The Tragedy of Shelby Steele

by Brien Jackson

Shelby Steele has a column in today’s Wall Street Journal that is, amazingly, quite possibly the single most pathetic thing Steele has ever written. Adam Serwer says that Steele has gotten “predictable,” but I’m not sure that’s right. For one thing, Steele has always been predictable. He’s only got one trick, after all. No, at this point Steele has just become dishonest. If before you could make the case that he was being obtuse or making problematic, broad based claims, reading this effort, there’s simply no way to argue Steele doesn’t understand exactly what he’s doing in getting basic facts wrong, things he’s gotten wrong before.

For example, Steele continues to downplay President Obama with the same rhetoric he was using before the election, even implying that he was correct then:

I have called Mr. Obama a bound man because he cannot win white support without bargaining and he cannot maintain minority support without playing the very identity politics that injure him with whites. The latter form of politics is grounded in being what I call a challenger — i.e., someone who presumes that whites are racist until they prove otherwise by granting preferences of some kind to minorities. Whites quietly seethe at challengers like Jesse Jackson who use the moral authority of their race’s historic grievance to muscle for preferential treatment. Mr. Obama has been loved precisely because he was an anti-Jackson, a bargainer who grants them innocence before asking for their support.

Now, the most obvious intellectual problem here is that Steele doesn’t note that the sub-title to his “bound man” critique included a cliam that Obama “can’t win,” which would seem to be significantly undermined by the fact that Obama, you know, won. And what’s more, Steele isn’t even making an explanation as to why he was really right, even though he seemed to be spectacularly wrong, he’s just disappearing the fact altogether. Secondly, Steele is continuing the rhetoric from his post-election column that Obama somehow seduced white people into voting for him, even though Obama didn’t improve much on the level of support John Kerry or Al Gore enjoyed among white voters. Again, it’s not that Steele is “wrong,” it’s that he’s explaining why something happened, even though it didn’t happen. And he’s just pretending no one ever pointed out that he was just wrong about the facts of the matter (which he might believe, since it really wouldn’t make sense for Steele to read criticism of his parlor act, would it?).

Even more dishonestly, Steele rips Sotomayor’s “wise Latina” remark out of context even more egregiously than most other conservatives have:

Throughout her career Judge Sotomayor has demonstrated a Hispanic chauvinism so extreme that it sometimes crosses into outright claims of racial supremacy, as in 2001 when she said in a lecture at the University of California, Berkeley, “a wise Latina woman . . . would more often than not reach a better conclusion [as a judge] than a white male.”

Steele doesn’t even note that the broader context of the speech related to racial discrimination cases, he eliminates Sotomayor’s reference to the differing experiences of people of different identity groups. So yes, in this context, you certainly could come away thinking that Sotomayor was making the claim that Latina women are inherently superior to white men, but this isn’t Sotomayor’s quote. It’s an edited snippet of the quote that drastically changes the meaning of the remark. Steele isn’t even attempting to provide an accurate depiction of Sotomayor’s opinion, he’s hacking her words up in such a way as to change what she said, and he knows it. So far, this is the first time I’ve seen someone of any political persuasion edit out the “experiences” part of the quote, and it’s not as though this hasn’t been remarked upon heavily. This is just intellectual dishonesty of the highest form, which shouldn’t really surprise anyone who’s familiar with the bulk of Steele’s work, but what’s really striking is the degree to which Shelby isn’t even trying to hide it anymore. It’s right out there, and it’s extremely lazy in its construction.

Of course, this is still Shelby Steele, so the cheap racism is still there because, well, that’s what Shelby Steele exists to provide:

The Sotomayor nomination commits the cardinal sin of identity politics: It seeks to elevate people more for the political currency of their gender and ethnicity than for their individual merit. (Here, too, is the ugly faithlessness in minority merit that always underlies such maneuverings.) Mr. Obama is promising one thing and practicing another, using his interracial background to suggest an America delivered from racial corruption even as he practices a crude form of racial patronage. From America’s first black president, and a man promising the “new,” we get a Supreme Court nomination that is both unoriginal and hackneyed.

But of course, Steele doesn’t actually demonstrate that Sotomayor lacks individual merit. He predictably brings up the Ricci case but, also predictably, does so without making any mention of the relevant statutes or precedent. Like every other conservative commentary on the case, the decision is simply taken to be wrong for the simple reason that conservatives don’t approve of the outcome. But other than that, there’s nothing. Steele doesn’t make the case that Sotomayor lacks formal qualifications (because that would be too absurd even for him), he doesn’t dig through her career to find any sort of example that would show her to be unqualified in a substantive manner, in part because that’s not what Shelby Steele’s work is built around. Rather, because Sotomayor is a woman and a racial minority, it must be taken for granted that affirmative action is at work he. An hispanic female is ipso facto less qualified than a white man, the same way any other minority is in Shelby Steele’s world. Minorities in general, and black people in particular, don’t get ahead in that world on their own merits, unless, of course, they’re conservatives. Someone ought to ask Shelby Steele what he thinks of Michael Steele, and whether or not the latter would have his current position if the Democrats hadn’t elected the nation’s first black President.

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