Author Shelby Steele on race relations, equality in America

This is a rush transcript from "Life, Liberty & Levin," July 15, 2018. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.

MARK LEVIN, HOST: Hello America, I Am Mark Levin and this is "Life, Liberty & Levin," I have a great guest, Shelby Steele, how are you, sir.


LEVIN: It's a great honor to see you.

STEELE: Thanks for having me.

LEVIN: I have been a fan of yours for years and years, first time we're meeting.

STEELE: Well, it's mutual.

LEVIN: Thank you. You are an author, columnist. You've done documentary films. You're a senior fellow at Stanford's Hoover Institution. You specialize in the study of race relation, multiculturalism, affirmative action. You were born in Chicago - January 1, 1946. Your father, Shelby, Senior was a truck driver; met your mother, Ruth, as a social worker while working for Congress of Racial Equality. You hold a PhD in English from the University of Utah, an MA in Sociology from Southern Illinois University, a BA in Political Science from Coe College at Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

Your latest book - it is a great book, too, is "Shame: How America's Past Sins Have Polarized Our Country." You're a pretty courageous man in my view, you write things beautifully, your logic is outstanding.

STEELE: Well, thank you.

LEVIN: And yet, some people consider it controversial, I don't. I consider it common sense. I'll give you an example. You wrote a few months ago in "Wall Street Journal" on this so-called protest with the football players taking the knee during the National Anthem.


LEVIN: Among other things you said, "It's not surprising then that these black football players would don the mantle of protest," because you say protest is something that black Americans have had to do for Civil Rights. You look at Martin Luther King. You look at Jackie Robinson in sports, and so forth and so on, and you say, the surprise was that it didn't work this time.

"They had misread the historic moment, they were not speaking truth to power, rather they were figures of pathos, mindlessly loyal to a black identity that had run its course," so you say in the article, "Look, protest is a good thing." Protest sometimes is necessary, right, to get vote, to get equal rights, to draw the attention of society and so forth, but this one fell on deaf ears. Explain.

STEELE: Well, protest is central to the evolution of black American culture. It was protest that really finally won our freedom for us. Beyond that, it's always interesting to note that it expanded the idea of democracy. Democracy had all of the theory, all of the thinking - before had never dealt with the clash between race and racism and democracy. Well, it was the Civil Right Movement, it was Martin Luther King who said, "You have to take and go beyond race even, that democracy is universal."

So that is a big part of the black American identity, and it is sort of seen as the test of your authenticity as a black, yet this protest in the NFL made the point that this was kind of fruitless at this point, and I think that central issue behind what you are talking about is the fact that the oppression of black Americans is over with.

STEELE: It's over with.

STEELE: It's over with. I grew up, I mean, it was - we never thought there would be an end to oppression. I remember being a teenager, I never thought that I'd live in a society that was not segregated. It happened. Now, are there exceptions? Yes, there are a few here and there. Will racism every completely go away? No, it is a part of the - as I say in that article, it is endemic to the human condition just as stupidity is endemic to the human condition. And so we'll always have to be on guard about it.

But we are at a point where the old fashion method of protest is obsolete. We need a lot of things, but we don't need that any more. We're at a point now where we can - we are a free people and can pursue our lives as we would like to.

LEVIN: You point out in the article in your thought process is that, that's part of the issue. We are a free people. We are all a free people.


LEVIN: We are not an oppressed people. Blacks are not an oppressed people quite frankly, Jews are not an oppressed people and so forth. This is America now. There is a history where there is oppression, obviously, slavery and segregation and so forth, but that is gone. And you say - and so some people are having difficulty coping with liberty. What do you mean by that?

STEELE: Absolutely. Well, when you think about it black American culture evolved over three and a half centuries. Every minute under which they lived under oppression and they adapted to dealing with the fact that those freedoms were going to be cut off. They had to somehow make a life within all of those restriction, and they did. Part of the - one of the - I think black American culture is nothing less than heroic. I mean, they evolved - look at the - you know, the contribution like music and so forth. They achieved great things.

The one thing we never had to do was to deal with freedom. That was precisely the thing that we denied, so that's not in our culture, in a vivid clear sense as it would be if we had been free - truly free. Well, we now are free. Freedom is, as the existentialist I think rightly say, a burden, it's a difficulty. It puts the individual in a position of being much more responsible for themselves, their own development as individuals and that is new for us.

The idea is still that black unity, we just can't be unified. That is the way ahead. Not anymore. You take yourself ahead. That's the new and stunning really fact of American life that we're now facing and having to deal with.

