The shooting of Michael Brown in 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri prompted a national outcry against racism and police brutality—and still shapes the popular consciousness today.
But much of the popularized narrative was not true. The slogan “hands up, don’t shoot” was based on a falsehood. Brown had not surrendered with his hands up, and he had, in fact, struggled with officer Darren Wilson for his gun, according to exhaustive witness interviews, ballistics, DNA evidence, and autopsy results—all detailed in a Justice Department report.
So, “What Killed Michael Brown?” This is the question posed by the new documentary film starring and written by Hoover Institution senior fellow Shelby Steele and directed by his filmmaker son Eli Steele.
In this episode, we sit down with Shelby and Eli Steele to discuss the film, and why they believe Amazon is censoring it.
This is American Thought Leaders, and I’m Jan Jekielek.
Jan Jekielek: Shelby and Eli Steele, such a pleasure to have you on American Thought Leaders.
Shelby Steele: Thank you for having me, for having us.
Eli Steele: Thank you for having us. It’s a pleasure to be on here.
Jan Jekielek: Shelby and Eli, you’ve created an incredibly powerful film. I’m frankly still digesting it, having screened it earlier this afternoon. Shelby, I want to talk about this concept of white guilt that you’ve been developing over years that, frankly, figures in very prominently in the film and of course, in the events of past months, you would argue. Could you please speak to that to start us off?
Shelby Steele: It just seems to me that one of the dynamics—I suppose [dynamics] is the word, and another word I use sometimes, is a symbiotic relationship—between blacks and whites that came out of the 60s when America, I call it, “The Great Confession”—America confessed to centuries of collusion with the evil of racism. Wow. I don’t know any other society in human history that’s done anything remotely that honorable and difficult.
And yet, when you do, when you confess, then you give people a hammer to hit you with, and that hammer is white guilt. We as blacks coming into our freedom in the 60s, winning the civil rights battle, civil rights laws, so forth, in a sense, I don’t think we realized it consciously, but there was a choice.
We could rely on ourselves and develop hard, but suddenly, we had in our hand a moral weapon over the rest of society. You know you did it if you’ve confessed it yourself—you owe us. As black Americans, we began to say that our power is our ability to extract obligation from whites. Lyndon Johnson, as if on cue, created the “Great Society”—the war on poverty, public housing, school busing, expanded welfare payments, affirmative action, on and on.
Again, blacks, sort of using, wielding that power: if you don’t do that, don’t give us those things, you lose your innocence, you are illegitimate—you are morally illegitimate. That’s a huge power to have. It’s still there. We still rely on it, I think, far, far too much.
We’ve transformed institutions. Universities in America are different than they were back in the 60s and 70s, and so forth. We’ve changed the culture, sometimes for the good, sometimes not for the good.
But for blacks, this has been a tragedy because we rely on white guilt as black power, rather than rely on ourselves, discipline ourselves, develop, educate ourselves, become competitive with other people, join America rather than resist America.
Rather than do that, we create an elite leadership, call it the “grievance industry,” that manipulates white guilt, and whites are so in terror—the only word—of being seen as racist and losing their moral standing because of it that they tend to pay off. We have a power to shake down broader America. That I think is the framework that other things happen in around race.
Jan Jekielek: On this point a little bit, you also argue in the film that this creates a common sense of a victim mentality. Of course, not just in black communities, it happens in all sorts of communities, but particularly because of the structure. How does that work exactly?
Shelby Steele: When we realize that our victimization was in fact our source of power because it gave us this moral leverage over whites, we took on our racial identity that I call, “victim focused identity.” Black identity today is “victim focused.” If you want to be labeled an “Uncle Tom,” just say that blacks are not victims.
That’s the most outrageous thing you can say to blacks today, young blacks and Black Lives Matter, and so forth, “We’re not victims.” We should not embrace victimization as an identity because again, it renders us impotent, but we continue to do that and to have this terrible thing where you are defining, proudly, with honor, that you’re a victim.
