Quick Summary of Shelby Smith’s Shame
The civil rights movement of the 1960s was inspired by “classic” Jeffersonian liberalism, which sought freedom for the individual above all else. However, since that time, whites, fearful of being labeled racist, have created a plethora of social programs and identity politics, all of which have crippled the individual black person in this country from standing on their own (freedom) and taking responsibility for their pursuit of happiness. Shelby Steele, who is a Black American, labels himself a conservative. The central argument outlined in his book, Shame: How America’s Past Sins Have Polarized Our Country, is that blacks in this country who were once victims of bigotry are now, for the second time, victims of the moral neediness of their former victimizer. In his mind, white paternalism and post-1960s welfare policies, identity politics, and interventions in poverty have been far worse for Blacks in that they have created a culture of grievance entitlement and protest politics within the Black community. Steele argues that a consequence of America’s reckoning with its past racist policies and the Vietnam War was to assign the ideal of Good to the government rather than a person’s character. When this occurred, America could absolve itself of guilt and any personal repentance for the past atrocities. According to his thinking, he explains that this is how white liberals have tried to win back the moral high ground. It is the primary reason why many policies and programs designed to correct systemic racial problems only exacerbated them. His assertions are based on an inherent trust in the founding documents of this country, the idea that racism has been dealt with since the civil rights movement (although it may not be as perfect as one would like), and any individual – including Black Americans – can make it in this country, without the need for paternalistic white liberal policies.
Agree – But
There are a few fundamental differences I have with Shelby’s book:
- He believes the opportunities for black, brown, and indigenous people in America are the same for whites.
- He pins the problem of where we are today squarely on the woke left, Democrats or liberals.
- He is relatively silent as to the role of Christians in the issues this country faces.
A Quick Story
Twenty years ago, I would have vehemently defended the positions of Smith. I had made it from the blueberry farms in South Jersey to the boardrooms. What happened? I stepped away from everything to start an entrepreneurial venture, and along the way came health issues and a divorce. Undaunted, I found myself in 2008 with two master’s degrees and working in a Blockbuster video store and having to count the cost of a cup of coffee.
Although I never lost faith, the Lord opened my eyes to what it was like to live on the edge – not to know if you would have enough money to pay your bills. The least little splurge or car problem would have devastated me financially. And I thought about many people who live like this day after day, who don’t have my educational background – or my faith.
During this time, I worked part-time as an after-school instructor for 5th graders and as a substitute teacher (6th -12th grades). What I saw was unimaginable. Keep in mind I had previously taught in a maximum-security women’s prison for five years – but I wasn’t prepared for the Charlotte school system. Ten-year-old kids being abandoned by their parents, anger issues that didn’t match their young years, substandard facilities, and significant disparities with schools across town. Metal detectors. School security was worse than the correctional officers. There were times I feared for my life. And in case you were wondering – it was Black, Hispanic, Asian, and White children—all from low-income families and living in the wrong zip code. As I reflect back on this time I realize this was my most vulnerable and personal fire of emptying myself out as described by Walker in Leading From Within.
I didn’t blame the kids or their parents because I realized that before this experience, I had morphed into a black conservative and forgotten what it was like to be poor in this country. I criticized, judged, and advocated that Blacks had no reason not to succeed if they knew the Lord Jesus Christ. (I encourage you to read the journal article for more on black conservatives.  I finally realized the issues were deeper than just pulling yourself up by your bootstrap and much more systemic.
Second and Third Reasons
The second difference with Shame is that I do not think that the entire blame for the plight we find ourselves in is a result of the liberal agenda. The problem is not that we tried to legislate changes. The problem is that the changes were never really meant to get to the heart of the structural racist policies that exist in our local, state, and federal government. Much of the 1968 civil rights legislation remains unenforced and unimplemented. A fair amount of research shows that the legislation that followed the civil rights movement during Nixon, Reagan, and Clinton did more damage to black and poor communities and helped usher in the new racism today.
Lastly, Shelby is silent about the role the Christian church has played or can play moving forward. I believe this because, like many Christians today, many tend to think racial issues are outside the church walls. In the church, everyone is viewed as an individual, and the idea of equal opportunity is reinforced. (That is one of the main reasons I continued to take the blue pill (some of you Matrix fans will know what I’m talking about)). But this perspective negates the lived experiences of black brothers and sisters.
I remembered what our Robben Island tour guide said – they tried to dehumanize and strip them of their identity by not calling them by their name. I believe what grounded him, Mandela, and the others were their culture. But formerly enslaved people in America weren’t so fortunate. Listen to their story.
Last Word: Yes or No
So, the issue becomes, do you believe inequalities still exist because of systemic racism? If yes, then I encourage you to become part of the prophetic witness the church is called to in this hour to help balance the scales.
If not, then no amount of data or scripture will change your perspective and that’s okay. As long as we can come to the table and have difficult conversations and not allow how we view aspects of the world to change how we value one another. It’s in His image we were all created.
 Shelby Steele, Shame How America’s Past Sins Have Polarized Our Country (New York: Basic Books, 2015), 3.
 Ibid., 51.
 Ibid., 2.
 Ibid., 128.
 Christina Barland Edmondson, Chad Brennan, Faithful Anti-Racism: Moving Past Talk To Systemic Change. (Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 2022), 22-24.
 Ibid., 79.
 Ibid., 92-95.