Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Confronting the Brutal Facts

Written by: on September 9, 2021

Broadly speaking, Shame is a critical review of the hypocrisies that have characterized American liberalism since the 1960s and their damaging impact upon minority, particularly black, advancement. Steele argues that at the root of this long-standing and widespread problem is white paternalism, which is a false response to the sins of racism, sexism, militarism, and environmental neglect. However, he also confronts the brutal fact that in line with the ideals of individualism, meritocracy and healthy competition, Black Americans must take personal responsibility for their own progress or risk generational underdevelopment. In other words, as previous research has shown, minority social and economic inferiority will continue until minorities themselves invest the hard work necessary to change this.


Divided into eighteen chapters, Shame begins by using the author’s personal experience to highlight racism in America. Steele then discusses the shift in African American thinking from rejecting their African heritage to embracing it. Subsequently, the author focuses on how several Blacks find themselves stuck in the rut of struggling with a painful history of slavery and racism yet are unable to embrace a better future due to illiteracy. Finally, the book ends with the argument that conservatism is the answer, but a conservatism that sincerely acknowledges the impact of racism while advocating the ideals of individual freedom, hard work and competition.


Shelby Steele boldly attempts to address the problem of a multi-faceted hypocrisy among white American liberals and shows how this has resulted in paternalism that has damaged the self-esteem, confidence and motivation of minorities in the USA. However, he argues that it will be extremely misleading to assume this is the only problem responsible for black stagnation. According to Steele black entitlement is equally responsible and, unfortunately, has not been given the attention it deserves due to white guilt. Shame suggests that these two problems have fostered decades of welfarism and socio-economic stagnation within the Black community. He does this by drawing upon lessons from history and personal experience as a student and in his trip to three African nations in 1970.


What resonates the most with me is how Steele stresses that family breakdown – not systemic racism – is the most significant problem black Americans face today. This highlights how an attack on the first institution created by God, family, is an attack on everything else. Indeed as Psalm 11:3 questions, ”if the foundations are destroyed, what can the righteous do?” indeed, as Steele explains, family breakdown, manifesting as female-headed homes, is at the root of “gangsterism, drug abuse, low academic achievement, high dropout and unemployment rates, high crime and incarceration”[1]. One important fact that I believed in which Shame reaffirms is that paternalism destroys. I see this regularly in my work as a community development practitioner working among the poor in South Africa and now realize that, in my zeal to help the less privileged, I must diligently explore ways to offer help without destroying initiative, originality and personal responsibility. Steele presents several ideas that are new to me. This includes the delusion that having fun at an activity that is based in racism is “proof” that one is not racist[2]. This stirs in me a desire for self-reflection to examine any racial tendencies I might have that I am blind to because of my enjoyment of those activities. I also like how Steele points out that the first feature of social transformation is fearlessness[3]. Indeed, one of the first things God encourages Joshua about is to be courageous. Shame also suggests that without formal education, blacks are caught in between a past that has deprived them and a future they can’t seize thus thy fall into an “outlaw’s grandiosity.“[4]


In conclusion, Shame has inspired me, as an African, to do three things. First, revisit the roots of African underdevelopment and how an inferiority complex and dependency has crippled the development of our true potential into all that God has created us to be. Second, explore how we must now confront the brutal facts that we cannot eternally blame slavery and colonialism for our problems but embrace the reality that we must accept all the gospel has to offer for our redemption and take personal responsibility for our destiny. Finally, black racism towards whites is just as real as white racism towards blacks and must also be addressed.


[1] Shelby Steele. “Shame: How America’s Past Sins Have Polarized Our Country.” Basic Books 2015, 33.

[2] Steele, “Shame”, 43

[3] Steele, “Shame”, 73

[4] Steele, “Shame”, 103

About the Author


Henry Gwani

Disciple, husband, father, community development practitioner and student of leadership working among marginalized communities in South Africa

3 responses to “Confronting the Brutal Facts”

  1. Kayli Hillebrand says:


    I appreciate reading your insights on this book and your honest reflection of the themes and forward actions which can be directly applied to your context in South Africa. I was thinking about the community and youth development work you are dedicated to as I read this book. In regards to the three things that you have been inspired to do as an African, do you anticipate that any of those will also find their way into your NPO and final project? I could imagine how the empowerment of impoverished youth in the community you are focused on could be even further advanced by exploring those topics.

  2. Elmarie Parker says:

    Hi Henry. Thank you for sharing your analytical summary of this book and what actions it is spurring you to commit to making. I found your summary especially helpful, as a family crisis interrupted my reading for this week (more on that in my own blog post).

    Your summary of Steel’s book leaves me wondering if he equally evaluates and critiques the impact of the conservative values he elevates on the social fabric of the USA? After living for the past eight years in a more communal culture in the Middle East, I have a new set of eyes for seeing some of the destructive impact of the hyper-individualism, competitiveness, and meritocracy that has developed in a USA context over the past 30-40 years. Many face a crippling isolation. Others live with a blindness to the many ways they have been helped by others to get to where they are–their status and position isn’t just an individual achievement. Many companies no longer prioritize their workers in policies and decisions; rather it is profit and benefits to stockholders that drives policies and decision-making.

    I agree with the dangers of paternalism and the mentality of saviorism. I agree with the value of personal responsibility, though I also believe we are communally responsible for one another. God created us in relationship. God saw that it was not good for Adam to be alone…the beginning of not only families, but societies–we are not just a collection of individuals. Thus, I wonder how the patterns (both conscious and unconscious) that we develop as societies impact individuals, families, and communities and vice-a-versa. I think the conversation around systemic racism is an example of this.

    All of the above leads me to wonder if the way forward may be better discerned by critically evaluating both American/Western neo-liberalism and the political reaction to it that has emerged on the conservative end of the political spectrum?

    I am very interested in hearing more about your experience as an African working in a South African context regarding individualism and its role in more communal cultures.

  3. mm Roy Gruber says:

    Henry, I appreciate your perspective that comes outside of my own culture and continent. Your points of application from “Shame” are challenging to me as I ended the reading with more frustration than direction. I found Steele unwilling or unable to critique conservatism as he does with liberalism. As you say, the gospel offers true hope for a way forward while each political solution contains strengths and weaknesses. I hope you can make the long trip to DC! Hope to meet you in person.

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