Shelby Steele: Victimhood is Seductive

In April, I mentioned an article columnist and Hoover Institution fellow Shelby Steele wrote on white guilt and black individuality. He noted that after a debate about racial preferences, an incoherent yet indulged black student who supported racial preferences argued, apparently with a straight face “the essential weakness of his own people. Only their weakness justifies the racial preferences they receive decades after any trace of anti-black racism in college admissions. The young man must not show faith in the power of his people to overcome against any odds; he must show faith in their inability to overcome without help.”

Steele and other conservatives emphasize the dignity of the individual as opposed to wrapping one’s identity in the cloak of group victimhood. In a recent interview with The Federalist, he said that peddling victimhood was worse than oppression. He grew up under Jim Crow, yet “no one saw us as victims. No one cared about us one way or the other, which left us free to pursue our own lives, even if we were so constricted.”

Leaving us alone to pursue our lives–that’s what liberty is about. Individual Americans, regardless of race or sex, should want nothing more from the government than to be left alone to pursue happiness. No government or document can guarantee it. What the civil rights movement was supposed to be about was removing government-mandated barriers to go after opportunity, not the granting of government favor and “leveling the playing field” through coercion and infringement of rights. As Steele says, the barriers are down, but the left must claim otherwise and perpetuate victimhood to keep the votes coming.

There is the foul whiff of desperation surrounding the liberal transformation of isolated incidents into an indictment of America as white supremacist, a desperation that Steele submits is the result of the realization that “the left doesn’t have much else.” “Theirs is an ideology devoted to the uplift of the underdog. Well, what if there is no underdog, or if it is insignificant?” Steele asks before quickly answering his own question, “Then they are out of business. They will be unable to make a claim on power. So, as the society improves, ironically the left has to distort more and more to make us look far worse than we are. There has to be victims, because without them the left has to go away.”

Is there an end in sight to portraying black Americans, the most free blacks on the entire planet, as victims? “It’s going to be awhile before all of this ends,” Steele tells The Federalist,” especially when you have people like [The Atlantic‘s Ta-Nehisi] Coates, who is relatively young, and that’s what really saddens me is when you have young minorities figuring out new ways to play the victim, and asking for things like reparations. What are reparations going to do?”

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