The price of having done that is the blacks have fallen [more] behind whites today by every socioeconomic measure than they were in the 50s, before we got any of these, before white guilt was there to exploit, so it has not helped us. It’s left us farther and farther behind.
One thing I talked about in the film, when I was growing up, there was no black underclass. We were poor. We were segregated in a black world. Everybody had a father. There was coherent family life. These were communities where young people were encouraged to join America. Even though we knew it was racist, the goal was to change it, to become apart of it, and make our contribution. Sixty years of thinking of ourselves as victims had ruined that. So 80 percent of [black] children now are born without a father. A sad legacy.
Jan Jekielek: Of course, these themes come out—again, I have to say this again—in a very powerful, but I would almost say, a quiet way. I think the film has been fascinating to me because it doesn’t seem to force anything on you. It takes you on this journey over years to Ferguson, to Chicago, to these other places that are important in obviously both of your lives. Eli, tell me, how is it that the idea for this film was conceived and of course, Eli, you are the editor and the director of the film, and of course, your mom and Shelby’s wife is a producer, so this is a family affair. Tell me how this began.
Eli Steele: I think a lot of it was put it together when he came out with the book “White Guilt” in 2006. I wanted to see how we could maybe turn it into a movie. But if you read the book, it’s kind of hard to do that. And it wasn’t until after I did my last documentary that we sat down, and he said, “Okay, what would be the topic? What would be something we could [make into a movie],” because one thing that is interesting about my father is even though he does repeat a lot in his work, he always wants to go into new territory as much as possible. So we were looking for such a matter.
And Ferguson was that. The reason why was because I was actually with him, and a lot was unfolding in real life. And what was shocking was every time more evidence came out. He found out that Michael Brown was shot in the front, not in the back as originally thought, well, at least in the narrative that was floating out there.
In the narrative, still they cover this truth, because in the film, it still kept going and kept going. I think for both of us, that was the first time we saw that happen in our society. And that was new. Because most of the time, if you look at a shooting like Walter Scott, who was shot in the back and had a gun planted on him, nobody argues about that.
But because there was no video evidence, and because it was a fight over the narrative, we thought it would be a great place to go in, examine, and find out what really happened. And not only that, try to find out the root cause.
Jan Jekielek: It’s also fascinating. You also talk about how there was almost like a dignity in that shooting. You make the case in the film, and I think it’s compelling, that racism wasn’t a motivator in this, but then the fact that Michael Brown’s body was basically left in the street for such a long time, it made a lot of people reasonably upset at what they were seeing, and it was reminiscent of things they’d heard about perhaps in their childhood or in their family lore, and so forth.
Again, I’m just being hit by the strength—so congratulations on making a really, really excellent, excellent film. Shelby, I did mention that you make the case that racism wasn’t the motivator. I think we can talk about this. The film goes way beyond this question, of course, into the present day. But I think even today, there’re people that still believe there was a “stop, don’t shoot, the hands up” and so forth, and we understand that actually never happened based on a whole plethora of evidence. How is it that so many Americans might still believe this falsehood?
Shelby Steele: Because, again, we in black America, as I mentioned before, our victimization has become our identity. It’s a victim focused identity because we think that’s where our power is, and so the reaction to the shooting—right away, you saw a longing, a hunger for this to be an instance of racism, that old American evil of racism that’s plagued us for centuries now.
There’s a hunger for it, not an anger at it. “Oh, don’t listen to other people. Michael Brown was a victim of racism,” because in believing that, I enhanced black power, which is this faith that black victimization is our source, so I’m expanding black power when I argued that Michael Brown was a victim of racism.
If I say that he wasn’t a victim of racism, it had nothing to do with racism, it was a tragedy but not a racial tragedy, then I’m denying black power, I’m reducing it, I’m neutering it. So I’m sure, in the film, we’ll get that reaction: you are neutering us, you are revealing to us that we’re over-relying on our victimization, you will embarrass us, it’s humiliating to talk that way about us. I understand that, I feel all of that.
