BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Shelby Steele, author of "A Dream Deferred." You talk about your father in this book a little bit, talk--say he's a--more of a persuader than an intimidator. What did you mean by that?
Mr. SHELBY STEELE (Author, "A Dream Deferred"): Well, literally, he was a--he was a--he liked to talk and he liked to think and he was a very--his approach was to--he wanted people to feel--to identify with his position on things, not just to agree with him, but to--to see the--to--to actually identify with the position. And so, he--he mu--was much more interested in persuading someone to see why he was taking the position that he was taking, than actually making them sign onto the position itself.
LAMB: Is he still alive?
Mr. STEELE: No, he's not. He died in 1976. He was born in--in 1900 and--so I was a--I was born when he was 46 years--years of age, kind of a late--late child.
LAMB: What did he do in his life?
Mr. STEELE: He was a truck driver for 40 years in the city of Chicago and--and worked for the printing company that--that supplied Mayor Daley with much of his--his printing.
LAMB: When you think back on your association with him, what do you remember?
Mr. STEELE: With my father? Oh, boy. He was--he was, you know, a very gentle person. And I think--but what I think I remember most of all is that he was always thinking about--he--he was the kind of person who--who both lived life and thought about life. And so you--you never talked to him without ge--getting some benefit of insight. He was always trying to put things together, trying to figure things out and, you know, he--I suppose the word that--is wisdom. He had a kind of wisdom, I think.
LAMB: What did he teach you about this issue that you talk about here, "A Dream Deferred"?
Mr. STEELE: Well, he--he and I my mother met in the civil rights movement. They were both--they were both founding members of CORE in Chicago, the Congress of Racial Equality, in the very early '40s and they met--that's where they met. So the--they were passionate about civil rights and racial issues, certainly all the time that I--that I was ali--I grew up in that milieu and it was a subject that we--we constantly talked about and explored in--in family life and you know, they--they--their attitude was very much of the classic civil rights attitude, that--that race was something that was used to defeat the humanity of people, and that--that--that it was an emptiness in itself and something that was used against human beings. And I think, probably, I--in my own work, I--I still have that spirit and so when I--when I say a kind of dream deferred, I s--I suppose that--my sense is that--that we're still not quite there. We still, in America, have uses for race and so I think the dream of being fully human is--is--has been deferred a bit.
LAMB: What was your mom like?
Mr. STEELE: My mom was--was another amazing person. She had a--my father had a--was--third-grade education. My mother had a master's degree in social work from the University of Chicago. Very--again, very formidable, forceful woman. She's the kind of woman, I think, that if she had lived in a different age, would have been a senator or something. She was busy in the community. She was c--sort off a community organizer, an activist a--as well as her profession and one of these sort of very strong, indomitable, sort of, women.
LAMB: Is she still alive?
Mr. STEELE: No, she--she died in 1983.
LAMB: Did--would they be surprised if they came back and saw--a chapter in your book says, `The loneliness of the black conservative.'
Mr. STEELE: They would probably--if they came back and didn't see the evolution to that, be--be absolutely shocked. They were, obviously, in that day and age, in--in--clearly liberal in their--their point of view. But I try to make a distinction in there. They--they were--they were liberals of--what I call a freedom focus kind of liberalism, where the focus is on giving--providing the maximum amount of freedom to the individual. I--I'm not sure they would have signed onto what I call, an--in this book, redemptive liberalism, where we focus more on groups and identities and so forth. I think they--they might well have--have seen the why--in other words, th--what--what is conservative to me today is what was liberal to them then.
LAMB: Were they both black?
Mr. STEELE: No, my mother was white...
Mr. STEELE: ...from the...
LAMB: What did that do to the--your--when you grew up in schools you went to and the--your friends and all that?
Mr. STEELE: Not much. I grew up in--again, in a segregated society. It was still in--in Chicago and so we lived in a black world, entirely. My mother lived there as well, and her--her friendships--most of them were there and she was very well known and--and I think loved in that community. And--so, you know, I think inside our family, it was--it was interesting. I mean, I imagine it made life a little bit more complicated, but it was not much of a--not much of an issue in the community itself.
LAMB: Where did you live in Chicago?
Mr. STEELE: In--in Phoenix, Illinois, just off the South Side of Chicago.
LAMB: You reference in your book, John Howard Griffin's "Black Like Me." Why?
Mr. STEELE: It was a big book when I was--when I was young and--in the--in the early '60s. And--and again, he was a--a white man who chemically died his skin dark and then went to the South and passed, ironically, for black. And I--I mentioned him in this book because one of the points I make is that I think one effect of the civil rights movement was to make white Americans a stigmatized group by--as honorable as it was for them to have--to admit to the centuries of wrongdoing and racial oppression, along with it came the shame--this racial shame and--and a kind of stigma. So that now--today we--whites are stigmatized as racists. We can--you know, we--we--they are presumed--we can charge them with this--with this--this--this crime, whether they are or not. And that stigmatization, I think again, is one of the driving forces of our--of race relations in America today.
The reason--long way around, is with--with John Howard Griffin, is that he took on the black stigma and that was his fascination, was what is it like to be stigmata? What is it like to wear that stigma of inferiority and he--and he--his whole book was: Here's life behind the stigma. And so I've used him to s--to say that we probably need a white like me today. We need someone to go behind the stigma of what it's like to always be on the defensive, to always have to prove the negative, that I'm not a racist. And to be in that--that position, seems to me, w--it would be enlightening and I think helpful to have some comment on that today.
LAMB: Did that book have any impact back then? What year was it? Do you remember when it came out?
Mr. STEELE: It was--I shouldn't say, but I think--I seem to remember the--the sort of, early mid-'60s it was popular. It had no impact on me. I--I resented the book. I thought it was--it re--as I mentioned here, I thought it reduced all of the black experience to the experience of bearing the stigma. And to me, black life was so much more complicated and rich and varied and there was racism and there was stigmatization, but there were so many other things. And--and it seemed to me to be a book written almost entirely to a white audience. And--and s--again as I say--to sort of say, this is to be aghast at the black experience, rather than--than to see the black experience.
