The oppression of black people is over with

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Joel Shaffer's picture

Jim wrote:

Is there a way to show the entire article because I don't subscribe to the Wall St. Journal. 

Jim's picture

The recent protests by black players in the National Football League were rather sad for their fruitlessness. They may point to the end of an era for black America, and for the country generally—an era in which protest has been the primary means of black advancement in American life.

There was a forced and unconvincing solemnity on the faces of these players as they refused to stand for the national anthem. They seemed more dutiful than passionate, as if they were mimicking the courage of earlier black athletes who had protested: Tommie Smith and John Carlos, fists in the air at the 1968 Olympics; Muhammad Ali, fearlessly raging against the Vietnam War; Jackie Robinson, defiantly running the bases in the face of racist taunts. The NFL protesters seemed to hope for a little ennoblement by association.

And protest has long been an ennobling tradition in black American life. From the Montgomery bus boycott to the march on Selma, from lunch-counter sit-ins and Freedom Rides to the 1963 March on Washington, only protest could open the way to freedom and the acknowledgment of full humanity. So it was a high calling in black life. It required great sacrifice and entailed great risk. Martin Luther King Jr. , the archetypal black protester, made his sacrifices, ennobled all of America, and was then shot dead.

For the NFL players there was no real sacrifice, no risk and no achievement. Still, in black America there remains a great reverence for protest. Through protest—especially in the 1950s and ’60s—we, as a people, touched greatness. Protest, not immigration, was our way into the American Dream. Freedom in this country had always been relative to race, and it was black protest that made freedom an absolute.

It is not surprising, then, that these black football players would don the mantle of protest. The surprise was that it didn’t work. They had misread the historic moment. They were not speaking truth to power. Rather, they were figures of pathos, mindlessly loyal to a black identity that had run its course.

What they missed is a simple truth that is both obvious and unutterable: The oppression of black people is over with. This is politically incorrect news, but it is true nonetheless. We blacks are, today, a free people. It is as if freedom sneaked up and caught us by surprise.

Of course this does not mean there is no racism left in American life. Racism is endemic to the human condition, just as stupidity is. We will always have to be on guard against it. But now it is recognized as a scourge, as the crowning immorality of our age and our history.

Protest always tries to make a point. But what happens when that point already has been made—when, in this case, racism has become anathema and freedom has expanded?

What happened was that black America was confronted with a new problem: the shock of freedom. This is what replaced racism as our primary difficulty. Blacks had survived every form of human debasement with ingenuity, self-reliance, a deep and ironic humor, a capacity for self-reinvention and a heroic fortitude. But we had no experience of wide-open freedom.


Watch out that you get what you ask for, the saying goes. Freedom came to blacks with an overlay of cruelty because it meant we had to look at ourselves without the excuse of oppression. Four centuries of dehumanization had left us underdeveloped in many ways, and within the world’s most highly developed society. When freedom expanded, we became more accountable for that underdevelopment. So freedom put blacks at risk of being judged inferior, the very libel that had always been used against us.

To hear, for example, that more than 4,000 people were shot in Chicago in 2016 embarrasses us because this level of largely black-on-black crime cannot be blamed simply on white racism.

We can say that past oppression left us unprepared for freedom. This is certainly true. But it is no consolation. Freedom is just freedom. It is a condition, not an agent of change. It does not develop or uplift those who win it. Freedom holds us accountable no matter the disadvantages we inherit from the past. The tragedy in Chicago—rightly or wrongly—reflects on black America.

That’s why, in the face of freedom’s unsparing judgmentalism, we reflexively claim that freedom is a lie. We conjure elaborate narratives that give white racism new life in the present: “systemic” and “structural” racism, racist “microaggressions,” “white privilege,” and so on. All these narratives insist that blacks are still victims of racism, and that freedom’s accountability is an injustice.

We end up giving victimization the charisma of black authenticity. Suffering, poverty and underdevelopment are the things that make you “truly black.” Success and achievement throw your authenticity into question.

The NFL protests were not really about injustice. Instead such protests are usually genuflections to today’s victim-focused black identity. Protest is the action arm of this identity. It is not seeking a new and better world; it merely wants documentation that the old racist world still exists. It wants an excuse.