Nevertheless, Michael Brown and the other instance, Trayvon Martin, George Floyd, the knee pressing down on the neck, these are all metaphors for black victimization, and so we get this totally extravagant reaction when they happen, from the black communities, almost a kind of celebration, because we know that’s moral power that we can use in society, and it’s the only power that we feel we have.
Of course, it won’t really do that but it gives us the illusion of having power and that’s what’s sad. At some point, we will have to acknowledge that all of this victimization is not the way to move forward, languishing there is not the way to go forward. Yes, it’s important to know our history, but it’s not important to make an identity out of the tragic things that happened to us.
We need a new identity that faces freedom, embraces it in all its possibilities. It breaks my heart to see how off track we have, in a sense, become. Again, whites in America enable us in this avoidance because whites in America, when they see [something like this], they start, all of a sudden, to give money.
Amazon is giving $10 million to Black Lives Matter, but they’re canceling us. What Amazon is saying is that we like things the way they are, you blacks thinking of yourselves as victims. We’ll give you a little money; you help our brand name. You make sure that people understand we’re not racist. We’re innocent of that old American evil. Amazon is free of all of that, and here’s $10 million to prove.
This is how ugly things get when neither side has the courage—and I think it’s all really in the end about courage—has the courage to face this. Why couldn’t Amazon say, for example, “These guys made an earnest effort”? By what reason would we say, “It can’t be streamed, it can’t be seen”? Shouldn’t it be in fact an opportunity to look in a new way at this old tenacious problem?
But no, that’ll take another generation or so. Right now, it’s so easy. White America is so habituated to enabling blacks, it’s giving them things and without asking anything. A lot of the social programs that the government puts forward might have actually worked if those programs have asked for something from blacks, [e.g.] for higher grades, more discipline, more effort, more development, but we asked nothing and we got nothing, and I’m guilty there. I worked in three different government programs in the late 60s, early 70s, and I saw this pattern unfold.
Jan Jekielek: Let’s talk about this censorship of your film. I learned a new word recently, something that apparently millennials use a lot, I’m showing my age here, I guess, but the word is “meta.” Basically, by making this film and publishing it, what you’re arguing is actually enacted by the streaming service that was supposed to put it up. It’s kind of a curiosity in that respect. Tell me a little bit, Eli, about what actually happened here. Was there some agreement that the film would be streamed, and then it was cancelled? Explained to me why you believe you’re being censored here?
Eli Steele: Well, we wanted to release the film during the election, during this time of the election, because we thought that race would play a significant role in it, certainly you know 2016, [inaudible] needs to know. We finished September 3rd or 4th, and at the time, we wanted to release the film October 15th. This is today.
Forget everything, but we were going to release the film today, and, there are not many platforms for the film, because it’s a short amount of time. iTunes had a release time within 45 days, 90 days. Amazon however, offers you a two or three-week window to get the film up. And so, we got the film up.
Amazon also is a platform, so, if you want to have a store or anything, create your own platform, you can go into the ecosystem. So, I never thought that I would have to seek the permission of anybody, because as long as you have a product, it’s valid. We got it up on September 29th. By October 1, it was put into content review, and this is my first time. I didn’t quite understand what content review meant.
And I was thinking, “Oh, it’s a technical issue and please let me know as soon as possible,” because this film, the file is like 160 gigabytes. It takes like four or five days just to upload these huge files. And so I need time, and if it comes with a problem, I have to fix it. It kept going. It kept going. And I kept sending emails, got nothing back, general answers or no answers, then finally, Tuesday.
So this past Tuesday, they denied it. They said, “We deny shipping the movie. It did not meet the quality, the content quality that we have for our platform. So you will not be able to get the movie on. You cannot appeal this decision.You cannot resubmit.” So it’s a very clear no. Like it’s over, don’t even bother. If it was a technical issue, they would say, “Hey could you fix the caption file?” or something like that and reupload.
And because Amazon takes 50% of your pay, of the revenue, they obviously want to get as much content up there, make as much money as possible. And so that was shocking to then really realize that the content review actually meant the story. They were looking at the story and the story did not fit what they wanted to have on their platform.
