Are We a Post-Racial Society? Steele’s View at the Wall Street Journal

The ruling elite’s propaganda machine is running at top speed these days in trying to cover up the systemic racism at the heart of this society. A leading mouthpiece of the right-wing of that elite (The Wall Street Journal) has found some good “leg men,” as C. Wright Mills called them, to carry out the elite’s PR work. Witness this rather weak, undocumented discussion of racial matters by Shelby Steele, a leading black conservative and member of the right-wing Hoover Institution in California. His piece is titled, without irony I assume, “Obama and Our Post-Modern Race Problem.”

He begins with this rather unsubstantiated contention:

America still has a race problem, though not the one that conventional wisdom would suggest: the racism of whites toward blacks. Old fashioned white racism has lost its legitimacy in the world and become an almost universal disgrace.

It is interesting how many public commentators pay no attention to the social science research literature on current racial hostility and discrimination. For example, Leslie Picca and I asked 626 white students at more than two dozen colleges and universities to keep brief (6-10 week) diaries of racial events they saw. Even in these rather brief diaries they report about 9000 racial events, about 7500 of them blatantly racist events. Such events as white students boldly telling multiple racist jokes (“nigger jokes” being favorites). Multiply that out by the millions of white college students (or 200 million whites) in this society, and it might conceivably mean that whites do billions of “old fashioned white-racist” performances annually. Many of these are in backstage settings where only whites, such as friends and relatives, are present, but many blatantly racist actions are also still done in public, as much social science research also demonstrates. Or, indeed, many major news sources periodically report blatant racist incidents. Our research study is just one among many (this book has a long discussion and bibliography of 100s of research studies) demonstrating high levels of old-fashioned white racism, as well as newer subtle and covert racism, that obviously has not lost its legitimacy or become a universal disgrace in the white majority. Why do folks like Steele routinely ignore the research literature?

Steele continues with his notion that the “race problem” is quite different from the old white racism:

Barack Obama, elegant and professorially articulate, was an invitation to sophistication that America simply could not bring itself to turn down.

Well, actually a substantial majority of whites turned him down in November 2008. According to exit polls only about 43 percent of white voters voted for this first major black candidate, including less than a majority of whites in 32 of the 50 states. It was the two thirds or more of various groups of voters of color, and that minority of whites, who put him into office. Without all those voters of color, McCain would easily have won the presidency. Does Steele mean in this comment that the white majority is quite unsophisticated? He continues:

Our new race problem—the sophistication of seeing what isn’t there rather than what is—has surprised us with a president who hides his lack of economic understanding behind a drama of scale. Hundreds of billions moving into trillions. . . . How is vast government spending simultaneously a kind of prudence that will not “add to the deficit?” How can such spending not trigger smothering levels of taxation?

He offers this somewhat puzzling discussion about seeing “what isn’t there,” which he clearly means to apply to Obama’s “masked” self-presentation. Yet here he switches away from racial issues to a view of the U.S. economy in the right-wing of the ruling elite. Actually, the center of that elite broke with its right-wing (which had created much of the economic problem) and decided to move in the direction of bailing the economy out of what is a second great depression for many Americans. Obama is largely acting for that center, as most of his very educated and experienced economic advisors are from that centrist wing of the elite.

After unfavorably comparing a “principled” and “non-conformist” Ronald Reagan to an “empty” Obama, Steele adds that Obama

aspires to be “post-ideological,” “post-racial” and “post-partisan,” which is to say that he defines himself by a series of “nots”—thus implying that being nothing is better than being something. . . . . He always wore the bargainer’s mask—winning the loyalty and gratitude of whites by flattering them with his racial trust: I will presume that you are not a racist if you will not hold my race against me. . . . But this mask comes at a high price. . . . think of Bill Cosby, who in recent years has challenged the politically correct view and let the world know what he truly thinks about the responsibility of blacks in their own uplift. Many whites still love Mr. Cosby, but they worry now that expressing their affection openly may identify them with his ideas, thus putting them at risk of being seen as racist.

Steele has a good point about Obama’s communicating a certain racial trust (and colorblindness) to whites in his public campaign–a point Adia and I develop in deeper theoretical and empirical detail here—and did use a sort of mask to appeal to many whites, but that was not because we are in some post-racial America. If we were in such an America, no such colorblind bargaining would have been necessary. The probable masking of his real racial views was necessary because we are not post-racial. As Obama certainly knows well, we still face huge problems of racial inequality and discrimination in many sectors, and have much work to make this society even close to the egalitarian society we often claim. He could not, and cannot talk, seriously about such things as enforcing our civil rights laws without losing even more white support.

Interestingly, the one (somewhat older) research book I have seen on Cosby and whites makes it clear that most whites love him dearly. What evidence is there that whites do not identify with Cosby and his often white-framed and one-sided ideas about black families? His books and television programs are still very popular with whites.