LAMB: When did you comfortably call yourself a black conservative?
Mr. STEELE: I don't know if I'm ever entirely comfortable with that or any other label. But I came--I was called that relentlessly. I didn't--I would--I did not start out calling myself that, but...
LAMB: Can you remember the exact time that this happened?
Mr. STEELE: I think when I started to write this book. I said, why fight it?
LAMB: When did you start writing the book?
Mr. STEELE: About--sort of the beginning of '9--of '96, I--I sat down--I tried to write some--s--another book and this was the one that--that seemed to want to be written. And so--and it seemed to want to start there, with, `OK, I am.' Or, `Let's say I am a--a black conservative and what does that mean?' And--and it--it works in that long opening essay as a kind of a conceit, as a way--a device that I can--can use to get into sor--all sorts of issues.
LAMB: When you listen to Rush Limbaugh, he talks about his newsletter being out there--a--it--in some time frame, this is being taped for, obviously, s--couple weeks before it runs, in which he talks about his interview with you in there. Wh--what do you--what's that do for you that you're in the Rush Limbaugh newsletter and he is promoting the fact that he's talking to you in there? Does that--what's that mean?
Mr. STEELE: I'm happy and honored to talk to--to--to most anybody who--who wants to talk to me. I think Rush Limbaugh is--is an intelligent and serious commentator on--on affairs and I admit to--to listening to him, and so I was honored to be--to be in his newsletter and interviewed by him. Now i--the perception, of course, will be on the other side that--that--you know, that I'm sort of doing business with the devil and this was--I suppose people who have that--that negative view of black conservatives would--would say, well you--you know, I'm a devil as well. My feeling is that--that, why should be write anybody off? Why shouldn't everybody be--be talked to and--and--and I'm open.
LAMB: Well, I really asked that because you talk about a meeting with a liberal doctor...
Mr. STEELE: Yes.
LAMB: ...who s--what did he tell--I mean, set the scene for us. Where was it that you had this dinner? Do you remember?
Mr. STEELE: It was at a friend's house and--who--who invited both of us to dinner and I guess told him that I was a black conservative and so when I walked in the door he said, `I'm very proud to be a liberal.'
LAMB: Right away?
Mr. STEELE: Right away. That was his introduction.
LAMB: Was he white or black?
Mr. STEELE: He was white. And it--it sort of went on--went on from there for that evening and then I've had subsequent encounters with him.
LAMB: Why did he feel the need to tell you that we was a liberal?
Mr. STEELE: I think that--well, I think on a larger level, the--the idea of a black conservative is disturbing to--to--to liberals. It--it's--it's an in--it does not confirm their sense of their own virtue. Their virtue is, in many ways, tied to this idea that blacks are victims and that--and that--who have to be helped and--and so forth. And the black conservative is--is--is someone who in a sense, says no, we have to really be responsible for ourselves, whether or not you help--help. And so, there--there--the--the black conservative makes the liberal feel obsolete, irrelevant on some level, aside from the--the obvious sur--surface disagreements, th--the ideological disagreements that the--two might have. There's this, I think, sense of--if--if I really go along with you and accept that, then in a sense, my own politics, my own idea of virtuousness becomes obsolete.
LAMB: Was this doctor a PhD or a medical doctor?
Mr. STEELE: He was a medical doctor. He was a medical doctor.
LAMB: Has--have either one of you changed your mind in the course of your discussions?
Mr. STEELE: Not that I know of. Not that I know of. And--but I hope to continue to--to have discussions with him.
LAMB: When does he say things to you that you don't--just don't agree with, you don't like?
Mr. STEELE: Well, much of what he says, I--I don't agree with and don't like. He does not get--he does not--and--and I'm--I'm thankful for the discussions I've had with him because he's--he helped me get through this--this section of the book and--and has sort of, you know, been an engine to--to my thinking in th--in this area. What I would--what I see as paternalism, he sees as genuine caring, and--and I suppose the--the crux of our differences--he thinks you should help people no matter what. I think people should help themselves no matter what. And that--that once they do help themselves, then obviously, it's very good to support them. But he would--he would support and give before he got--before they--they--they began to help themselves.
And--and his idea is that there are people in--and he--this is where we really have our painful disagreements. His idea is that there are people who are genuinely helpless and that--that have no real potential for helping themselves until they are lifted or--or--and--and--and--and helped by others. My feeling is that that's not true. There are certainly people who f--have disabilities and--and--and so forth, who--who--who are helpless and we--obviously, we don't disagree that we ought to help. But my feeling is that people often are classified as helpless when they're, in fact, not. They just don't have the ideas and the values to--to understand that.
LAMB: When did you leave Chicago?
Mr. STEELE: I left a long time ago. I really left after--in the mid-'60s when I went away to college in Iowa and...
LAMB: Which school?
Mr. STEELE: ...I went back for summers, but I never--never really went back to live. I went to a small college called Coe College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, C-O-E, very good little liberal arts college.
LAMB: Why did you pick that?
Mr. STEELE: My mother told me that I'd be better off in a small school. And so I only applied to two and this one gave me a little bit more--maybe $100 more financial aid at the time than the other one. So it was--that did it.
LAMB: You--you say you live in a segregated community in Chicago. When you went to Coe College, what was the mix?
Mr. STEELE: Boy, when I first went to Coe College, this was before affirmative action, this was 1964. There were, I think, nine of--nine blacks on campus, if I remember the number right. Somebody will probably write me and say there were more, but there were--there were about nine. And alm--all of us were boys, the--except for one. There was one girl in my class and maybe one girl in the class ahead of me. And that was it. And a student body of about 1,000. And we didn't think anything, you know, particularly about that. I mean, that was the way things were at that point in time. And we came out of this--the integrationist ethic of the civil rights movement and we demanded to have roommates that were not of the same race and--and--and so forth, and I think that worked well.
