A couple days ago, a friend shared an article entitled “Black Protest Has Lost Its Power,” by prestigious black conservative author Shelby Steele. I expected erudition and probably some general disagreement. I did not expect it to be as strained as it was, however. While I never put too much stock in the NFL protests, Dr. Steele’s essay shows me that some conservatives need a major pacifier over this, and that means his take is worthy of review.
“Not ready for freedom”
Dr. Steele’s thesis is that the NFL protests essentially flopped, and that because we have entered an era in which racism is no longer really an issue of oppression, so protests don’t really have much affect on anyone anymore. There is a token nod that racism still exists, but it is not major enough to be a problem. Thus, anyone protesting about it is really just projecting a victimization narrative they’ve dreamed up in their own head. And the reason for this—get this—is that blacks simply couldn’t handle freedom.
These few comments capture the main point:
The oppression of black people is over with. . . . We blacks are, today, a free people. It is as if freedom sneaked up and caught us by surprise. . . .
This is what replaced racism as our primary difficulty. Blacks had survived every form of human debasement with ingenuity, self-reliance, a deep and ironic humor, a capacity for self-reinvention and a heroic fortitude. But we had no experience of wide-open freedom. . . .
We can say that past oppression left us unprepared for freedom. This is certainly true. But it is no consolation. . . . Freedom holds us accountable no matter the disadvantages we inherit from the past. The tragedy in Chicago—rightly or wrongly—reflects on black America. . . .
That’s why . . . . We conjure elaborate narratives that give white racism new life in the present: “systemic” and “structural” racism, racist “microaggressions,” “white privilege,” and so on. All these narratives insist that blacks are still victims of racism, and that freedom’s accountability is an injustice. . . .
The NFL protests were not really about injustice. Instead such protests are usually genuflections to today’s victim-focused black identity.
One of the many (I stress many) things I learned about the history of race in America while writing The Problem of Slavery in Christian America is the insidious way racist forces could work to perpetuate the realities of the old order under various new forms even when the official forms of it were allegedly done and gone. No sooner had slavery officially ended in 1865 than the southern states were doing end-runs around the federal mandates with their black codes—systems of law, drawn straight from the old slave codes in many cases, designed to segregate, rob, control, and oppress “free” blacks, even literally enslaving them in “convict” labor through the prison system over minor infractions.
This was followed by the same types of new forms throughout the Jim Crow era, “separate but equal,” and on in to the 20th century, coupled with Klan terror the whole way.
The whole time, white leaders openly berated blacks and openly stated their goal was to push them to the fringes of society and keep them segregated from white folk and white “Christian” culture—all the while arguing things like: “What are you talking about? Slavery is over. You guys have your freedom; what are you complaining about? Quit pretending you’re victims now.”
It is deeply saddening to see Dr. Steele repeating the very arguments today that slaveowners used for centuries to keep blacks in slavery. One of the commonest was like Steele’s argument here: the African is not ready for freedom; he must stay in slavery!
As soon as blacks were “freed,” whites repeated the taunt: look how you are suffering along! See, we told you, you aren’t able to handle freedom!
Just so you know I’m not making this up, just one quotation from the book relates how a journalist in Selma in 1866 observed a chain gang of blacks forced to sweep streets under “convict labor.” He taunted them: “That’s the beauty of freedom! That’s what free niggers come to!”1
The same was said throughout the eras of black oppression. It is not uncommon to hear it still from hard-core alt-right types, such as a guy who graced my facebook wall yesterday calling out my alleged naivete in regard to “the true nature of the negro” and how he is being used by liberals in an effort to destroy white Christian civilization.
It is even more discouraging, however, to see purportedly educated men like Dr. Shelby Steele using the same argument yet again today. Dr. Steele’s argument, if it were to hold, would go well beyond washing white hands clean of any problem, it would actually exonerate the slaveholders who made that argument first: blacks cannot handle freedom. The reader can fill in the “therefore.”
In Dr. Steele’s case, being charitable, that “therefore” may be followed merely with “they have no one to blame but themselves.” The fact that conservatives seem so quick to look for one thing and one thing only in all of this—an argument by which to exonerate themselves right now and to sweep under the rug any further facts or discussion—suggests that they are still not interested in treating blacks as equal members of their social community, or reaching out to help those who need it on a personal private level first instead of standing and criticing them in their conditions.
Dr. Steele further suggests that blacks have simply created a false narrative in their own minds to justify their inability to handle freedom: “When you don’t know how to go forward, you never just sit there; you go backward into what you know, into what is familiar and comfortable and, most of all, exonerating. You rebuild in your own mind the oppression that is fading from the world. . . .”