LEVIN: So, these football players. They are successful. They are wealthy in comparison to other citizens, whatever their race.

STEELE: They beat me.

LEVIN: They beat you. They beat a lot of people. And they are treated with great respect. I mean in terms of - the fans love them, they want their autograph, they buy things with their numbers and their names on it, and yet they protest. What exactly are they protesting?

STEELE: They are just stuck. You know, one of the ways we adapted to not being free was to think that our group identity was again, the way we were being black, and being down with the cards. That was the way we were going to get it. Unity was everything. And if you are authentically black, you are going to do what blacks have always done to one degree or another, you are going to protest.

Well, the irony is that you are making $15 million a year, you are making vast amounts of money doing successful in every way. You are free. There is nothing for you to protest. Nothing.

LEVIN: How about social justice? And equality? And the phrases like that? I hear that is what people say they are protesting.

STEELE: You've got all the social justice you need. Again, I lived through segregation. The freedom we have today is absolutely remarkable. We, as a people have not yet absorbed that. We have not absorbed the fact that our problem is no longer racism, our problem is freedom. We have to learn to deal with freedom, and only way to do that is to - it's going to have to be grounded in individual responsibility. That is the only chance you have with freedom, it's to take charge of your life and make a life for yourself.

Ralph Ellison, one of my all-time favorite writers talks about this, "The group is the gift of its individuals, the goal is not to create the uncreated conscience of your race, but to create the uncreated conscience of your face." And boy, that's 50 to 60 years ago, that is on the money. That is in his great book, "Invisible Man."

LEVIN: Do you think part of the problem is the daily recitation of group think, group rights? You get it a lot in our universities and colleges, you see it on television a lot. Politicians balkanizing the nation in order to empower themselves and their party and so forth. Isn't that part of the problem?

STEELE: What I think are you are pointing to is definitely maybe the overriding problem, which is - and we don't talk about it very much at all, is white guilt. And that keeps feeding whatever blacks are doing is not helping them, thinking of themselves as nothing more than members of a group, of protesting and so forth. It's white guilt that keeps feeding that. What is white guilt? We always - we think - well, I make up in the morning and you feel guilty about black Americans? No. White guilt doesn't have anything to do with actual feelings of guilt.

White guilt is the terror of being seen as a racist, as a bigot that now pervades American life. All of our social policy, our culture, everything is touched by this anxiety in most of white America. Understandably given America's history that they are vulnerable, they have this vulnerability to being disarmed of moral authority.

By being called a racist, I can use it as a weapon. I can say, "You know what? I went on the Levin Show, let me tell you how I was treated." And big - it explodes. So, it constitutes that is black power, white guilt is black power. They are virtually one and the same and one of the big problems we have is that we talk about universities and political correctness and so forth. These are all ways in which white Americans say, I'm innocent. I don't feel this way. I am not a bigot. I am not a racist. I am innocent.

And white guilt causes this drive to prove and establish innocence, and so then we have a whole generation of black leaders who do one thing, and one thing only, milk white guilt. And we're at a moment, I thought this protest was telling in that regard, kind of pointed in which culture meeting maybe turning because it was a fruitless protest. It achieved absolutely nothing.

LEVIN: Could the culture be turning? But the elites digging in?

STEELE: That is well said.

LEVIN: Because more and more, when I watch these debates on television and so forth, people very easily, almost casualty call people they disagree with racist. If they disagree with a political agenda, if they disagree with a particular issue - and most of that is come from the left, what do you make of that?

STEELE: Well, it's white guilt. This is meant to disarm you of moral authority. When they scream racism all of the time, "They're saying you're a racist." You don't have moral authority to deal with whatever issue or problem we are dealing with, because you are a racist, and, so therefore, you are morally compromised, and your moral authority - you don't have any moral authority and this is the seduction that people on left have fallen for. They then are given as award idea of their innocence.

LEVIN: I want to pursue this further when we return because I think it is very, very important. Ladies and gentlemen, you can watch me on LevinTV on our network almost every week night. If you'd like to join us there, give us a call at 844-LEVIN-TV, 844-LEVIN-TV. We'd love to have you. We'll be right back.

Shelby Steele, I want to pick up on this issue of white guilt, and use of the word racism. I find it to be now an ideological tool of the left, more and more and more, if they disagree with a particular issue, and I'm speaking - I am generalizing. They disagree with a particular issue, then you are a racist. And somebody could be called a racist who is not a racist, has no history of being a racist, hasn't done a thing in their lives that indicate racism, do you see this, too?

