Shelby Steele

Stanford University’s Hoover Institute Fellow since 1994 and Emmy Award-winning filmmaker, Shelby Steele is a conservative heavyweight. His 1990 PBS documentary Seven Days in Bensonhurst was Steele first dive into the public debate on race, and won Steele the Writer’s Guild Award, the San Francisco Film Festival Award, and the aforementioned Emmy Award. The PBS documentary told the story of Yusef Hawkins, a black man lynched in New York City in 1989. Two white men had been patrolling the neighborhood looking for a black man that had been dating one of the local white women. The two white men were convicted of the crime and served jail time. Seven Days in Bensonhurst focused on how Hawkins’ death was used for political purposes, as Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson brought in media attention and galvanized the public. The support for Hawkins’ killer being put to justice was used to empower black mayoral candidate David Dinkins, though Hawkins’ father did not want his son’s death politicized. The documentary also showed the vitriol black residents had for white politicians Ed Koch and Mario Cuomo. Shelby Steele was born on January 1, 1946, in Chicago, Illinois to a black father and a white mother. His parents met as members of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). Steele grew up middle-class. His father was a truck driver, and his mother was a social worker. Steele speaks fondly of his childhood. His father dropped out of school in the third grade. He drove a truck by day, yet at night was a voracious reader. Shelby Steele remembers him as having the gravitas of a university professor. Unfortunately, Steele’s father never acquired a job that would fully utilize his intellect. Steele’s mother was white. Often interviewers ask how his status as a mixed-race individual affected his work. He replies that he does not see himself as mixed-race. A white woman married to a black man in Chicago was treated as a black woman. The family lived in a segregated section of the city. So, in his upbringing he was never viewed as having a mixed or half-white identity. As a college undergraduate in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Steele was active in Summer Community Organization and Political Education (SCOPE). SCOPE is affiliated with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Steele earned a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science from Coe College in 1968. He was one of eighteen black people that graduated that year. After receiving a master’s degree in Sociology from Southern Illinois University, Steele continued his studies at the University of Utah. At the University of Utah, Steele also taught black literature. Steele recounts that he turned down a tenure position at the University of Utah because of animosity he experienced harassment due to his interracial marriage. After receiving his Ph.D. in English in 1974, he left Utah to teach at San Jose State University. In his book The Content of our Character first published September 1, 1990, Steele shows how we look at the person’s race instead of character. In the introduction to the book, Steele explains the tedious and often rehearsed racial dialogue in the news prompted him to write the book. In his opinion, people split their personal racial beliefs from their public racial beliefs. The goal of the book is to facilitate a more honest discussion on race. The Content of our Character was followed by A Dream Deferred. He expands his previous analysis by saying American betrayed its core values by creating the racial preference system of Affirmative Action. The betrayal was motivated by deep shame and remorse for its past racial wrongs.