Or is it really a platform or a publishing platform? Because they’re behaving like publishers, and that shift is happening in our culture. These big tech companies are now only creating walls within their own ecosystem to actually determine what gets on there and what does not get on there. That’s the new evolution of our society, and it’s weakened free speech and weakened all the protection that we have.
I’m now stuck in this little—I’m very thankful to have an open society. But we can lose a lot. We were not allowed to enter the ecosystem that everybody knows, everybody’s familiar with, and not everybody watches, but I would say they probably have anywhere from 30 to 40 percent of the market, when you consider the watching content. And that’s huge.
Jan Jekielek: I understand. First of all, let’s tell everyone how they can view the film: WhatKilledMichaelBrown.com. I understand it’s streaming on Vimeo. So there is a platform where you can buy the film and watch it. Shelby, is there anything specific in the film that you can think of that might be objected to?
Shelby Steele: I think there’s probably a lot in the film. Again, the $10 million they [Amazon] gave to Black Lives Matter is very telling. I think that is their vision of race in America, the Black Lives Matter, for orientation. And our film just in 1000 ways challenges that and denounces it, sees it really as the problem that blacks have, that we have as a society where companies like Amazon can be shaken down by people who demonstrate nothing more than black anger, that the people, the crowd, the rioters, the protesters, call the shots.
They say, “If you go with us, we’ll let you be morally legitimate, you’re on the side of the good, and people who are against us are in collusion with racism and must be avoided.” So something like what the Steeles have done, that’s the enemy, according to them, [that] we are apologists for that old, racist America of Jim Crow laws, and slavery, and segregation, and so forth. We’re sort of saying, “Forget about it. Just move on with your lives.”
Obviously, that’s not what we’re saying but we do mean, get on with your lives as individual citizens in a free society. Find out what you love in life and go for it. Develop. One door closes, find another one that’s open. It’s the same for everybody. We need to accept that, and that our race is not going to open those doors, it’s not going to take us anywhere.
You can take over the curriculum of the universities, but then you don’t have much of a curriculum left. You’re going to be ignorant. There’s no way around these things. The idea that this is the case upset the charming balance that corporate America has. They’re happy to see Black Lives Matter—gives them a place for the pay off money to go.
Remember another variable: America is an extremely wealthy nation and we can pay off, and have paid off, for victimization now for the last 60 years. We could keep these perversions, really, going because we have the wealth to do so. But again, any way you play the game, blacks end up the loser.
That’s why we did this work, that’s why we want this film to have a life, to make this statement. Widely, but accurately, precisely, make a statement, “That day’s got to come to an end.” I think there is certainly in black America today, a new consciousness, a new awarenes. Call these people, [and] call me, “Black conservatives.” I don’t know if that moniker makes a lot of sense, but there are people who no longer subscribe to this victim-focused black identity that is just mired us and round us down in American life.
Jan Jekielek: Shelby, there’s a whole lot of well meaning people from what I’ve seen, from people who I’ve talked to, who took to the streets following the killing of George Floyd and all the media attention that it got. Of course, I accept that some of that is certainly a reflection of this white guilt. I imagine there’s a lot of people who are just simply outraged and felt that there’s a big problem in society. I think you suggest, and I’ve certainly done a bunch of research around this, that Black Lives Matter misrepresents what they stand for. I’m wondering, is that how you explain it? What are your thoughts on this?
Shelby Steele: I, first of all, want to echo what you say about the goodwill of the American people and people internationally, really, who demonstrated over the George Floyd situation because it seems so conspicuously to be a heinous and racist act. We’ll see. The trial, I guess, begins not too far away and the facts, I presume, will come out.
You hit right on the dicey part here because there are people of genuine goodwill, whites particularly, around these issues who want a better world. [They] want peace between the races,[and all this sort of judgment, and castigation, and anger, and outrage to recede from our lives. There’s goodwill.
