Shelby Steele and Gerald Early are firmly on the side of liberal individualism and equal rights in their essays, as opposed to nationalism or racial group identities, and argued that this was exactly what Martin Luther King and the early civil rights movement were trying to achieve. Steele was a conservative Republican and supporter of Ronald Reagan, which was most unusual for any black intellectual, and argued that blacks would be best served by adopting middle class values and aspirations. Black nationalists had criticized James Baldwin for being too sympathetic to the idea of liberal integration in the 1950s and 1960s, although at best he seemed only cautiously optimistic about this possibility compared to Steele and Early, even while recognizing that blacks and whites in American had developed a different identity from their ancestors in Europe and Africa, partially as a result of their struggles against each other. All three authors believed that race was still important in the United States, and both Early and Steele rejected Black Nationalism, Afrocentrism and racial separatism. They had faith in the country's ability to accept blacks as equal citizens on these terms, although James Baldwin was far more uncertain about this in his 1955 essay. He was writing at a time before the civil rights movement and made any great gains. In my opinion, the U.S. is still a highly racist society, even if not as blatantly so as in the era before the civil rights movement, and I also believe that Black Nationalism becomes more important in conservative eras when hopes for civil rights and integration are actually in decline. This was the situation in the 1980s and 1990s, in the Reagan era.
As Gerald Early pointed out in "Understanding Afrocentrism" (1995), nationalism among blacks takes many forms, from extreme claims that Jesus was black and Africa was the mother of all world civilizations, to the Pan-Africanism of Marcus Garvey and the struggles against colonialism and apartheid. Early agrees with Shelby Steele that ideas of Black Power and racial separatism are detrimental to blacks, although he can understand why they emerged in the 1950s and 1960s. Even so, he favors liberal multiculturalism and integration rather than identities based on nations, groups or communities, and stated that "like the white Southerner, the Afrocentrist is in revolt against liberalism itself, against the idea of individual liberty" (Early 22). Black Power and nationalist ideologies always seemed to have a greater appeal to the black middle class, insecure about its status as it integrated into schools and workplaces that had always been controlled by whites. Steele also noted this concern about the loss of identity among successful black professionals. Even Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam, with their puritanical emphasis on abstinence from drugs and alcohol and developing black-owned businesses also seemed to have an appeal to aspiring members of the middle class (Early 19). As early as 1957, E, Franklin Frazier had criticized middle class blacks for imitating whites in his book Black Bourgeoisie, and this often led to an exaggeration of Afrocentrist and nationalist values among those who were experiencing upward mobility in America.
Shelby Steele is a black conservative, which in the American political context really means that he is a classical liberal in the 19th Century sense who believes in equal rights, individualism and personal initiative rather than identities based on groups, races or social classes. In his 1987 essay "I'm Black, You're White, Who's Innocent?" he even admitted to being an admirer of Ronald Reagan, which was highly unusual for blacks either then or later. He also realized that Reagan's appeal to whites was far greater because he claimed (falsely) to be "color-blind" and that white society had already overcome its traditional racism (Steele 31). Steele regarded races in America as "competing power groups" that both had an agenda to portray themselves as essentially good, innocent and entitled to power, as well as "a hidden investment in racism and racial disharmony, despite their good intentions to the contrary" (Steele 28). Although written twenty years before Barack Obama was elected president, this essay accurately predicted that the most successful type of black politician success in America would not be someone who whites found angry or threatening, like Jesse Jackson, but rather able to bargain with them and appeal to middle class values.
Steele agrees with James Baldwin and black nationalists like Franz Fanon that blacks always had to mask themselves around whites, to act humorous and non-threatening, careful never to show anger. This tradition continued in actors like Bill Cosby, whose great talent was not in threatening white people but bargaining with them, and indeed his middle-class, two-parent Huxtable family was "a blackface version of the American dream" (Steele 32). Essentially, the bargain that middle class blacks offered was that they would act like whites rather than Malcolm X or the Black Panthers and in return white society would accept them and grant them equal rights. When blacks appear to be innocent victims, as they did under slavery and during the early civil rights movement, they were able to make real gains, but black nationalism "grants whites no innocence; it doubts their moral capacity and then demands that they be moral" (Steele 40). For Steele, black power will only lead to the backlash of white power, which is why he remained committed to the liberal goals of the early civil rights movement of equal rights for all with no special advantages.
James Baldwin's famous 1955 essay "Stranger in the Village" recounted his experiences in an isolated Swiss hamlet where the residents had never seen a black person before. Baldwin felt enraged at their version of Western civilization and was highly alienated from it, but on reflection he realized that his American identity also made him unique, in that he was neither African nor European. At first, he did what American black males had been always educated to do since early childhood when confronted with the possibility of lethal hostility from whites, and attempted to appear "pleasant," deferential and non-threatening, even when the children called him "Neger" as he walked through the streets (Baldwin 43). Some of the whites later became friendly, even drank with him and offered to teach him how to ski, while others feared and mistrusted him, but he always remained something unique and exotic in their eyes.
Europeans never had to struggle with the notion of extending democracy and equal citizenship to blacks, since their subjects and slaves were kept almost entirely in the colonies rather than in the home countries. Even if they had never seen Africa, America or even most of Europe, they were still secure in their identities as the master race and the creators of modern civilizations. Black Americans, on the other hand, had lost their traditional identities as Africans "almost literally at one blow" because of slavery and had spent centuries trying to create a new one (Baldwin 50). Whites also had to tie themselves into knots to justify slavery, segregation and the blatantly unequal treatment of blacks and other minorities, forcing themselves "into rationalizations so fantastic that they appeared to be pathological" (Baldwin 52). They struggled to protect their identity while blacks struggled to establish one, and both were transformed in the process. In 1955 the results of this struggle were unclear, and they still are today, but white Americans no longer had "the simplicity of this European village where white men still have the luxury of looking on me as a stranger" (Baldwin 54).
Shelby Steele is the most conservative of the three essayists and most optimistic about the possibilities of blacks to integrate into American society, so long as they do not appear too threatening and adopt middle class, capitalist values of individualism, two-parent households, thrift and…