STEELE: Absolutely. The other side of that is that because whites are still so vulnerable to that charge of being a racist, that is the power that the entire - all of the power of the American left is based on that guilt, that susceptibility, that terror of being seen as racist.

Not to introduce the presidential campaign, but Hillary Clinton and her deplorable statement, now famous, as a perfect example of saying, "These people are bigots and racists. I am innocent. You vote for me, you prove your innocence. I offer you an identity of innocence." Being liberal, being left is more an identity than anything else. This is the way I think of myself, as a decent civilized human being and those other people are contemptable, and so it works on a cultural level.

Now, I think the irony is that this is beginning to fade. You see signs of it cracking at this point that people don't take Maxine Waters seriously anymore. That is not Martin Luther King. When he came along, there were obvious terrible things, terrible discrimination behind every word he spoke and everybody knew it and there was really no debate about it. Racism was everywhere.

When the era of Maxine as some people now call it, there is nothing behind the protest.

LEVIN: But if you have a political mindset or a political party or a political ideology, that has to sustain this argument, even though as you say, this is a horrific past, but we're free. But the Democratic Party, not all of the people in the Democratic Party, but many of the spokesmen and leaders of the Democratic Party, they are not free this? Is it because they seek to keep people or stigmatize people? What is that all about?

STEELE: The essence of American liberalism, I think is the - again, the pursuit of innocence. Innocence of specifically the ugly American past. And that is why, because I am free of that ugliness and innocent of it, that is why you should vote for me. That is why you should let me change this aspect of the university system. That is why you should let me do any number of other things, not because I have better ideas, that I am a better problem solver, but because I offer this identity of innocence, which is now the, I think, big political problem that we have not identified up to this point.

But it is that susceptibility, that vulnerability in the political arena, people are going to play on it. They are going to exploit it. I can - and I have seen this. I have spent my adult lives in universities and you see reasonable, civilized decent people just fold up when the charge of racism is even hinted at.

They begin to sell out the quality of the university. One thing they invariably always absolutely do is lower standards. Remove western civilization from the curriculum. What are you doing? You think that's going to make you innocent? It makes you stupid. It makes you destructive. And black Americans, we need to understand the magnificent careful evolution of western civilization as much as anyone else does. So you're keeping us from it in saying, "Well, it's a bunch of white guys," I don't care. I need to know and be informed. I need to identify with the western civilization. I am a western person.

Black Americans are a western people. We evolved here in the west, thankfully.

LEVIN: In some cases, longer than most others?

STEELE: Certainly.


LEVIN: ... people who are in this ...

STEELE: Certainly, we've been here since the very, very, very beginning, and so forth, and shot the first shot in the Revolutionary War, Crispus Attucks and so this is it. And now we are in a position, and I understand this as a black person. When you come out into freedom after that, and society admits it was wrong, and you come out suddenly into freedom, you are going to say, "Well, something is due me. You did that to me for three centuries."

LEVIN: Is something due to the person?

STEELE: And there may be something due. America tried its best to you know, we've got several trillion dollars on social programs, and wars on poverty and so forth. We've tried do to that, and it hasn't worked, and that is the realization I think we're just about getting to. Is that yes, we had a hard time.

I had to watch my father be discriminated against in every way. The unions would not take him, wouldn't take him in. So, I know all about it and there's a part of me that says, "Wait, whoa, I'm not ready to fully identify with America yet," that is a bit of a stretch.

The cold fact is, it doesn't matter. We can't change the past. We could only move into the future, and in the future, we have to identify with this country. It's the greatest country there ever was. What other system are you going to go to? And that's hard emotionally for a people to say, "Well, we need to get some sort of a pay check, something for what we went through, some reparation." That's what - reparation in the discussion is the psychological sort of imposition of what justice in some cosmic way should be.

But that kind of justice does not very often exist in real life. And if you look at history, you see other people have been set free. They didn't get paid off for their suffering. We're not going to get paid off of that, and if we keep holding out demanding that, we will pay the price. We'll get weaker and weaker.

Today, black Americans on almost over socioeconomic measure are farther behind whites than they were in the '50s and '60s.

LEVIN: And when we come back, I want to ask you why. In this central point that you've written about before, the denial of liberty.


LEVIN: It's almost sort of genuflecting type argument.


LEVIN: And relying on the past to deny the future.


LEVIN: We'll be right back.

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LEVIN: Shelby Steele, we've been talking about these forces that are in play. Why the almost myopic focus, I watch some of these professors and so-called Civil Right leaders, almost a myopic focus 150 years ago. I believe we ought to learn our history, I believe we ought to know our history. I mean, that's crucial. But really almost a rejection of a fact that we have liberty.

