Author Urges Blacks to Seize the Initiative : Sociology: Shelby Steele’s controversial ideas on affirmative action and education meet skepticism, and some anger, at Claremont McKenna College.


He has been spending a lot of time on college campuses, speaking carefully in measured tones but pricking sensitive nerves with a message many students do not want to hear. There may be no connection, but he is puffing on cigarettes for the first time in 12 years.

He is Shelby Steele, a black professor of literature at San Jose State, who has been catapulted into prominence in the last couple of years because of a controversial series of essays--now a best-selling book--urging blacks to stop seeing themselves as victims and to seize the opportunities he believes are finally available.

The ideas expressed in “The Content of Our Character” have provoked such a furor that a Washington Post reporter recently observed: “Even writing an article about him has become an inherently political act.”


Steele spent an afternoon and evening at Claremont McKenna College last week, finding a skeptical but respectful audience. He was invited to the relatively conservative campus as part of a continuing program on diversity in American society that deals with such flash-point topics as whether school curricula should better reflect the country’s demographics.

As is often the case, Steele angered some members of the college’s small black population (38 out of a total enrollment of 847) by advocating that they abandon the “party line.” Stop placing all the blame on white people for the fact that more young blacks are in prison than in college, he exhorted them. Accept the reality that some degree of racism will probably always exist and get on with your lives, he told them.

LaTanya Wright, a black senior from Washington, D.C., told Steele that some white students assumed she could not measure up on the highly competitive campus. This is the price minority students pay for misguided affirmative action programs, Steele replied, nodding sympathetically. “My feeling is: Go on, anyway. . . . This is a challenge, an opportunity,” he said.

“My position is that black people have taken responsibility,” Wright said after Steele left. “The problem is white people not accepting black people as such.”

Also unimpressed and irritated, Henry Taylor, a freshman from Berkeley, said Steele fails to understand the alienation he and other black students experience. “For some reason he’s separating himself from the whole of the black race,” Taylor said. “ . . . He’s living a lie.”

But Errin Milner, a black freshman from Flint, Mich., said she agrees with Steele. “I’ve been told I’m a sellout,” she confided to him. His advice to her: “Be yourself. . . . If you conform, that usually doesn’t work.”


The son of a truck driver who never got past the third grade and a social worker with a master’s degree, Steele, 44, argues that centuries of racism and other factors such as poor inner-city schools have understandably caused blacks to doubt their own abilities. Such anxiety intensifies, he says, when they are suddenly thrown together with whites and experience “integration shock.”

The only way to overcome this sense of inferiority is through achievement--”evidence that it’s not true,” Steele says.

College administrators can help by openly acknowledging that black students often are poorly prepared and need to catch up. Affirmative action programs offering preferential treatment stigmatize and demoralize blacks and other minorities more than they help them, he says, noting that 75% of all black college students fail to graduate.

(Although universities are legally prohibited from setting quotas for minority students, most offer some sort of special treatment. At Claremont McKenna, where efforts to recruit black and Latino students have notably increased in recent years, “we put more emphasis on their high school record of achievement and less on their SAT,” said Richard C. Vos, dean of admission, referring to the Scholastic Aptitude Test. But the school will not lower its standards to reach admission goals, he said.)

Steele also contends that black students heighten their sense of alienation by demanding separate dormitories and programs, and otherwise segregating themselves from their white classmates.

“You can wear all the African robes you like but . . . pride comes from achievement,” he told a packed hall at the college’s Marian Miner Cook Athenaeum.


To his critics, Steele is peering down from an ivory tower, engaging in blaming the victim. They say he naively believes in the old-fashioned--and now often discredited--ideal of an American melting pot.

At the Claremont McKenna seminar on diversity, students raised doubts about whether Steele offers realistic solutions. How do we reach poor, inner-city parents? they wanted to know. How can parents encourage their children to learn if they themselves can’t read? What about the lousy schools? Don’t these problems require public remedies, not just individual initiative?

Steele said he favors spending more money on early education programs such as Head Start and other efforts to improve basic skills. Illiterate parents should learn to read. The schools will improve if parents get involved. Black leaders can teach the importance of responsibility instead of “continually focusing on victimization.”

“I think we need a civil rights movement that is more than just lobbyists for affirmative action,” he said.

On the touchy subject of curriculum reform, he said black writers should be integrated into mainstream courses, not relegated to the increasingly less popular black studies programs.

As a suburban homeowner, Steele often is criticized for being out of touch with the inner city. Why, for example, does he think his advice to ghetto youth can compete with the lure of drug dealing? How do you tell a young black who sees no other alternative to take responsibility for his life?


“It’s the best thing you can possibly do for him,” Steele said. “What other chance has he got? . . . The only other option is to just give up on him, and boy, he needs individual responsibility more than anybody does.”