by JOHN MCWHORTER
The most important book a modern person should read about the black experience is neither Malcolm X’s autobiography nor any other memoir, history, or novel that casts racism—subtle or not—as the essence of the black experience. Shelby Steele’s The Content of Our Character remains, almost 20 years after its publication, a crucial analysis of what ails today’s debate over race.
A constructive concern with black uplift has bifurcated into, for whites, an emotional commitment simply not to seem racist, and for blacks, a victim-based self-conception based less on modern experience than a quest for spiritual security. The result is a coded and grievously insincere “dance” we all do, which discourages true achievement by blacks and nurtures quiet racism of a new kind among whites. The situation Steele nails so accurately and eloquently is an understandable by-product of how the civil-rights revolution played out. My sense is that in 2009, the rituals Steele describes have somewhat less influence than they did when he wrote—but we will never be truly post-racial in the sense Obama’s election has us thinking about until what Steele describes is utterly antique. Legions of black people think like Steele in their hearts and suppose that they are alone, but in 50 years his book will seem the quintessence of common sense. Anyone interested in getting on the bandwagon ahead of the curve should read The Content of Our Character—twice, even, and pass it along to a friend.
— John McWhorter is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and the author of All About the Beat: Why Hip Hop Can’t Save Black America.