Thirty two years ago, a San Jose State University English professor named Shelby Steele published a short book entitled The Content of Our Character: A New Vision of Race in America. Steele perceived an unholy bargain between white and black Americans. Under its terms, whites, burdened with guilt for their history of discrimination, would exercise the power to bestow preferential treatment on blacks, and in return blacks, commanding the asset of innocence, would exercise the power to bestow absolution on whites.
Steele deemed the bargain harmful for both sides, but especially so for blacks:
I think the reason there has been more entitlement than development is … the unacknowledged white need for redemption – not true redemption, which would have focused policy on black development, but the appearance of redemption which requires only that society, in the name of development, seem to be paying back its former victims with preferences. One of the effects of entitlements, I believe, has been to encourage in blacks a dependency both on the entitlements and on the white guilt that generates them.
Last month, in a letter to the “Members of the Harvard Community,” President Lawrence Bacow announced the release of a 134-page report documenting the history of Harvard’s “extensive entanglements” with slavery. At the same time, President Bacow announced a $100 million commitment to implement the authors’ recommendations on “how we as a community can redress – through teaching, research, and service – our legacies with slavery.”
Is this an exercise in true redemption? Or is it an engagement in the kind of superficial trade-off that Shelby Steele analyzed three decades ago?