STEELE: Absolutely. We think that freedom is a lie. And one that I'm doing some work on as of at the moment, but one of the things that come out that there are people who have been long oppressed and who finally come into freedom, one of the problems that goes with that is what I call bad faith.

If you have been a victim of America's hypocrisy for three centuries, now you are free, now you don't know what to do with the freedom, and so, you've got some problems there. But the easy thing is to simply say, "We're not free." And, now we're down to micro aggressions.

LEVIN: Safe spaces.

STEELE: Yes, safe spaces, where I am determined to - I am going to do whatever I need it to do to convince myself, to make it up in my own mind that I'm not free. It is a tragedy that is striking black America. It is something perfectly normal, it comes out of three centuries of victimization. The idea that you don't trust what they say to you - all these white people, you don't trust these elites. Bad faith is cunning. It is being smart. It is saying, "I'm not a sucker. I was a sucker for three centuries. I am not going to be - I am not going to believe these people again. I am going to keep a distance."

And you end up keeping a distance from your own opportunities, and you miss them, and you hurt yourself.

LEVIN: How do you break out of this as an individual?

STEELE: It is a damn hard question. Certainly, one of the things that I think would be to - we will eventually do is to express this, to say, "Look, freedom." If you are going to never get married, to start having babies in your late teens and dropping out of high school, and so forth, you are going to suffer no matter what goes on elsewhere in the society.

You will be the one who pays the price. What we as blacks have to do, and this is what is so damn hard, I acknowledge it is hard. After going through all of that, we all have that pain in the families, in ourselves, but we have to accept the fact that it is over with, and we're not going to get perfect justice. We're not going to get reparations. If you give me $20,000.00 because my grandfather, which he was, born a slave, what am I going to really do with that $20,000.00?

It will probably be gone maybe a month or two, maybe a few days, but, what is it going to do to change my life? You can't get reparation.

LEVIN: Right, and what is it going to do to change your thinking?

STEELE: Right.

LEVIN: Or the thinking of those who keep pressing the so called - they are pressing the agenda? They're not going to stop, are they?

STEELE: That's right. This is what - you know, this is why liberalism has become - they are - what is the term they use? People who help out or keep addicts - there's a word - it escapes me at the moment, but they facilitate our problem - that psychology by which we say freedom does not exist.

White guilt forces them to facilitate that and to then claim this proves we are not racist. There is a symbiotic bond between black America and white America, and there always has been. It takes different forms at different times, but right now, since the 60s, white Americans have been guilty and again, as I say, it's not that they feel guilt, it is that they feel this pressure, this threat, and so they behave guiltily.

It's the behaving guiltily that is the problem. I am going to do something. I'm going to actually take micro aggression seriously. I'm going to hire people to teach you about that. When it is a joke - if black people - how did we survive this long if we ...

LEVIN: If every little thing ...

STEELE: With every little thing, every time - I grew up you calling me an "N" word, that was once or twice a week. I refuse to accept the idea that we're that weak if we are in this, there's really no hope.

LEVIN: Lots more, but first, check us out most week nights on LevinTV on We'd love to have you there. We have great programming on CRTV. Give us a call and sign up, 844-LEVIN-TV, 844-LEVIN-TV. We'll be right back.

You know the broader issue to me is assimilation - assimilation into the culture, assimilation into certain traditions, beliefs and values. Universal truths, eternal truths, and when a society doesn't have that, a society can't succeed. It balkanizes, it tribalizes, it breaks apart. It's a war with itself. I personally see this with immigration that you have a political party that does not believe in it, you have corporate entities that keep different languages, they press button one for this and button two for this and so forth and so on, and it is very concerning to me, but is it a bigger problem because assimilation is Americanization, that is what is intended. The point you are raising not necessarily just with immigration, this issue of Americanization, you've touched on this, too. It is crucial for the people who are already here to be Americanized.


LEVIN: What do you mean by that?

STEELE: Well, you know, if you don't like the world American, you can use modernity. The modern world functions in a certain way. It's the result of a very long centuries and centuries of evolution and to an enlightenment or reformation. I mean, scientific revolution, on and on. That is no joke. You don't want to - what would its competitor be? Well, when talk about assimilation, that's what one of the things oppression did to black Americans was prevent us from assimilating saying, "You're not going to learn these things. You're not going to ..." and we of course, in many ways, we did anyway, and adopted those principles and values and so forth.