LAMB: What did you study?
Mr. STEELE: I was a political science major in undergraduate school. And I--I had a varied sort of--my first degree was in political science and my MA was in sociology and then I have a PhD in literature. So I--it took me a while to--to settle in.
LAMB: Where did you get your MA in sociology?
Mr. STEELE: Southern Illinois University in Edwardsville and I got my PhD at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City.
LAMB: And after that what?
Mr. STEELE: I began to teach at San Jose State University in San Jose, California.
LAMB: You say in your book that you participated or worked in four different great society programs. What were they?
Mr. STEELE: Yeah. I sure did. I started out at a--at an Upward--what's called an Upward Bound program at the University of Iowa in the summer and it was a program that they--they took high school kids and they brought them into the city and exposed them to a--an educational program and cultural events and so forth for eight weeks, I think it was, eight or 10 weeks. And so I was--I started my first one was--I was a counselor in that--that program. And then I went to at le--to two other Upward Bound programs, one in Minneapolis and one in east St. Louis, Illinois, and I spent three years in east St. Louis, when I--right after I got out of college as a counselor in the Upward Bound program and then we had a--one for college students called Experiment in Higher Education. And I spent two years in that.
LAMB: What did you do--what did you do this for? What was your reason?
Mr. STEELE: I was committed. This was the--this was the '60s and my parents had been committed before me and--and--so, you know, I didn't even think about it. It was just--it was just something that--that sort of come out of my--my family's commitment to civil rights and my own sense of what I wanted to do with my life. I had really no idea at that point of--about writing. And so I was really happy at that point to have the opportunity to do that kind of work and in that kind of--of an extremely deprived community.
LAMB: What were you learn--what did you learn about those programs?
Mr. STEELE: Oh, boy. I learned that they--they've been extremely helpful to me in thinking, because I--I look back, and what did we do? There were some students that we--that we helped an enormous amount. But very often, those students came from--again, I didn't--we didn't get them until they were either the last few years of high school or first two years of college. Those students were--had somehow, through parents or community, gotten the idea that they could do something, that they could take their fate in their own hands, that they could move forward, that America was--was open. And they really benefited from that exp--the experience of the program. There were many, probably the vast majority, sad to say, who did not have that idea. And, you know--and we didn't do a very good job, looking back ins--instilling that idea. Maybe we could have done better and maybe the programs would have--would have worked better. But it--it didn't help those. So it helped--it helped people who already sort of had some sense that they could, through their own th--through their own efforts, they could make a life for themselves.
LAMB: You--you're at Hoover Institution now.
Mr. STEELE: Right.
LAMB: How did you get there? What--at what time in your life did you go there?
Mr. STEELE: I've been there about four years now. So I...
LAMB: Where--where were you right before that?
Mr. STEELE: I taught at San Jose State for almost 20 years, in San Jose, California, in the English department there.
LAMB: What do you do at Hoover in Palo Alto?
Mr. STEELE: I write these books.
LAMB: How many have you written?
Mr. STEELE: This is the second one on race.
LAMB: And the first one was what?
Mr. STEELE: The--the first one was, "The Content of our Character," which was...
LAMB: What was that--what happened after that came out?
Mr. STEELE: Well, it changed my life, changed my...
LAMB: In what way?
Mr. STEELE: In many, many ways. It sort of got me involved--I'd been, you know, a literature professor and still sort of I s--I suppose that's still my basic identity and--but it got me involved really, on a much more public level with--with racial issues and racial--racial matters and so--since that time, that's pretty much what I've devoted my--my time to.
LAMB: What--what's the reaction on--I mean, do--do you ever--y--what do you--what's your special nickname in here for college campuses?
Mr. STEELE: Well, I call them little puritan villages, I think, it--in one place. Maybe I shouldn't have, but...
LAMB: Why--why do you call them that?
Mr. STEELE: Well, you know, because they--they have--because they--going around, I went around to--to--to many--over the last several years, they subscribe to an orthodoxy. They just do and they--they really--they really do subscribe to the--to a racial orthodoxy in which it is appropriate to talk about blacks and the black experience in a context of racism and victimization. And it is inappropriate to talk about blacks and the black experience in a context of responsibility, of personal responsibil--it's just simply verboten.
LAMB: Who--who s--who establishes this?
Mr. STEELE: It is--it is a part of the--the culture. I think it comes from--from probably more from the faculties there than--than--than you--you'll probably find more variation often in the students than in the faculties.
LAMB: How do they treat you when you go there to speak?
Mr. STEELE: Cooly. Cool--w--with coolness.
LAMB: Ever hostile?
Mr. STEELE: Yes. Yes.
LAMB: What do they say to you?
Mr. STEELE: They call me--you know, I've been called names.
Mr. STEELE: Uncle Tom, obviously, and I'm trying to--house slave, some ugly names.
LAMB: Are these by whites or blacks?
Mr. STEELE: These are--this is--these names have been by--by black students. But, again, as I say in the book, they're not the majority. They're--they tend to be a--a vocal minority, but they're--they're invariably there. And as I also talk about in the book, that never bothers me. You expect that there's always a minority of people who have these feelings, but what often bothered me is the utter silence of the faculties and the--the--even the presidents of universities, who would sit in the front--the front row and tolerate this kind of--of breakdown in decorum, and be afraid themselves to stand up and say something to these students.