George Floyd was a perfect example. Within a week or so, the people of goodwill began to be used as a front for people who were violent, who were burning down buildings and setting off bombs, and then getting in line and marching, and we certainly need to make a distinction.
I’m proud of those people who demonstrated out of genuine goodwill—thank you. It was a moment where there needed to be a human witness, and there was one and I’m grateful for that. I’m proud that Americans did that. One of the points that I made in the things I write is that white Americans, since the 60s, when we had that Great Confession I’ve talked about happening, have made, I believe, the greatest collective and moral evolution ever made anywhere in the world, in human history.
I was born and raised in a totally segregated society, segregated school, segregated neighborhoods. We couldn’t go to hotels, couldn’t work, any number of things. I’d be all day talking about all the racist policies that I grew up with. That’s not America today. Today, I go anywhere I want.
The most stunning event in black American history was not slavery—it’s freedom. That’s what we don’t have a lot of experience with. We got free in the 60s, [but] we say we’re not, because we just don’t know what to do with freedom.
We don’t understand the level of responsibility people have to take when they become free, that they are responsible for their fate—not other people. We keep pushing this victimization to keep [hiding] from that [responsibility]. We haven’t done a good job with freedom.
We’re still trying to deny that we’re in freedom. Why? Because we’re human beings. Human beings are all afraid of that level of responsibility that freedom imposes on us. We all balk at that. Blacks are no different. You talk to people, Black Lives Matter, they all tell you how—all they’ll do is go on and make the case for victimization. When we’re swimming in freedom, it’s everywhere. Every institution in American life is begging us to join—[to] become a part [of them].
That moral evolution, I think, in history will be understood as a profound turning point in human affairs. Where else has that ever happened? I’m sitting here today, given where I was as a kid, no one could have foreseen that. We need to take that into our calculations about the future, and about how we’re going to move ahead in freedom.
We have all this opportunity but that’s, I think, what our problem is. We just really have to calculate that in now and put the focus on freedom, rather than on vindication and justice. “Justice” is another word that annoys me because it has nothing to do with justice; it’s the way to keep saying, “I’m a victim.”
Jan Jekielek: Eli, why don’t you jump in?
Eli Steele: One thing that I think is very interesting is that nobody really talks about the effect that Black Lives Matters has on white people. During this week, I was sending out emails, like email blasts, to people, to the website. And one woman, who I had gone to college with, wrote me an email out of the blue. I never really talked to her in college. I never really, haven’t seen her in maybe 10 years.
And she writes this email, basically accusing me of being a pro-racist. She blamed me of blaming Michael Brown, and this was like on Wednesday or Tuesday. So obviously, she had not seen the film. But what was fascinating, I never responded to the email, but what was fascinating was that shift in her that she felt compelled to use the anti-racist language towards me, and actually not calling me a racist, but a pro-racist.
What does that even mean? That I’m actively being racist. And you know, she had no, I mean, she’s known me enough, and she knows that I’m black and Jewish. I’m all these things. Not that I’m exempted from being racist. But the fact is, if you just look at my work, look at what I’ve done, there was a shock.
And that’s the very danger, because my father was talking about the progress the Americans have made over the years. Now you have Amazon and you have this young woman making this shift, where something like our film is racist because it doesn’t fit the narrative. How do you as a society recover from that if people continue to go down that flow? We’ve been there. It’s not pretty, when people go through the level of reducing everybody to their external qualities, and not the gains that we’ve made as a society today.
Jan Jekielek: This just makes me think of one of the contentions in the film that’s repeated a couple of times. Let me see if I have this right because [there were] many concepts, but I believe you said that America’s “original sin” is to use race as a means to power, or am I conflating two things here? I believe that’s what was said. The other piece that I think is connected to this very deeply: what is this anti-racism that’s being described exactly? Maybe Shelby.
Shelby Steele: I don’t know what anti-racism [means] except what it would literally mean. Most people I know are anti-racist. So it’s hard for me that some of the talk about race today is so convoluted that it’s hard to understand, and that’s a concept that I’ve heard now a lot. But I don’t have any idea of what it really means.