But now, there are these politics and this guilt that we've been talking about, and I am white now, and I am guilty and I am liberal, I want immigrants to be un-assimilable. They have been a victim class. And as a victim class, then I am the one who is going to be responsible and I anguish over their victimization and I therefore take moral authority and power.

LEVIN: You bring this up, moral authority, is this whole notion one of superior moral authority where the left then looks down at everybody else who doesn't agree with them? Is that's what's going on?

STEELE: What the left said today is "We are good people and we are redeeming America," the great moral principle they subscribe to is redemption. "Look at how ugly we were, it's people like us ..." That's why we're elite. That's why we're special. That's why we are so sophisticated. It's because we are going to - we're fighting against that ignorance and that backwardness.

And so, if immigrants come to America, and say "Good to be here, we're going to now become Americans." That doesn't make the left happy. That doesn't give them any - because they are not going to be victims. So, you look at the problem we have now with immigration. The people on the left immediately characterize it as a moral problem of a people of color being oppressed, once again, and therefore, we have - it falls on us as liberals to somehow redeem America from its abusive people like this.

There is a lot of power. I mean, there is so much power and the rewards are so high because you get an identity and I see this in any number of people. There is a - I am going to - to vote for somebody on the left, liberal whomever, makes "I am in with the good people. I'm not in with - look at how abhorrent white people were, and I'm above that," you know, "I'm above my Uncle Tony who used to use the "n" word all the time at the dinner table." That is on the opposite of that.

So, we've given America this avenue to redemption, and the leftist turned it to a vein of power and it is now I think destroying us. because it cuts away at everything that is timeless and beautiful and important. Difficult. Difficult certainly, but very important.

LEVIN: We'll be right back.

Shelby Steele, affirmative action, will it ever end?

STEELE: Boy, not for a long time.


STEELE: Because for many reasons, but again, one of them, to go back to this old guilt thing is that without affirmative action, without the idea of a preference that you grant to victims, the left has no power, it has no way to keep this whole machinery going. So it just - they just find new and different more inventive ways of using preferences to send a signal that we are innocent.

At Harvard University, 8% to 9% of every single freshman class has to be black. If you didn't lower the standards, for admission, probably only 1% would be black. They would be ones who have earned it via merit, but they would be greatly outnumbered by those who won it as a racial preference.

And in a sense white America saying is that, "We're redeeming ourselves this way, without us we would go back to old way - discrimination and racism and so forth," so, you know we have got the finger in the dike, and so affirmative action is just diversity, it's this sort of new incarnation, a wretched idea with all sorts of perversions that follow from this idea of diversity. I could tell you a story about that.

LEVIN: Doesn't it help camouflage the failures of half a century of the left's agenda?

STEELE: Yes, because you know, black America has to face some - why are we poorer now than we were when we had no freedom. After 50, 60 years of freedom, why are we poor? Well, whites have a bill coming due as well. Why have you betrayed every principle that made you great? That made America great? Why did you betray all of that? In the name of what? In the name of your own innocence.

Your innocence is a corruption. It facilitates everything that is not good in the minority community. You are the problem now. It used to, as I say often, the old fashion segregation, it's you called me the "n" word all the time while I was growing up. I prefer them any day to the modern white American liberal who exploits me and black Americans for this moral authority that then uses as its base.

I'm being used now just as a slave was being used to over state it a little bit, but not much and it breaks my heart, I visit campuses, I talk to black students, and they tell me all sorts of stories about their roommates, and white roommates saying, "You wouldn't be here if you weren't black." So affirmative action ruins the very people that claims to help. It dispirits them. It takes the incentive away for achieving excellence. It ruins them. And then you get - and so no doubt then, you get groups like Black Lives Matter that just take this to wide extremes claiming how victimized they are.

LEVIN: We have to take a break, unfortunately. We'll be right back.

Shelby Steele, ten years from now, race relations in America, better or worse?

STEELE: Very good question. What makes me feel - and I'm basically an optimist and I think in the long run, we pretty much always work through these problems, although painful as that working maybe. So I think we ultimately will be able to do that and today, you see signs of the left's sort of - of this guilt and so forth, it's preoccupation with its own innocence and you see that beginning to crack a little and people are saying, "No, no, no. I see through that. You are manipulating me. You are not pointing to some real human pain here or some real difficulty. You are just manipulating me. You are talking about a micro - I'm supposed to get up in the morning and believe that?"

LEVIN: I hope you're right and I want to thank you. it's been an absolute honor to meet you and talk to you. Ladies and gentlemen, join us next time on "Life, Liberty & Levine."

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