Steele continues:

A greater problem for our nation today is that we have a president whose benign—and therefore desirable—blackness exempted him from the political individuation process that makes for strong, clear-headed leaders. . . . And yes, white America conditioned Barack Obama to emptiness—valued him all along for his “articulate and clean” blackness, so flattering to American innocence.

Yes, it does appear that many whites do value him over other blacks because of his articulateness and “cool” pose, and many Americans take note of his intelligence and actions. Yet, according to the surveys it is the white majority that does not value him much now in regard to his clearly principled political actions. Indeed, the white majority never has.

Steele contradicts himself throughout. This is not a post-racial America he is describing, but a very modern-racial society.
Steele is listed as a “senior research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.” He has a master’s degree in sociology, and writes about sociological issues in his four books, but without much of a record in serious social science field work. Perhaps it is time for him to do some serious social science research, and he will find we have no post-racial America–or indeed a post-modern egalitarian America when it comes to patterns of racial, gender, and class oppression.


  1. distance88

    Thanks, Joe. I’m glad to see this critique of Shelby Steele. I was able to slug my way through about half of his book White Guilt before I just had to put it down–it was very heavy on anecdotes and rhetoric, but light on actual data and research. It seems his strange infatuation with Bill Cosby and mis-characterization of institutional discrimination and social programs permeates all of his writings. Conservatives are really quick to sing Steele’s praises because of the “diversity” he adds to their movement.

  2. Joe

    Thanks, distance88, his brother Claude Steele is a key research analyst and researcher on things like ‘stereotype threat,’ which makes Shelby Steele’s books even more strange. He has a leading experimental researcher in his family, so to speak, whose fine research shows some of what he is arguing is quite incorrect and wrongheaded.

  3. Excellent and thorough critique of Steele, much appreciated.
    As it happens, I’m currently reading Obama’s memoir, “Dreams from my Father,” in which it’s clear that he’s anything but post-racial. In fact, he has quite the clearly developed consciousness about racial politics in the U.S. and his place in it. It’s true he’s interested in reconciliation, but he ‘sees’ race and gets it at a deep level.
    I agree with one point that Steele makes – about whites desire to maintain their sense of racial innocence – but not much else. As you say in the original post, and as @distance88 points out, he’s made a whole career, and a rather prestigious one at that, out of conjecture and no data.

  4. No1KState


    Thanks Joe.
    I’m at this blog a lot, obviously. I neglect my own blog, actually. I’ve considered rss feeding posts directly to my blog, but . . . I don’t know.


    I visit this blog primarily because of the academic standing of its administrators. Most other blogs, while insightful, are more commentary than analysis in an academic sort of way. Reading this blog is a way of getting some graduate and post-graduate school insight without the bother of tests and papers and class attendence. I learn the extent to which racism exists as well as where, when and how it’s manifested. And by whom. Don’t get me wrong, I do visit and enjoy other sites. But this is sort of my blog away from blog, as it were.

    Knowing the ways racism operates allows for considerations of ways it can be attacked and dismantled. Combating racism involves more than politically correct public language. Arguing about the extent of racism, and especially whether or not I’m racist against white people, gets me off my main focus: dismantling the infrastructures, cultural and institutional, that disadvantage people of color. Not that other people aren’t disadvantaged by other aspects; I just have a passion for fighting racim. And by racism I mean cultural, institutional, and social racism against people of color. Of course, this involves the accumulation of of hundreds of millions of personal biases; but, I’m not aware of any accumulation of personal biases against whites such that whites as a class are have the extra hurdle of race to jump.


    Back to Steele . . . Besides the annoying and erroneous presumption that conservatives have the wherewithall to fix the economy and all other ideas are idiotic, he also seems to believe that now, the problem of race is that white people have to give a person of color credit for something s/he hasn’t done. That’s annoying and erroneous, too. I don’t doubt that white people think that’s what’s happening. But there is not point in American history when whites had an accurate idea of the reality of race. (If you think that’s racist or hateful, at least tell me when in American history whites had an accurate idea of the reality of race.)

    The other thing that just really, really bugs me is this self-congratulatory pat on the back that whites and their enablers of color give themselves for Obama’s winning the election. It’s not just that they claim to have over-estimated Obama in electing him, which we know isn’t true. It’s that they pretend that there’s nothing racial about these all-white tea parties.

    Now, while I’m insulted that worrying about what people will think of your admiration for Cosby is the same as worrying about what people will think of your vernacular, there is something to this. A study has shown that white people worrying about appearing racist makes them seem appear racist. When less inhibited, even white people find talking about race with a black person enjoyable and black participants in the study gave the less inhibited whites higher marks. So, I can understand, even empathize, with not wanting to give the wrong impression. But worrying that publically admiring Cosby will give the wrong impression is a “cry me a river” moment.

  5. No1KState

    Another thing I find problematic is his defining racism from the perspective of white people. Isn’t that just intuitively not the best way at getting at the reality of racism’s impact? Eh . . . duh!

  6. No1KState

    By the by, isn’t it ironic that now Steele is calling for Reid to step down as Senate majority leader for having said something not all that different from what Steele apparently wrote for the WSJ.

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