So again, it was--when I look back on it now, it was a--it was a blessing, because right there in front of me would--would be this--this whole dynamic of American race relations playing out. The s--the white--the lack of moral authority in the white community, the fe--so--so fearful of, again, of being called racist themselves, that they had no ability to enforce their own principles, their own rules of decorum. Black students, you know, again, an activist core of black students, using that void of power to then assert themselves and demand things. Then other black students sor--again, like the whites, afraid to stand up themselves and say much because then they would be stigmatized, like me as an Uncle Tom who's letting whites off the hook, and so then you're in a situation where this--the--the--this sort of small radical group controls the whole scene. And to some degree, that's America today. That's our--our race--our race relations are--we go to Louis Farrakhan and give him a great deal more media time and attention than we do to Thomas Sowell or Shelby Steele, or any number of--of other--of other people. That's the--those are the ones who control the--the moral authority of the larger society, and keep--keep us in this sort of--frozen in this way.
LAMB: You write about a column written by Cokie and Steve Roberts about J.C. Watts. What's the point?
Mr. STEELE: The point was that they wrote a--they wrote a column and--and they--where they sort of--after, you know--gave him a kind of backhanded compliment and where--I---the--where--I forget, I think it had to do with the Republican Convention and J.C. Watts was giving a speech and he made the point that he had come up--his father had--had inspired him and how he'd overcome great obstacles and so forth. And they sort of used Colin Powell to--to sort of, I guess, wi--give a kind of black--backhanded slap to J.C. Watts by saying that Colin Powell on the--you know, though he, too, had come up, he understood that there were people who couldn't make it on their own, therefore, certain programs were justified and so forth. So in a sense, they--they--they used Colin Powell to support liberalism--liberal interventionism, as I call it in the book.
My point was that when, you know--is when you get blacks like J.C. Watts, who are self-made, who have--who have made it through--through self-help, then we say that their success proves that the--the failure to be the rule, that they're the exception that proves the rule. And so--so blacks who are successful, and I've had this happen with me and oth--many, many others, are sort of used just to prove the rule of black failure, that--that--no, I--I don't think that I--I--you know, J.C. Watts may be very talented and so forth, but they're--but there are millions of blacks who--who could do similar things, if they were asked to do it, if we expected it in this society. Where--where Cokie Roberts and her husband Steve Roberts failed was to say what they expected of black Americans. What are they asking? And, of course, nothing. What they're s--they--they go back to the other side and say, `Well, here's some programs we can offer.'
To me, the great failure of this--this redemptive liberalism, is the fact that it asks nothing of the--from the people who it--who it seeks to help.
LAMB: How did you end up at Hoover? Was Thomas Sowell there--Tom Sowell?
Mr. STEELE: Thomas Sowell is there. Yes, he is. And probably had something to do with my coming there and--and then I was invited by the--the director of the Hoover Institution, John Razion, to come in and talk. And so I did and--and over time, I was invited to join. So...
LAMB: How big a place is it?
Mr. STEELE: It's a--it's a pretty big place. It's right in the cen--in the center of the--of Stanford's campus. It has its own, sort of, huge landmark, Hoover Tower, and then it has two office buildings, very nice. And it's an absolutely wonderful place to--to be associated with. The people you meet there and talk to--and again, my background is--has been in literature and to meet people who are economists and so forth and get a sense of how--how other th--how history works and--and economics work and--and so forth has just been really gratifying to me.
LAMB: Who funds it?
Mr. STEELE: Well, boy, that's a--that's a g--I'm--I can't say I'm absolutely sure about that. I mean, originally, I think the money came from the Hoover family and they're still--the--the--the--they're still very much involved--very actively involved. And then they do fund-raising and--and there are any number of donors who--who feel that the work there is--is valuable.
LAMB: Are there people there that we know by name?
Mr. STEELE: Oh, at the Hoover Institute? Oh, sure. Milton Friedman is there. George Schultz is there. These are some of the--the--the bigger--the bigger names. Thomas Sowell is there.
LAMB: How many people work there? How many people like you are there, writing and thinking and talking?
Mr. STEELE: I should know the number, but I don't know the number. But it's somewhere, probably, at least over 80, I would imagine. But don't quote me on that. I'm not--I'm not acc--absolutely sure. But--and they also bring in people for brief periods of time. The--they have sabbaticals and internships and--and so--many people from the media are constantly coming through and so forth.
LAMB: Are you married?
Mr. STEELE: Yes, I am.
LAMB: When did you marry?
Mr. STEELE: I married 32 years ago. And I met my wife at--at Coe College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and we got married even before I graduated from there.
LAMB: And this book is dedicated to Rita.
Mr. STEELE: Yes.
LAMB: Is that your wife?
Mr. STEELE: That's my wife. My wife Rita.
LAMB: What--what does she do?
Mr. STEELE: She is a psychol--a clinical psychologist in Monterey, California, where we live, and she has her own private practice and has now for 20 or so years.
LAMB: And is she white or black?
Mr. STEELE: She's white.
LAMB: Again, the mixed marriage thing in this society compared to when your parents were growing up.
Mr. STEELE: Mm-hmm.
LAMB: What's the difference in this day and age than, say, 30, 40 years ago in Chicago? Anything?
Mr. STEELE: Well, yes. When--when I was growing up, it was the white community that was adamantly against it, and now it's probably more the minority communities that are--that are--that feel offended by it and...
Mr. STEELE: ...object to it. They th--they--they see it as a kind of threat to the--to racial solidarity of--of the group, and so, therefore, it w--when--when--again, when I was growing up, it--that was not the case. The--if you were interracially married, you--it--you know, you lived in the black community. And--but that's no longer the case. Now it is the black community that's--that's probably more sensitive to it than...
LAMB: Is there any downside today at all in this society of being interracially married?
Mr. STEELE: Well, you know, I've never lived in any other circumstance, and so I'm probably not the best one to comment on it, you know, and I don't--I never think of it as th--I don't--I didn't think of it growing up as an interracial marriage. I thought of it as--as--as my mother and father, and I don't think of it that way now. And so I w--I would--I probably do have immunities that maybe other people who are in interracial marriages don't have. It just isn't something that--that has--you know, who my wife is and, you know--and she's Jewish and she has her own cultural background in which I have been greatly enriched by, and, I think, vice versa. That's just--it's--it's--the--the--whatever disadvantages there--there may have been have been so outweighed by--by the--the exposure to--the expansion of--of myself as an individual that--that I feel blessed.
