Race: June 2010 Archives

Shelby Steele is often derided as a black opponent of affirmative action. One particular criticism of him is that he takes views that further white privilege by denying its significance for affirmative action. If affirmative action can be justified in part because of the white privilege that continues even when outright attitudinal racism is absent or enough removed to be less noticeable, then those who resist it because it discriminates against white people are ignoring racial realities. I've seen people make such a criticism of Steele. It occurred to me while reading him again on this for the ethics class I'm teaching this summer that the criticism is entirely inapt.

Steele's view does not ignore white privilege. In fact, he doesn't accept the argument that affirmative action is bad because of its effect on whites. There are black conservatives whose criticism of affirmative action is merely the claim that it's reverse racism. Steele himself counters such a claim. He doesn't think that's sufficient grounds for opposing affirmative action. While his most famous treatment of this (and the only thing I've read by him on the subject, or on any subject for that matter) does not go into much detail on why he sees such arguments as wrongheaded, I think it's got to be that he simply acknowledges the existence of white privilege.

His moral argument against affirmative action ignores (rightly, in my view) how affirmative action affects white people, something it can do only if the negative effect on white people simply counters some of the white privilege that he insists does exist. Before he can offer his moderated view against affirmative action that takes its start only from negative effects on the underrepresented groups affirmative action is supposed to help, he first needs to resist the argument against affirmative action based on its supposed unfairness to white people. His main point is that affirmative action has negative effects on the very people it's supposed to help. As time goes on and the negative effects of racism and white privilege that affirmative action is supposed to counter are getting somewhat less, the negative effects start to increase. At some point (and he thinks we've passed that point), affirmative action becomes no longer worth it.

So it's hardly true that Shelby Steele has isolated himself from his fellow blacks to the point where he simply no longer sees white privilege. It's part of his argument for his moderated critique of affirmative action, based on its effects on those it's intended to help rather than its reverse racism, that white privilege still operates and that the initial justification for affirmative action is still present. He just thinks the negatives for its beneficiaries are stronger than the positives. There may be other legitimate criticisms of Steele, but I don't think it's fair to him to claim that he's ignoring white privilege and thereby furthering it. He's fully taking it into account. It's part of his reason for not making the reverse racism charge, and it's what makes his argument a weighing of positives vs. negatives rather than an in-principle resistance based on absolute moral claims.

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