in media attention and galvanized the public. The support for Hawkin’s killer being put to justice was used to empower black mayoral candidate David Dinkins. Hawkin’s father did not want his son’s death politicized. The documentary also show the vitriol black residents had for white politicians Ed Koch and Mario Cuomo.
In the book The Content of our Character first published September 1, 1990, Steele shows how we look at the person’s race instead of character. In the introduction to the book, Steele explains the tedious and often rehearsed racial dialogue in the news prompted him to write the book. In his opinion, people split their personal racial beliefs from their public racial beliefs. The goal of the book is to facilitate a more honest discussion on race.
The Content of our Character was followed by A Dream Deferred. He expands his previous analysis by saying American betrayed its core values by creating the racial preference system of Affirmative Action. The betrayal was motivated by a deep shame and remorse for its past racial wrongs.
It took Shelby Steele 10 years to make another PBS documentary. Jefferson’s Blood explores the evidence that President Thomas Jefferson fathered children by slave Sally Hemmings. The film details the DNA evidence and shows the reaction of Sally Hemings descendants that they are in fact related to Thomas Jefferson.
Steele takes on what he characterizes as an overcorrection for racism in his book published in 2006. White Guilt: How Blacks and Whites Together Destroyed the Promise of Civil Right explains how after the Civil Rights movement many white institutions attempted to correct their wrongs and avoid charges of racism by creating Affirmative Action. Unwittingly by creating Affirmative Action, they cast all black people as victims and not the equal of white people. The real problem in black America is the decline in mortality since the 1960’s.
A Bound Man: Why We Are Excited About Barack Obama and Why He Can’t Win is an exploration of how Obama’s mixed race heritage affects his politics. The book was published in 2007 after Obama declared his candidacy for the presidency. Steele says the title of “why he can’t win” was done to increase interest and he always believed he had a change. The book also delves into how black people function in a white society.
In Shelby Steele’s newest book Shame How America’s Past Sins Have Polarized The Country . In this book Steele gives his autobiography and shows how America has changed over many years. He asserts that people clinging to their identity as victims bits one demographic against another. Also, activist groups based on victimization all claim to have a monopoly on compassion. America is growing tired of requests for preference without any personal responsibility. These activist groups also garner prestige from dis-identity with America.
It is interesting to note that Shelby Steele’s identical twin brother, Claude Steele, is his ideological opposite. Claude Steele is a social psychologist that chief work is on how the knowledge of stereotypes affects people performance. Claude Steel coined the term stereotype threat to describe this phenomenon. Claude Steele has a Ph.D. from Ohio State University and was Vice Chancellor Provost at University of California, Berkeley.
For the rest of the series click HERE
- “Shelby Steele” http://www.blackpast.org
- ”The Content of Our Character” http://www.goodreads.com
- ”Shelby Steele” http://www.goodreads.com
- “Introduction” from The Content of our Character from http://browseinside.harpercollins.ca
- Summary of White Guilt found on http://www.harpers.com
- “Preface” from A Dream Deferred
- “A Bound Man” http://www.ontheissues.org
- “ Shelby Steele” http://www.neh.gov
- Synopsis of Jefferson’s Blood http://www.pbs.org
- Seven Days in Bensonhurst 05-15-1990 Frontline PBS Transcript
- Jefferson’s Blood 05-02-2000Frontline PBS Transcript