LAMB: When it comes to all the issues that you talk about in your book, do you ever get a stomachache anymore with the race issue?
Mr. STEELE: Oh, it can get to me. It can get to me. Sure.
LAMB: What does it?
Mr. STEELE: When I see a s--you know, when--when I see us using our race or trading on our race rather than developing ourself, it--it--and I talk about it in the book. What--when I look back at black history--one of the things I taught in--in--as--as a literature professor was black American literature and African literature, so I've done a lot of work in that--in that area. And when I look back on--on black American culture, what makes me so proud is not our race, not our blackness, but our humanity, the--the fact that--that our blackness was never--we never allowed it to defeat our humanity. It was our humanity that saw us through right...
LAMB: What does that mean?
Mr. STEELE: What it means is that we--we now have--are very confused by that. We now think that it's--`I'm black and I'm proud, and it was my blackness that did something.' It--our blackness did nothing. It was u--it was used by white America at that time to oppress us, it was used against us, and a--against our humanity. And it was--our humanity was so tenacious, it's w--our--our story is one of the great human stories in the world that we were able to withstand that oppression and--and to--to persevere and--and come--come through to today.
And to get to--to this point and now embrace our race rather than our humanity seems to me to finally have come to a point where we are almost agreeing with--with those who oppressed us. It--we--we, I think, have to continue to fight for our humanity, and despite our race--our race will never--it has no talents, it has no special gifts. It's just a color. But as human beings, we--we have everything that all--that all others have, and that's what, I think, we have to rely on.
LAMB: You talk about the culture of preferences. What does that mean?
Mr. STEELE: What it means is that the--the--that, I think, beginning sort of in the late '60s and--we--we sort of settled into this racial negotiation between whites and blacks where--where, in a sense, white culture coming out of affirmative action said, `Well, we'll give you a cer--we'll give you--we will defer to you. We'll show bl'--and--and again, `To sort of win our own redemption from our history, we will show you deference in license.'
And--and it seems to me that--that white America, since the--the early '70s, has--has wor--has approached black America through these two themes of--of deference and offer--by showing deference and offering license; welfare, where you're not expected to work or to educate yourself or to develop skills. So, again, deference and license; affirmative action, which says, `We will give a preference, we will lower the expectation, the bar. Out of deference to you, we will grant you a certain license.' These have been the themes of racial reform in America, and I--and I--the sense that the early se--and they s--early '70s and they comprise a ki--what I call the cultural preference that I think has been debilitating to black Americans and has--has--again, a kind--as I call it, a kind of second betrayal.
LAMB: Have you ever felt that people have considered you a quota in anything or a preference?
Mr. STEELE: Well, that's one of my points. One of the most pernicious aspects of affirmative action is that no black American today can go to college and be free of the stigma of affirmative action. It's just not a--it's just--it's just impossible. I--I--I like to brag and say I went to college before there was affirmative action, and every black I know who went to college before the--there was affirmative action brags about it, is proud of it, makes sure everybody knows that they went before affirmative action. And--and--and I suppose I--I suppose I'm like that, too. I don't think affirmative action has actually had a lot to do with my--with my career. I was never at a big Ivy League university and--until very recently. And so I--I don't think so, and--and I reject affirmative action. If I think there is something having to do with--if--if--if it's somehow coming to me, I--I wanna be sure to reject it.
LAMB: You had a lunch in here that you open up with early with a black journalist female. What--where was that and what was that story all about?
Mr. STEELE: She came to visit me in Monterey for--and to do an interview and--with me about race in America, and--and because I was sort of, you know, quotes, "the--a--a black conservative" and so forth. And so we had lunch and I describe the lunch--or a little bit about the lunch that--that--that we had here.
LAMB: Where'd you have lunch?
Mr. STEELE: We had lunch at a hotel right down the street from my office in Monterey.
LAMB: Where? In Monterey.
Mr. STEELE: Right, in Monterey.
LAMB: So you live in Monterey.
Mr. STEELE: I live in Monterey, right.
LAMB: And wh--where did she work?
Mr. STEELE: She worked for--maybe I shouldn't say where she worked. I might...
LAMB: Big paper or small paper?
Mr. STEELE: Big--it was--it's certainly a big national news outfit, yes.
LAMB: And what was the tenor of the lunch?
Mr. STEELE: Well, it was a little tense, not unlike other interviews I--I had--I've had like that. It was a little tense. She didn't agree with me. She--she could not quite accept this idea of--of a black conservative, and she thought that victimization was our number one problem in America and that--I said it was lower down on the list. And--and she--she thought it--it was still number one and that we ought to really be vociferous and vocal about that.
LAMB: Has she--was she writing a story about you?
Mr. STEELE: She was writing a story, yeah. I don't think the story was on me, but it was a story that she wanted to talk to me about.
LAMB: Why, as a journalist, was she showing you a point of view, do you think?
Mr. STEELE: It's interesting. When I'm interviewed by minority journalists, very often they do. And so we--we got into a discussion and I--half the time I wasn't sure whether it was part of the interview or whether it was just personal. And I didn't mind that, that was enjoyable.
LAMB: What was she saying that you remember?
Mr. STEELE: Well, she was saying to--she was--she was sort of holding her ground that--she was holding her ground that victimization was still the number one--racial victimization was the number one problem that blacks faced in America. And I--I would sort of come at her this way and I'd sort of come at her that way, and no matter what way I came, you know, I could sense that she was steeling herself in that position...
LAMB: How--did she tell you how...
Mr. STEELE: ...and she was listening...
LAMB: ...she got her job?