For any formerly oppressed group, there will be an expectation that the past will somehow be an excuse for difficulties in the present. This is the expectation behind the NFL protests and the many protests of groups like Black Lives Matter. The near-hysteria around the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Freddie Gray and others is also a hunger for the excuse of racial victimization, a determination to keep it alive. To a degree, black America’s self-esteem is invested in the illusion that we live under a cloud of continuing injustice.

When you don’t know how to go forward, you never just sit there; you go backward into what you know, into what is familiar and comfortable and, most of all, exonerating. You rebuild in your own mind the oppression that is fading from the world. And you feel this abstract, fabricated oppression as if it were your personal truth, the truth around which your character is formed. Watching the antics of Black Lives Matter is like watching people literally aspiring to black victimization, longing for it as for a consummation.

But the NFL protests may be a harbinger of change. They elicited considerable resentment. There have been counterprotests. TV viewership has gone down. Ticket sales have dropped. What is remarkable about this response is that it may foretell a new fearlessness in white America—a new willingness in whites (and blacks outside the victim-focused identity) to say to blacks what they really think and feel, to judge blacks fairly by standards that are universal.

We blacks have lived in a bubble since the 1960s because whites have been deferential for fear of being seen as racist. The NFL protests reveal the fundamental obsolescence—for both blacks and whites—of a victim-focused approach to racial inequality. It causes whites to retreat into deference and blacks to become nothing more than victims. It makes engaging as human beings and as citizens impermissible, a betrayal of the sacred group identity. Black victimization is not much with us any more as a reality, but it remains all too powerful as a hegemony.

Mr. Steele, a senior fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, is author of “Shame: How America’s Past Sins Have Polarized Our Country” (Basic Books, 2015).

dmyers's picture

I wish this wasn't behind a pay wall so I could post it on Facebook.  Powerful.

Bert Perry's picture

I agree with a lot of the sentiment--it's along the lines of Frederick Douglass' plea to leave the black man alone after emancipation, really--but I dare say that that line--the title of this filing--is going to ensure that his sentiments fall on deaf ears.  We might say that if we want the era of grievances to be over with, we need to subtly help African Americans to SEE that their oppression is over with.  We can't just say it.

Unfair, sure.  350 years of idiocy and sin is going to leave a mark, brothers.  Those of us who are shaking our heads at the national anthem protests might as well get over it and get to work.

(and to be totally honest, I'd had a fleeting hope that the protests would have the good effect of ending our national idolatry to the flag and national anthem, but apparently no such luck....I'd better get over it too, eh?)

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

T Howard's picture

Jim wrote:

The recent protests by black players in the National Football League were rather sad for their fruitlessness....

Jim, as a heads up, posting the article in its entirety here is most likely a violation of copyright law.

Joel Shaffer's picture

I have mixed emotions on this essay.  Shelby Steele is a very thoughtful writer and his thesis should be examined.   In fact, I spent much of my weekend and day off marinating on it.   Steele, like other black conservatives such as Walter Williams and Thomas Sowell is a black conservative that has been influenced greatly by a combination of Classical Liberalism and Austrian Economics.  To a certain extent, so have I.  For instance. I have seen first-hand the fruits of economic freedom which has been used to pull poor, black, former drug dealers/gang-members out of poverty through free enterprise.  But there are a few issues that I need to bring up.  His statement that “the oppression of blacks is over with.”  From my point of view, Yes and No.  If you are saying that the systems within our country such as Government, Religion, Law Enforcement, Criminal Justice, Business, and Education no longer are intentionally attempting to suppress African-Americans, then I would say yes.  We are now at that point in history.  As a country, the United States has made progress to the point that the overwhelming majority of systems are not intentionally attempting to keep African-Americans as a second-class citizens like they were in the Jim Crow years and even in the transition years of the 1970’s.    

