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26 Harv. C.R.-C.L. L. Rev. 306 (1991)
The Content of Our Character

handle is hein.journals/hcrcl26 and id is 312 raw text is: 306    Harvard Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law Review

The Content of Our Character. Shelby Steele. New York: St.
Martin's Press, 1990. Pp. 175. $15.95, cloth.
Two years ago I began reading the essays of Shelby Steele as
they appeared in Harpers' and The New York Times Magazine.2
Steele's writings on race relations in America and the African-
American experience struck some familiar notes about the empti-
ness of racial discourse and the problems that plague African
Americans in today's society. Along with this familiarity, however,
I found a myopic simplicity in Steele's analysis. He sees the
choices available for African-American advancement as limited
either to individual achievement or to the isolation of racial group
identification. What is conspicuously absent from Steele's analysis
is a recognition of the complexities in race relations, complexities
that are too often forgotten in the contemporary dialogue. Reading
Steele's essays, I am left with the feeling that he can name the
problems of race relations with some accuracy, but the solutions
he offers seem those of an isolated and distant observer of African-
American society.
Steele's collection of essays, The Content of Our Character,
borrows its title from Martin Luther King Jr.'s monumental I
Have a Dream speech.3 Steele's exploration of race relations in
America, however, conveys neither the sensitivity nor the insight
with which those words were originally spoken. Steele defines his
new vision of race in America by using the old, simplistic rhet-
oric of self-help and individualism that devalues the continuing
significance of race and racism in our society. Like the policy
makers who seek to abandon civil rights enforcement, Steele as-
serts that the real obstructions to black achievement lie in the
under-achievement of the African-American poor and the failure
of the social programs upon which they often rely. As advanced
ISteele, The Recoloring of Campus Life, 278 HARPER'S 47 (1989); Steele, Ghettoized
by Black Unity, 280 HARPER'S 20 (1990).
2 Steele, A Negative Vote on Affirmative Action, N.Y. Times, May 13, 1990, Magazine
at 46.
3 Martin Luther King's I, Have a Dream speech was delivered on the steps of the
Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. on August 28, 1963. The title of Steele's book came
from paragraph 19 of that speech: I have a dream that my four little children will one day
live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content
of their character. I have a dream today. The full text of the speech is reprinted in
A TESTAMENT OF HOPE: THE ESSENTIAL WRITINGS OF MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR. 217
(J. Washington, ed. 1991).

[Vol. 26

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