Mr. STEELE: She--I'm sure she would--she--she got it through affirmative action and she probably would've said she was proud to say that. That's sort of the going thing, `I'm--I'm--yes, I'm--I'm proud to say I got it through affirmative action,' when--you know, what else could she--could she prob--could she say? But she--she--as--as the conversation went on, I began to feel irrelevant; that there was that against what she was getting from the larger society by way of preferences and so forth, and--and really a kind of racial self-importance that over here, where--where I'm at, offering--or asking for things, asking for sacrifice and responsibility and--and so forth, I really had very little to offer her in comparison. And--and I w--and she made me feel that way as the conversation went on and--and came to its end, and--I talk about she got in--got into a big rented car and drove away and--and told me, in a sense.
LAMB: Well, as a matter of fact, I was going to read--you said, `I was not surprised when we turned a corner and came upon the journalist's rent-a-car it was a huge white Lincoln Town Car with plush leather upholstery and it sat so regally on the street that the smaller cars around it seemed to compose its court.' Why was that important to put in the book?
Mr. STEELE: Because, again, I wanted to--I wanted an image at that moment to sort of capture the--the dis--the disparity between what I could offer as a--by way of an argument or the difficulty of my argument against this--this culture of preferences, where--where the rewards are so tangible and so real and--and a--an expense account that--that brings--you know, that afford--allowed her to have a Lincoln Town Car, to take me to lunch at a--at a--at a lovely restaurant. And I'm saying that we should give up affirmative action and we should--you know, we should make our way and create our own--our own success, and it would mean--and so my--my arguments were kind of hollow, in a sense.
LAMB: And have you, by the way, over the years, lost any friends because of your...
Mr. STEELE: Oh, I sure have. I sure--yes. Yeah.
Mr. STEELE: Well, I probably shouldn't name names or anything, but I think that--you know, because I--I started out in a very liberal--I come from a very liberal background.
LAMB: Were you a liberal at one point?
Mr. STEELE: Absolutely. Absolutely, I was a liberal, and in college, I was a--the leader of the--I started the local chapter of Martin Luther King's groups, SCLC. Our campus chapter was--was Scope. After that, I went through kind--a black nationalist phase and--and--and, you know, so--so my change has been very gradual and--and--and over time, so I--I clearly started out that way. And--and again, all my friends, my whole entire world--you know, I was--the story that George Will tells that when--when McGovern lost in--in--to--Nixon and--and the--the liberal comment was, `I don't know anybody who even knows Nixon or--or voted for Nixon.' I was one of those people. I didn't know anybody who--who was conservative. I--I--I had a kind of mythology built up around--around them as just sort of insensitive, cold-hearted and often bigoted people.
LAMB: What do you say to the people--let's say a black person listening who's a liberal says, `Shelby Steele has been bought by the white conservatives. This is all a money thing'?
Mr. STEELE: Well, I'd s--I'd say that--that that's--that they're really doing themselves a--intellectually and otherwise, a disservice to--to--to feel that way f--if I'm--because I always say if I've been bought, then where's the money? I'm--I'm still waiting. But it's a way of dis--dismissing an argument that you are unable to counter otherwise. It's an ad hominem. Let's say, for example, that I was bought and paid for by conservatives or whatever. There's still the argument left, there's still the--the--the--the--the ideas in these books, the challenge to--to--to--to us to--to overcome our difficulties and to--and--and--and the way to do that via responsibility that--that has to be addressed an--whether--whether--regardless of--of me.
LAMB: On page 60, you write that, `It cannot be coincidental that in those areas of greatest black achievement--music, literature, entertainment, sports--there have been no interventions whatsoever, no co-option of agency, no idea that some opportunity structure will enable blacks to participate.'
Mr. STEELE: Absolutely. When--when--in those areas where we let no one take responsi--we don't let anybody tell us how to play sports, how to play basketball. We define excellence in basketball on our own terms, and we--and anyone else is free to compete, but they've--they've gotta win their place. Where--where we take responsibility for something, we tend not to just do well, but we--om--often we--we dominate, often we--we thrive. In these areas, like public school education, where we keep saying we're helpless and we're--we're debilitated and schools are bad and we need interventions and we need this and we need that, no amount of help works.
And, again, my--my point is--is that the--the transforming--what transforms you from poverty to a better way of life in America is--is en--is entirely the assumption of responsibility for your own development. If you--if you--if you take that kind of responsibility, you will inevitably do better. If you don't take that kind of responsibility, no intervention will help. It will--it wi--it's im--it won't work. And--and I think that's--that's the--the most diffi--and because of our racial history and our guilts and our grievances and our grudges, we have been unable to ex--to appreciate that simple truism of human nature when it applies to--to black Americans.
LAMB: You--you mention--you get the impression that you don't like the idea of these ethnic studies departments in universities.
Mr. STEELE: Right.
LAMB: What do they mean? What do they do? Black studies programs and things like that?
Mr. STEELE: Yeah. Well, they're territories, and--and they have to do, again, with our--with our--mys--where I'm g--I now sort of ask the larger society to--to grant me a sovereign territory that's--that's black studies or--or women's studies or Asian studies or Hispa--where--where, `It's--it's mine, and--and I prevail by virtue of my color or my ethnicity.' This is a profound wrong because n--there's nothing in these--in these departments that can't be studied in other departments. If we're studying black American literature, then certainly the best place for that is in the literature department, history in the history department. That's where it ought to be. That's where we're gonna finally work to integrate it into the larger consciousness. So these programs are--are really, again--again, shamed white institutions buying moral authority by--through deference and license.
LAMB: You talk about a lot of literature, which is your field, and I just wanna go through some of the names and get you to give us just a little bit of what you think of them...
Mr. STEELE: Mm-hmm.
LAMB: ...and--and just respond.
Mr. STEELE: We'll be here all day if you do that.
LAMB: Ralph Ellison.