The creation of his own thesis here is certainly illustrative in one respect: it shows how easily false narratives can indeed be crafted. While I would join Dr. Steele in acknowledging that the left does use victimization narratives, and that blacks could indeed be deceived by them, this hardly accounts for all the facts and data, let alone all the humanity of it.
What I see more prominently, or at the very least just as prominently, is the victimization narratives created by many on the right. While we don’t like to own up to our own behavior in this regard, it is clear, and just like the refashioning of slave codes, etc., it started almost immediately after the Civil War. It reached a crescendo in the “Lost Cause” mythology beginning in the 1880s, and with the second rise of the KKK and Birth of a Nation in 1915. I have been confronted multiple times now with the narrative that liberals only use the race issue to gain leverage over Christian America—a watered-down version of the old hard-racist complaint. All of Christian civilization is apparently a victim of George Soros, the Frankfurt School, and “Cultural Marxism.”
Believe what you will about the forces beyond your control, but please don’t spout this type of conspiratorial nonsense and then complain that liberals use victimization narratives.
Dr. Steele is at his most objectionable when he panders directly to this conservative victim complex and turns the meaning of history on its head. He says, “But the NFL protests may be a harbinger of change. They elicited considerable resentment. . . .”
This statement should evoke dismay. How is a black protest provoking “considerable resentment” a “harbinger of change”? What century did Dr. Steele not just live through? What black protest in the nation did not ever provoke considerable resentment. If there is any change here, it is that the resentment this time did not involve fire hoses in the streets.
Then he gives us the very thing conservatives have been exercised about—fake news. He says the “counterprotest” against blacks involves this: “TV viewership has gone down. Ticket sales have dropped.” Except, that myth has been so easily busted as a classic case of “correlation not causation” by simply showing, among many other things, the same is true for NASCAR.
But instead of do anything more than offer fake news that would evoke amens from a Fox News viewership, Dr. Steele weaves it into a false narrative of white fearlessness! “What is remarkable,” he says, “about this response is that it may foretell a new fearlessness in white America . . . to say to blacks what they really think and feel, . . .”
I had already thought that Dr. Steele’s article was insincere pandering before I got to this point, but if this doesn’t seal it, then the reader has the level of oblivion that bespeaks a total bereavement of any critical thinking skills. Even if the fact were true that whites were boycotting NFL games over this, what a joke it would be to consider the great sacrifice of staying home from a ball game an act of “fearlessness.” (And who wants to bet they still watched it at home anyway?)
But, fearlessness? Where were all the fearless white conservatives when the black cause could have used some white fearlessness on its side? (Just probably didn’t think they were ready for freedom, eh?) But now, a ball boycott means we’re not only fearless, but no longer deferential! Steele says, “We blacks have lived in a bubble since the 1960s because whites have been deferential for fear of being seen as racist.”
There is a modicum of truth in this statement: whites have had to live with a modicum of basic manners for years now. Especially in the South, ever since the triumph of the civil rights movement, whites have had to hold their tongue in public. “Nigger” just didn’t fly anymore (for some reason). It was certainly no longer helpful to winning public office or keeping your classroom or restaurant dining rooms all white.
Pretending that any restraint of whites today was actually against judging blacks “fairly by standards that are universal” is to pervert the history that passed in the interim. The restraint that came with the civil rights movement was against the backdrop of the previous refusal of equal treatment for blacks before the law, not white demand for it. Steele’s narrative turns history on its head and pretends whites have been the victims, living in fear of being called racist—and for what, no longer saying blacks can’t handle freedom, the way the same whites had done for ten generations? It seems Dr. Steele wants to go back to the way things used to be.
There is no doubt that there is much on which I would agree with Dr. Steele. We would agree that government welfare programs are not the answer, that victimization narratives do exist and are abused, and perhaps that the effects of the NFL protests are questionable (although, considering the massive media attention given them, and the need of conservatives to leverage so prestigious a figure as Shelby Steele to deal with it still in January 2018, may speak well otherwise). But one thing on which we would certainly disagree is Dr. Steele’s clumsy, reverse-victimizing, politically polarizing, “fake news,” and generally unsophisticated way of trying to dismiss the issue. There is a need to speak of individual responsibility, but this is hardly it. It will do nothing but perpetuate the problems—and worse, it does so in a way cringingly evocative of the old slave masters, black codes, Klan, and Jim Crow segregations always did themselves.
To be clear, I don’t think the left has any good answers. It’s just that they seized upon he failures of the conservatives and churches—and they were right to do so. I am a biblical Christian conservative, and I say Christians and conservatives have much better tools on hand to be able to do much better than they have, and certainly better than Dr. Steele shows here.