The Content of Our Character
The Content of Our Character is the title of a book written by Shelby Steele, the noted author and Hoover Institute Fellow. It was first published in hardback by St. Martin’s Press in 1990 and is available today in paperback thanks to Harper Perennial.
Although this book is clearly written primarily for African Americans as a part of an ongoing debate within that community, it offers great insight into the timely issue of friction between the black and white races in America. As with all of Mr. Steele’s books, it is a thoughtful and intellectually provoking book. It will help white Americans better understand the journey being made by black Americans from their treatment as second class citizens, to full-fledged participants in the rough and tumble landscape of a free, democratic society.
It gave me a greater understanding of the insecurity both races have with a fully integrated, fair, and yet competitive society. White guilt, the title of another Steele book, along with the fear of individual failure can lead to new anxieties and frictions.
The great debate now going on in the African American community, i.e. Jesse Jackson vs. Bill Cosby, has to do with leadership. Should the leadership of the black community lead by blaming white Americans for all the ills of their race, or should the primary responsibility for success be focused on the individual? Can any group really get ahead when they envision themselves as victims, even if they are a victim? That’s the real question posed by Shelby Steele in this book.
It’s the collective vs. the individual. To be authentically black, according to Steele, you must identify with the publicly identified position of the black community as victims of white oppression, past, present, and future. But, to succeed you must put aside the idea that you are a victim and take full personal responsibility for your success or failure. You must be willing to compete in all areas of our society.
As Steele pointed out in White Guilt, young black men expect to excel in basketball. They would never tolerate a player in a pick-up game that can’t dribble, fake, pass, and shoot at a high level. In fact, African Americans have re-defined the great game of basketball through intense competition and hard work. Yet these same young men, according to Steele, will avoid doing well in school for fear that they will be labeled as "acting white."
This book is worth reading. It deals with an issue that must be solved in the 21st Century if America is to advance and prosper.