Shelby Steele: Affirmative Action Doesn’t Solve the Real Problem

by Aug 12, 2009Culture, Mission

Challenging insight on race from public intellectual Shelby Steele in the Washington Post:

Affirmative action has always been more about the restoration of legitimacy to American institutions than the uplift of blacks and other minorities. For 30 years after its inception, no one even bothered to measure its effectiveness in minority progress….

Affirmative action has been quite effective in its actual, if unacknowledged, purpose. It has restored moral authority and legitimacy to American institutions. When the Supreme Court seemed ready to nullify the idea of racial preferences in the 2003 University of Michigan affirmative action cases, more than 100 amicus briefs—more than for any other case in U.S. history—were submitted to the court by American institutions in support of group preferences. Yet there was no march on Washington by tens of thousands of blacks demanding affirmative action, not even a threat of such a move from a people who had “marched” their way to freedom in the ’60s. In 2003, the possible end of racial preferences did not panic minorities; it panicked institutional America.

So we whites have slapped a veneer of change on the same old bigotry—just to salve our own consciences? It’s not the whole truth, but I’m convinced it’s part.

Steele continues:

Today’s “black” problem is underdevelopment, not discrimination. Success in modernity will demand profound cultural changes—changes in child-rearing, a restoration of marriage and family, a focus on academic rigor, a greater appreciation of entrepreneurialism and an embrace of individual development as the best road to group development.

Whites are embarrassed to speak forthrightly about black underdevelopment, and blacks are too proud to openly explore it for all to see. So, by unspoken agreement, we discuss black underdevelopment in a language of discrimination and injustice. We rejoin the exhausted affirmative action debate as if it really mattered, and we do not acknowledge that this underdevelopment is primarily a black responsibility. And yet it is—as historically unfair as it may be, as much as it seems to blame the victim. In human affairs we are responsible not just for our “just” fate, but also for our existential fate.

I used to sneeringly assume that if a kid couldn’t read in America (and what color was the skin of that kid in my mind?) it was entirely his own fault. I pay for his education every two weeks, don’t I? But for many years now I’ve been spending time with those low-income kids every week. I learned quickly that Tyrone, Jamal, and Shaniqua do not have opportunities equal to those I had at their age. Their fathers robbed them of that when they walked out the door. These precious kids, made in God’s image, are pulled down in part because they are laden with their parents’ (and grandparents’) sins.

But Steele’s advice—if wedded to the gospel of grace—brings them hope: With God’s power they can rise. They can grow and change in this world. And they can achieve lasting reward in a place where moth, rust, and a wicked social environment don’t corrupt and where thieves can’t promise you a “break-through”—and then steal your cash. I am convinced that by God’s grace a few them will be made rulers over many things in that place. The last shall be first. And I will rejoice!

By God’s grace, we must invest the kind of time and love in those souls that God used to make disciples out of us.

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