Book Review: The Content of Our Character (1990)

A new vision of race in America (1990)
by Shelby Steele
Reviewed by Brian R. Wright

Harper Perennial, 175 pages

Reposted for timeliness… from my original review in September 2012. — bw

“Moral power precludes racial power by denouncing race as a means to power. Now suddenly the [black power] movement itself was using race as a means to power and thereby affirming that very union of race and power it was born to redress. In the end, black power can claim no higher moral standing than white power.”
— Page 19

Shelby Steele’s unique book, The Content of our Character, arose from various essays he had written for such prestigious publications as Harper’s, New York Times Magazine, Commentary, the Washington Post, and American Scholar.  Character is essentially an anthology of these groundbreaking articles, and argues a central thesis more or less condensed in the above quotation from page 19.  It is remarkable that Steele’s stimulating and controversial book was published nearly two decades ago… and that few black intellectuals of stature— including Steele himself—have built on his startlingly ameliorative infrastructure of ideas.

What happened?  Why did the intelligentsia—black, white, or magenta—drop the ball so glaringly?  It’s as if Michael Jordan, through superhuman athleticism, scored 30 points in the first quarter of a title game against the Lakers, then for the remaining three quarters the whole team went to sleep.  I have my own ideas, though of course I cannot speak for the motives and life situation of Dr. Steele, a professor of English at San Jose State University in California. Continue reading