However, I do believe that there are systems/structures within our country that unintentionally oppress African-Americans.  Let me give you 3 examples of this (there are more, but not enough space)  Do you remember G.W. Bush’s speech on education where he talked about the “soft-bigotry of low expectations” within our inner-city public schools?  That was right on the money!  The public schools in Grand Rapids, which are overwhelmingly minority, have a policy where teachers must force students to pass (unless parents overwhelmingly desire their child to stay in that grade) Students cannot be held back no matter how bad their grades were or how many times they skipped.  This is a systemic racial justice issue and one that most conservatives agree exists and I would argue is a subtle and unintentional form of racial oppression.  Another example would be the war on drugs and the militarized development of the police state that resulted.  I doubt that Reagan or Clinton and others were trying to create systemic racial injustice by instituting unconstitutional and unfair laws such as Search and Forfeiture, Mandatory Minimum sentencing, and Stop and Frisk   However, these unjust laws where the punishment did not fit the crime for nonviolent offenders created an entire hardened criminal class among minorities and significantly contributed to perhaps the greatest problem among African-Americans:  Fatherlessness.  Again, the racial oppression is subtle and unintentional and even somewhat nuanced, but it is there.  The last systemic racial injustice/form of oppression that I’m mentioning is most likely intentional.  That is, the infanticide among blacks through abortion.   I have mingled much among government, non-profit, and educational social workers and for a large majority of them, abortion is the primary solution to fatherlessness.  These social workers use their power and influence to refer frightened, low-income African-American teenage girls into visiting Planned Parenthood, which eventually refers them to the local abortion clinic in Grand Rapids.  

But here is the problem with Shelby Steele.  His Classical Liberalism of the primacy of the freedom of the individual influences his view on abortion.   He is a vocal pro-choice libertarian.  Freedom of choice overrides his view of the sanctity of human life.  The complexity of personhood as the Imago Dei doesn’t fit within his individualistic framework.  Nor does his truncated belief in sin, which is also quite individualistic.  In his mind, individual sin hasn’t affected sinful systems within our country, and these sinful systems don’t really affect sinful individuals.  My point is that his Classical Liberalism is not robust enough to be compatible with the Biblical narrative, especially within the doctrine of creation and the doctrine of sin.

Joel Shaffer's picture

My second problem is his broad-brushing of those who hold to a belief in systemic racism and white privilege as black victimization.  Yes, there are some African-Americans that fit the victimization profile that Steele has created.  Many love to protest.  And I am in agreement with my Urban Ministry colleague and friend Rudy Carrasco, who wrote this about those in the ‘hood who are spending so much time protesting and playing the victimization card.  

 “What I believe I need to do instead is to match my words of biblical caution about wealth (protest) with teachings of the principles that will help them rise out of poverty (invest). This balance of protesting and investing is critical, because the average teen in my community does not believe his life circumstances can change. For example, there are jobs available—tough and low-paying jobs that, when done well, can be springboards to better jobs—but many teens do not believe they can ever rise out of poverty by working hard, saving their money, keeping away from all sorts of trifling behaviors, and investing wisely.

I spend a lot of time trying to convince them to take the long, persevering road. My list of speeches sounds oh-so-square. Don’t spend your money. Start with an old, cheap car. Work two jobs, even three. Get some college. Start a business on the side. This is how people all over America, regardless of ethnicity, get ahead. But it’s a hard sell because these principles go against human comfort, and they are especially hard to embed in a young heart. So, extra time and attention are needed to convince poor urban youth that this is the way to go. What I do not need to put extra time and energy into is teaching them about the existence of injustice. They already believe they have to fight for themselves against what they view as a cold, prejudiced system. They know that greedy capitalists often get away with massive, multi-million-dollar crimes, while many poor people are sent to prison for years for relatively minor offenses. This and other anecdotes about economic injustice are easy to come by on the streets of the city, and city youths’ hunger for them is great. Some kids have already participated in protests against police and educational administrations, lobbied city councils, marched in demonstrations against war, walked out, sat in, and held the line in union-led strikes.  But from the vantage point of my home, next to a corner store in a black and Latino neighborhood, what I see is a generation carrying picket signs in their hearts but running no businesses, owning no property, creating no wealth, tempted to commit crimes, and doomed to wallow in poverty. The very kids who should be disciplining themselves, saving money, working long hours, practicing how to write a business plan, and learning how to win investor confidence, are instead walking around complaining. They talk about what can’t happen and who is against them, preoccupy themselves with endless conspiracy theories, and otherwise squander their God-given time, talent, and opportunities.”

