Review: Shelby Steele’s Shame

Shame: How America’s Past Sins Have Polarized Our Country came out in 2015, but it remains as relevant as ever as an analysis of race and the political divisions that have become inflamed in America.

Shame is autobiography interspersed with historical and political context, making it a book that is more interesting, though perhaps less dryly academic, than the work of many others like Thomas Sowell (in, for example, The Quest for Cosmic Justice).

Steele follows a similar trajectory to Sowell; starting out as a young black man in America and then experiencing a world that had prejudged him. Steele’s account of racism shows how even those who perceived themselves as enlightened took part in bigotry and were unwilling to make personal sacrifices to reach the proper standard of just behavior.

And like Sowell, Steele brings his concerns with the political machinations of the modern left to the table. As a staunch advocate of individual rights and reforms, he argues that the philosophical and intellectual leaders among the conservatives have undertaken a noble quest to remove injustice and create a more perfect system.

He compares this perspective–the perspective of his father–with the modern belief that the past oppressions of America have shown it to be unfit and that only radical changes can improve society.

In 2015, this might have been derided as a strawman of the left, but recent events have shown Steele’s judgment to be eerily prescient.

His experiences with student radicalism and the Black Panthers in exile play a prominent role in forming his perception of the left, and one of the fundamental distinctions that he cites is the question of American exceptionalism: the idea that something novel about liberty, freedom, and self-reliance has been responsible for America being distinct from other countries.

Steele is less focused on the nature of American exceptionalism–he discusses it only in passing–but it is the divide between the political right, who see the exceptionalism as something that makes America worth preserving, and the political left, who are cynical about whether it even exists that forms the underlying foundation of the work.

Although it is less academically rigorous and more anecdotal than some other books written by prominent conservative voices on race in society, Shame is an important contribution to the corpus. Perhaps it is exactly the personal nature, the intersection between the world and the man, that makes it as powerful and valuable as it is.

Find it: Amazon affiliate link. I listened to the Audible version, available from the same page.

Rating: 5 out of 5

For the kids: It’s not a light text, but it blends personal interest and useful information. Shame includes accounts of real events and quotes that might trouble younger readers.

Who will enjoy it?

Conservatives seeking an answer to Critical Race Theory-derived views on the American history of race. People who like biographies with a touch of extra cerebral material. It’s well-written enough to hold broad appeal to audiences as a relevant text to understanding the American experience.

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