Mr. STEELE: Well, he's my number one hero, and I've just simply learned I can't begin to--I've just written an--an--an essay on Ralph Ellison that will be in--for New Republic on his work, and I can't begin to--to--to--I mean, he's just been so--no one, I think, understands black American culture as deeply and--and thoroughly as--as Ralph Ellison does.
LAMB: When did he live?
Mr. STEELE: He just died about--in '94, I think. His--he died at the age of about 81, 82.
LAMB: Had you met him?
Mr. STEELE: I never met him, no. I had not met him.
LAMB: What would he think of what you're saying right here today?
Mr. STEELE: Boy, I--you know, I've learned never to speak for people who are unable to speak for themselves, so I--I don't know.
LAMB: But based on his writings.
Mr. STEELE: And I--and I--and I wanna say that, as with any hero--and this is, I think, part of human nature, you--you take them and you get everything you can, but it's wrong, I think, to try to simply follow them. And so I'm my own man and--and I've--you know, I've done what--what's--what I will with--with his work, but my guess is he probably would like a good--a good bit of it, or at least some of it.
LAMB: Where did he live?
Mr. STEELE: He lived--he was born in Oklahoma City. He went to Tuskegee Institution in Alabama, and he dropped out of there in his junior year and moved to New York, where he lived on Riverside Drive for the rest of his life.
LAMB: When did you first start reading him?
Mr. STEELE: I was--I talk about in this pie--essay I wrote on him. I--I was afraid of--to read him in high school. He was--he was a--he was such a--a great and such a literary and s--writer, such a fine writer, that I was intimidated. And so I would--I preferred Baldwin and--and Wright and some--some others, William Den--Demby and so forth. And so it was really in college and almost in graduate school when I really beg--when I really seriously opened up his essays as well as his novel, "Invisible Man."
LAMB: Cornel West.
Mr. STEELE: Well, I make the point I like Corwe--Cornel West personally. I make the point that I thought that his--his point that race matters, that--that I don't think he would've said that in--in the '50s, when--when those Southern governors were sort of arguing, Wallace and--and Faubus and so forth, that race really mattered and that we should remain segregated and that there should be a divided society.
I think he argues now that race matters and others along--along with him and that--I've sort of used him here as a representative of the liberal argument, that may not be entirely fair--but that race matters now because there's a privilege associated now. There are privileges, there are advantages that come with being black. And so--so all of a sudden we who are argued then, as--as King did, that race did not matter, that our humanity mattered, our citizenship mattered, now because, a--as things have turned around and we've found advantage in it, we argue that.
LAMB: This is not a writer, but it's somebody that I want to get your comment on. Charlie Parker?
Mr. STEELE: Oh, Charlie Parker is a--an alto saxophone--saxophone player, who is--founded the--the bebop revolution in jazz, is one of the greatest--certainly--probably the greatest improvisational saxophone player to ever live, has com--just transformed that music and--and sort of--he and Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk and Bud Powell and--and others, but probably he was the d--the dominant figure, changed jazz from an ent--primarily an entertainment medium to an art of self-discovery and self-exploration. And he was one of the first, and so he's probably the--the most important.
LAMB: You mention him, though. You say he died at age 35. What of?
Mr. STEELE: Yes, he did. Of drugs and alcoholism. He--he...
LAMB: What year?
Mr. STEELE: In the early--I think '55--'54, '55.
LAMB: You mention your two children...
Mr. STEELE: Yes.
LAMB: ...and--Loni and Ellie?
Mr. STEELE: Eli.
LAMB: I'm sorry.
Mr. STEELE: Yeah.
LAMB: Who are they? Where are they? How old are they? What do they do?
Mr. STEELE: They both have just recently graduated from college. Eli went to Claremont McKenna College in Southern California. My daughter Loni went to Harvard. And they both just recently graduated. They're--they were English majors. They feel as though I've failed them to some ex--some extent, but nevertheless, that's what they--they were, and they wanna be scriptwriters and they're now in Los Angeles.
LAMB: Are they twins?
Mr. STEELE: No, they're not. They're just--they're 15 months apart.
LAMB: Wh--what do they think of all this that you're talking about here? And are--are they known in their world as being white or black?
Mr. STEELE: They're--they're known--when you--they're--when you look at them, they--this is interesting 'cause they went to--just a few weeks ago they went to--they're very light-skinned, obviously. They went to a--a black church that had a comedy night, and the comic saw them come in and said they--thought they were white, and s--you know, sort of used them as--as shtick and so forth. And they got into a banter back and forth with him and--and, I think, got the last laugh. But they--you know, to--to see them--to s--you know, they l--they look different, but--I mean, that is, the two of them. My son probably looks a little more--clearly identified that way than--than my daughter. But they--they are known as black and they see themselves that way.
LAMB: And what do they think of what you're writing and what you're thinking?
Mr. STEELE: They--you know, boy, they've been so close to it and they've been so--they've grown up with, you know, this father who's been, you know, obsessed with it and working at it all the time, thinking about it that, you know, they're sort of inside of it and--and it's a part of their life. And I to--a lot of this book was talked out with them and they've made their own contribution to it. In fact, my kids were the ones who came up with the title.
LAMB: And what does it mean, "A Dream Deferred"?
Mr. STEELE: It means that, again, the dream of--of freedom, of black freedom ha--has been deferred a second time.
LAMB: Where's the--where's the photograph from, by the way?
Mr. STEELE: That--I don't know. My--my--my editor, Terry Carten at HarperCollins, found that photograph and I--and, boy, I think it's a--a great one. I think it--it really captures s--what I want the book to say.
LAMB: And you say the kids came up with the title. At what point in the process did they arrive at this suggestion?
