Few writers today on either Right or Left can come close to matching Shelby Steele in the depth of his thinking or the pungency of his social commentary. He is a senior fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution and the author of the 2015 book Shame: How America’s Past Sins Have Polarized Our Country. He is also—and this is significant in understanding him—a mixed-race American whose black father married his white mother in 1944, a time when such marriages brought a lot of social disdain, even hostility. He grew up in Harvey, Illinois, a working-class town just south of Chicago, where his father, a truckdriver, was kept down financially because of racism in the local Teamsters union.
But Steele considers his mixed-race heritage to have been “an absolute gift, the greatest source of insight and understanding.” The reason, he adds, was that “race was demystified for me. I could never see white people as just some unified group who hated blacks.”
For years a significant outlet for Steele’s commentary has been The Wall Street Journal editorial page, where he has weighed in with powerful insights when big events have roiled the nation’s racial politics. As Joseph Epstein wrote in reviewing Shame, “He is a brother, make no mistake, but a brother quite unlike any other.” What distinguishes him, added Epstein, is his “openly stated belief that blacks in America have been sold out by the very liberals who ardently claim to wish them most good.”
Consider his response when Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, on the Senate floor, sought to thwart the confirmation of her colleague Jeff Session as attorney general under President Donald Trump. It was, wrote Steele, an example of “so many public moments now in which the old weapon of stigmatization shoots blanks.” To bolster her attack, Warren read from a 30-year-old letter by Coretta Scott King on racial justice. Wrote Steele: “There it was with deadly predictability: a white liberal stealing moral authority from a black heroine in order to stigmatize a white male as racist.”
Reacting to the aftermath of National Football League players refusing to stand for the national anthem before games, Steele considered the protests “forced and unconvincing….as if they were mimicking the courage of earlier black athletes who had protested.” In contrast to those earlier protesters, he wrote, these new ones demonstrated “no real sacrifice, no risk, and no achievement.” Steele welcomed the backlash to that frivolous protest and wondered if white Americans had finally “found the courage” to “judge African-Americans fairly by universal standards.”
What stirs these musings about Steele’s ongoing commentary was his latest Journal entry, on Monday, entitled “Why the Left is Consumed With Hate.” The provocative subhead: “Lacking worthy menaces to fight, it is driven to find a replacement for racism. Failing this, what is left?”
Steele opens the piece by noting that hatred had begun to emerge on the American Left even before Trump’s election. Afterward it could be seen in various stark guises. There was Madonna musing about blowing up the Trump White House: “Here hatred was a vanity, a braggadocio meant to signal her innocence of the sort of evil that, in her mind the White House represented.”
For others hatred of the nation had become “a self-congratulatory lifestyle”—reflected in New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s recent statement that “America was never that great.” For radical groups such as Black Lives Matter, hatred of America had become “a theme of identity, a display of racial pride.” For campus radicals, it was “a license.” And some leaders of the Left (he specifically cites Representative Maxine Waters here), seemed to view hate as a call to “power itself.”
This final suggestion gets to Steele’s central point: it’s all about power.
Steele steps back here and seeks to assess where this is coming from. It stems primarily, he avers, from the nation’s cultural epiphany of the 1960s—when the country finally accepted that slavery and segregation were profound moral failings. “That acceptance changed America forever,” he writes, adding it imposed a new moral imperative that the nation must show itself “redeemed of those immoralities in order to stand as a legitimate democracy.”
The genius of the Left in those days, says Steele, was that it identified itself with that moral imperative. “Thus the labor of redeeming the nation from its moral past would fall on the left. This is how the left put itself in charge of America’s moral legitimacy. The left, not the right—not conservatism—would set the terms of this legitimacy and deliver America from shame to decency.”
Thus did the Left create the wellspring of its political and cultural power. “The greater the menace to the nation’s moral legitimacy, the more power redounded to the left.” And the 1960s bestowed upon liberals “a laundry list of menaces to be defeated”—racism above all, of course, but also eventually “a litany of bigotries ending in ‘ism’ and ‘phobia.’’’
Steele doesn’t stint in giving the Left credit for many worthy achievements since that 1960s moment when it claimed a monopoly on civic morality. “It did rescue America from an unsustainable moral illegitimacy,” he writes. It also established “the great menace of racism” as the country’s “most intolerable disgrace.”
But now the Left is in crisis because it is running out of menaces to fight. “The Achilles’ heel of the left,” writes Steele, “has been its dependence on menace for power.” As long as it can raise the call against such things as “systemic racism” and “structural inequality,” it can leverage those evils for power, as it has been doing for half a century. But now a mortal threat to this power formula has come into view: “The left’s unspoken terror is that racism is no longer menacing enough to support its own power.”
That leaves anxiety-riddled liberals seizing upon hate in a kind of last-gasp effort to retain power. As Steele puts it:
Hatred is a transformative power. It can make the innocuous into the menacing. So it has become a weapon of choice. The left has used hate to transform President Trump into a symbol of the new racism, not a flawed president but a systemic evil. And he must be opposed as one opposes racism, with a scorched-earth absolutism.
Steele draws a sharp distinction between this kind of politics and that practiced by Martin Luther King before his 1968 assassination. For him, hatred was not necessary as a means to power. “The actual details of oppression were enough. Power came to him because he rejected hate as a method of resisting menace.” Whereas King called on blacks to resist being defined by what menaced them, today’s blacks and “their ostensible allies” wallow in perceived menaces “because menace provides moral empowerment.”
Steele has written extensively about how this syndrome harms America. But he seems particularly anguished about how it harms America’s blacks. “The menace of black victimization becomes the unarguable truth of the black identity,” he writes. “And here we are again, forever victims.”
And yet the Left, for all of its civic vehemence and dark emotion, remains “stalked by obsolescence.” There simply aren’t enough menaces these days to meet its demands for power. The result is that the voices of the Left are becoming ever more unconvincing. Writes Steele:
It is hard for people to see the menace that drives millionaire football players to kneel before the flag. And then there is the failure of virtually every program the left has ever espoused—welfare, public housing, school busing, affirmative action, diversity programs, and so on.
And so, writes Steele, the Left’s “indulgence of hate” should be seen as essentially a “death rattle.”
Perhaps. But this liberal hate, so brilliantly exposed and analyzed by Steele, provides a lot of fuel for ongoing political combat of the Left, as the current putridity of the Brett Kavanaugh matter demonstrates. A big question that emanates out of what Steele is talking about is what kind of damage all this will wreak on the American republic before it finally dissipates, if indeed it ever does.
Robert W. Merry, longtime Washington, D.C. journalist and publishing executive, is a writer-at-large for The American Conservative. His latest book is President McKinley: Architect of the American Century.