However, Steele seems to broad-brush this unfair characteristic of victimization upon all black people who believe that there are racially unjust systems or believe in forms of white privilege.   I have devoted much of my life to include having deep conversations about racism and racism with countless African-Americans and I have found that a multiplicity of views among the many who believe in the concept of White privilege or systemic racism yet have not embraced the type of victimization that he overly generalizes black people with.    My challenge for everyone on Sharper Iron is to enter into deep relationships with African-Americans.  Learn to listen first.  Hear their stories, including the many where they have experienced racism first-hand.  And then judge whether Shelby Steele’s theory of victimization applies to the overwhelming majority.   

josh p's picture

Joel, thanks for chiming in. I always enjoy your posts. As a thinnists libertarian I do take a little issue with the idea that Classical Liberalism is not robust enough to be compatible with creation and sin. First of all I would say that no political system ever could be fully compatible with it. It is a good system as is Austrian Economics. Not infallible but good. Secondly, I don't agree that libertarianism or Classical Liberalism demands one (or even necessarily influences one) do be pro-choice. To me one's governing presuppositions do that and our politics follow. The Non-Aggression Principle could be applied to the mother whose baby is sponging off of her or to the baby who is a human and therefore cannot be aggressed against. It's all a matter of one's prior assumptions. 

Joel Shaffer's picture

I was only disagreeing with his view of Classical Liberalism and how it may have influenced him since his prior assumptions don't necessarily embrace the Biblical narrative.  I began reading Shelby Steele 25 years ago beginning with "the Content of  Our Character."  Unfortunately there are those within the African-American community and even more from the White Progressive community that do not give him a fair hearing, but rather label him an "Uncle Tom" without seeking to understand where he's coming from.   But as I mentioned above, there are some things that I disagree with.  Actually, the writings of  Dr. Anthony Bradley have been more balanced and biblical on this topic.  

josh p's picture

I'm not familiar with either of them. I have read Sowell and what he has to say about it which was helpful. I would like to get another perspective so maybe I'll check out Bradley. Thanks.

mmartin's picture

I recently heard Ben Shapiro say that there is no such thing as "White Privilege," but there is "Decision Privilege."

I agree with Joel that we should build relationships with African-Americans to understand their point of view.  Certainly a lot of blacks do not have a race-victim mentality, but it is easy for many whites to think that is not the case.  What we most often see in the media is the opposite story, a general narrative that seems to indicate most blacks do have a victimization mentality in spite of rational thinking and objective data.  We need to be smarter than that and see through the media noise.

I've watched hardly any NFL this season, in large part because of the protests.  I could care less what race the players are with their protests, just don't do it during our anthem.

Jim's picture

mmartin wrote:

I've watched hardly any NFL this season, in large part because of the protests.  I could care less what race the players are with their protests, just don't do it during our anthem.

NFL’s kneeling comes to abrupt halt: Protesters miss playoffs

NBC plans to televise any players who refuse to stand for “The Star-Spangled Banner” at the Super Bowl, but there may be nothing to show.

It appears that NFL players are no longer taking a knee during the national anthem, namely because none of the teams with still-active protesters has qualified for the postseason.

By the end of the regular season, only five teams featured at least one player regularly sitting or kneeling on the sidelines for the anthem: the Seattle Seahawks, the San Francisco 49ers, the Miami Dolphins, the New York Giants and the Oakland Raiders.

None of those franchises made the playoffs, even though four of the five did so in the previous season, leading to speculation about whether the take-a-knee protests wound up dragging down team performance along with TV ratings.

“By their actions, the kneelers brought controversy into the locker rooms, and this kind of distraction is always going to be detrimental to team cohesiveness,” said Robert Kuykendall, a spokesman for the conservative corporate watchdog 2ndVote.


It's like they forgot the old maxim: "There's no "I" in TEAM"

"One of his most famous rules, although Law would be the first to admit it did not originate with him, is 'There is no 'I' in team.' Perhaps that one rule is the reason why the Pirates are out in front, winning the pennant, not backing into it." 

Joel Shaffer's picture

There was really only one week where a large group of football players protested, and their protesting was more due to President Trump's meddling.   By the middle of the season, it was less than 1% of the football players, but the much of the social media tried to keep the narrative going.