Mr. STEELE: Toward the end. It was--I had come up with m--I'm--I'm terrible, absolutely terrible at ti--titles, so bad that I--I will send in pieces untitled because I know whatever they come up with's going to be usually better than--than me, and this--this was no different. And so, you know, one night they simply were talking about it. I had gone out, actually, to hear some jazz, and I came back and they had this title. And I didn't think it would work. I thought it would be terrible. But then a few days passed, a little time, and I--I bounced it around with--with my editor and so forth, and--and we--we really decided that was absolutely the best--best title we could--could have for this book. And I--I really am happy--happy with it now.
LAMB: All right. Again, back to the person in the audience that's listening and lives in California and says, `The preference is out the window.'
Mr. STEELE: Mm-hmm.
LAMB: `Can't use the preferences in colleges anymore.'
Mr. STEELE: Right.
LAMB: The supposed number of blacks in schools went down...
Mr. STEELE: Yes.
LAMB: ...percentage went down.
Mr. STEELE: Dramatically.
LAMB: What is your advice when they say, you know, `That Shelby Steele's full of baloney. We're never gonna make it in'--I mean, what--what would you tell somebody?
Mr. STEELE: Well, the--the--the--the greatest tragedy o--of affirmative action is this attitude that we would never make it without it, that there is no preference we could ever get that is worse, that kind of a psychology. And so I think it is a blessing that now young blacks in California will be liberated from this--what I--I think of, really, as a kind of colonialism, where we're actually not allowed to--to compete with--and this--I'm talking about our best and our brightest young blacks. These are not disadvantaged blacks who are applying to Berkeley. These are the best and the brightest--are not al--are not al--have not been allowed to compete with--with their--their fellow--with whites in Asia. That's--they can't develop excellence if they're kept out of the competition. Affirmative action's kept them out of it. What do I say when people say, `Well, what will blacks do now?' Blacks will overcome. They will now begin to rely--rely on them. They'll do it anyway.
LAMB: When you write, where do you do it?
Mr. STEELE: I have a little--my s--I said my wife is a clinical psychologist and she has a waiting room, and I put up a little wall and divided the raiting--waiting room in half.
LAMB: This is in Monterey.
Mr. STEELE: In Monterey. So I have a little cubicle about as--little--little bigger than a closet, and I write there. I get up every morning and I go there and go to work.
LAMB: How long did it take you to write this?
Mr. STEELE: It took about 20 months--18, 20 months of really, you know, intense--it was the most intense writing experience I've ever had because I really wanted to take these ideas out to their--their l--their limit and fully flesh them out and--and--and--and s--and say--so I would--I had to sort of be in the world of the book all the time. And so it was a kind of seven-day-a-week, you konw, 10-, 12-hour-a-day ordeal.
LAMB: What time of day do you start?
Mr. STEELE: I'd start about, I suppose, 8:00 or 9:00 and then I'd go until about dinnertime, and then after dinner, I'd go a little--with--with this, as the more--the more we--I got to the end, the more I--I went until about 10, 11 at night.
LAMB: You know that this is a fairly short book, 185 pages.
Mr. STEELE: Yes, it is. Yes, it is. Sure is.
LAMB: So do you have to rewrite a lot?
Mr. STEELE: I rewrite all--all of it is--I--to get--to get 180-some pages, for me, I've gotta write about four hu--400 or 500 and I really sort of distill and I do--I write--maybe write as--I don't know if you need to hear this. I write so badly, it takes me so many drafts to make it good, to make it clear and I really--I really try for clarity and I try for distillation. I--I don't th--I don't believe in big--f--particularly for this kind of book, where you're talking about ideas and it's an essay. It--I--it shouldn't be long. It should be--should be well-crafted, say what it means and--and move on.
LAMB: I did find myself going for the dictionary more than once.
Mr. STEELE: Yeah.
LAMB: Some of the words...
Mr. STEELE: Yeah.
LAMB: One of them, just to--you know, `atavistic.'
Mr. STEELE: Yeah, that's a--that's--I--and I'm--I'm adamant about those words because I--and I looked for another word, other than `atavistic,' for I don't know how long, and--and if I could've found it, boy, I would've used it. But atavism is--is, again, the sort of primordial thing, force, truth th--it's a--that is--and there's really no other word for it. It's--and--and one of the great things of democracy is we--we keep them out of our society as sources of power. And the fact that I'm black or you're white, which is an atavistic quality--you didn't have anything to do with it, I don't have anything to do with being--we're--we're born with these--these things. And, therefore, they're--they're inherently unfair and undemocratic. And so if we're gonna say that--that the atavism of whiteness is--is--constitutes supremacy, then, boy, there's no way I can ever become equal. And that's--that's how--that's why atavisms are so dangerous in a--in a society predicated on equality.
LAMB: How many s--speeches do you give a year?
Mr. STEELE: I give less now than I did before, but I probably still give 15, maybe 20. But there was a time when I was doing a lot of that, and I do less of it now.
LAMB: All the things you do, speak and write and talk, wh--when do you find people changing--do they ever change in front of your eyes and move towards you?
Mr. STEELE: Oh, yeah. Yeah. It's a...
LAMB: And what is it? What's that moment? What's that subject?
Mr. STEELE: Well, one of the things that--one of the experiences I have, and it's probably the most common experience I have now, is that when people do see me oftentimes when I do speak and--and then have a chance to talk to people in person, is that they see I'm not a demon and a light goes off, `Well, I--I heard about him and I--and I--you know, he was this sort of, you know, black--this sort of demonized figure who was anti-this or who was on the--you know, on--on the--on the wrong side of things.' And then when you--when people meet me in person, they see that that's not the case; that--that, in fact, I may believe in them more than they believe in themselves. And that's really--often I ta--you know, what--what causes the fear.
LAMB: This is the book again, the cover with the title "A Dream Deferred: The Second Betrayal of Black Freedom in America." Our guest has been Shelby Steele. Thank you very much for joining us.
Mr. STEELE: Well, thank you for having me. I've enjoyed it.
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