Shelby Steele

A Dream Deferred

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A Dream Deferred Summary

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In A Dream Deferred: The Second Betrayal of Black Freedom in America, African American conservative author and commentator Shelby Steele offers a series of essays that set out to examine the source of the divided racial politics of the United States. This volume, first published in 1998 by HarperCollins, identifies white liberalism as the cause of the nation’s racial woes, with Steele citing this factor as the country’s second major crime against African Americans; the first was the injustice of slavery and segregation. In four essays, Steele outlines what he sees as grave missteps with white America’s well intentioned but ultimately damaging attempts to right the racial wrongs of the past.

The volume opens with a brief preface, in which Steele introduces the essays as being unified by a single overall argument: the theory that “America’s collision with its own racial shame in the civil rights era” produced the polarizing racial politics of recent years. Steele mentions the corrosive power of shame, how it can keep even the most well-meaning people constrained and embarrassed, and how liberal politics as a whole experienced a knee-jerk reaction to their shame over how they treated African Americans in this country. This reaction, Steele says, resulted in the creation of social programs, laws, and mentalities that did not correct the root of the problem but only smoothed it over so the mostly-white liberals of the country could swiftly and painlessly feel better about themselves. The quick-fix approach served the double purpose of absolving white Americans of responsibility without any real self-examination, self-reflection, or genuine attempts to better the lives of African Americans. The tragic byproduct of all of this, according to Steele, is that the system whites created caused black Americans to betray themselves. “Self-betrayal can become the road to redemption for the shamed society,” Steele writes. In the following essays, he expounds on this idea further.

Steele pinpoints the civil rights era, not as a pivotal moment or monumental turning point in the lives of black Americans, but instead, he sees it as a manifestation of white liberal guilt. The grave injustices and inhumanity of slavery and segregation—the first betrayal of black lives—were simply too much for liberal-minded white Americans to bear. So, they immediately went to work building a system that ostensibly catered to the needs of African Americans but really only continued to hold them back.

The author gives the examples of affirmative action and social welfare programs as proof of this point. Steele argues that these purported assistances rob African Americans of their self-esteem. He suggests that black folks do not feel compelled to follow their own innate potential because the system in place is always going to support them in one way or another. This arrangement steals from African Americans their initiative and their talent; a natural byproduct of such profound loss is a forfeiture of a certain amount of self-esteem and self-regard.

In an attempt to prove his theory, Steele notes that black athletes, musicians, writers, and other famous people of color who have excelled have done so on the force of their own talent. He does not believe that any of the social structures or safety nets from the civil rights era or beyond plays a role in black peoples’ success. Those who have been fortunate enough to be successful, Steele says, got to that point not because of social programs and policies meant to even the playing field, but in spite of them.

Steele’s answer to righting the wrongs of white liberal America is for black folks to reclaim the power that has been taken from them by returning to the fundamental principles of personal accountability. In Steele’s view, success is only defined in terms of hard work, concentrated effort, and delayed gratification. This is his recipe for success, and he names it as the single cure for the myriad struggles black folks must contend with. He says that only a strict and focused mindset of personal accountability can remedy problems like urban crime, joblessness, and teenage pregnancy.

It is interesting to note that the author does not provide a groundwork—or even any suggestions—for reaching these goals. Nor does he provide research data or a bibliography of source material, in spite of referencing numerous studies throughout the text.

His position, however, is clear. White guilt over slavery and segregation compelled white people to establish government-mandated programs to “help” African Americans, when, in reality, such programs only robbed black folks of their self-esteem and motivation. Nevertheless, whether you agree with Steele or disagree with him, he stands firm and undeterred by popular opinion. In the first essay, he writes, “Most people could empty half a room simply by saying what they truly believe. If, somehow, you come by the black conservative imprimatur, you will likely empty a lot more than half the room before you say what you believe.”