Michael Brown was not a victim of racism, he was a victim of a tragic coming together of circumstances: his own loss of temper, his own assault of the police officer, his own charging a police officer, once again, even after he’d been shot. You usually get shot when you do that. That’s not racism, and we need to stop, we need to just stop there. People are already wearing thin on that
Probably, ultimately, it’s a way to call somebody a name and tie them, “If you’re against [anti]-racism, you’re a racist.” So there is, in certain circles today, a desire to find new ways to give racism life, to keep it alive as a smear, something we can use to smear people. So all sorts of things become racist: If I work with a black pencil rather than a white pencil, then it’s because I’m inherently, in some way, enthrall to white supremacy. Silly things.
We are just not that oppressed anymore. In American policing today, there is no unspoken rule that “I’m looking for opportunity to shoot and kill black people.” It just is not the case. We interviewed some in the film, policemen and so forth. These are all devices designed to keep us mired in the idea of ourselves as victims.
This is the tragedy of America’s history, that now in freedom, we embrace slavery, we embrace subservience, we embrace victimization, even as we’re free. That’s our problem, that’s America’s problem, and we all need to face it. It isn’t going to go away. We can put whatever dress we want on it, it’s not going to go away, and we’re not going to ever be rewarded for being victim.
We’re going to be rewarded for taking charge of our lives, making something of ourselves. We’re going to be rewarded for the same thing that everybody is rewarded for. We’re no different than anybody else. We’ve got to accept that. We’ve got to live that way.
Of course, here’s the point: many, many, many, many minorities do live as individuals, and go after their dreams, and achieve them. There are blacks in every walk of life today who are doing amazing things. The country would not be what it is without them. There you are. That’s the model we need to live by.
When you avoid the truth, when you avoid reality, which is that the blacks are suffering because they’re underdeveloped, not because they’re not free, but because they’re underdeveloped. That’s the truth. I’ll stand by that. That’s demonstrable.
After 60 years of affirmative action in universities, black students have the lowest grade point average and the highest dropout rate of any student group in American universities. You can talk about anti-racism all you want, but to me, that’s a failure to understand that our challenges to this is development, it’s education, it’s competing—not just to compete with other black students.
As my father told me when I was in college, you want to get better, you pick the smartest, best kid in the class, and go after him on Earth. Don’t say that I’m going to measure myself against just all the other black students, or I’m going to pick some other form of measurement. We’ve got to join this world. We’ve got to join modernity itself.
That’s the challenge of people who come from backgrounds of groups that have been oppressed for centuries, cut out of civilization. You have to join civilization. That’s an issue in the third world, it’s an issue in Europe, it’s an issue and certainly in America. How to bring people who weren’t born in modern civilization modernity? Usually, they come forward quite willingly.
The desire to get to America and make a life is almost universal in this world. We black Americans are already here, it’s our country. We built it along with everybody else. For goodness sakes, let’s join it. Let’s give it credit where credit is due. It has grappled with this race problem. We have made enormous progress with it.
Jan Jekielek: Something that’s really amazing about the film. Aside from perhaps Bob Woodson who’s in the film, who we’ve had on the show a number of times, you go to talk to all sorts of local people in these communities. In Ferguson, St. Louis, we actually learn a lot about the realities of how Ferguson sits among these different communities in the St. Louis area.
We learned about Chicago and we learn about some of these people who have made that step that you were just describing, which is incredible, like one of the Bentley twins—I forget his name right now—being inspired after coming out of prison and identified as a community leader… I think it is. Just amazing and powerful testimonials to this process. So Eli, how did you decide on who you are going to speak with? I assume we’re only seeing a small subsection of the people you actually talked to, but how did you actually locate all of these people that are in the film?
Eli Steele: Yes, [inaudible] first because Ferguson just went through [inaudible] back in 2014 and after [inaudible], after the outsiders left. They didn’t really want another documentary made. In fact, a lot of people said, “Oh … another documentary,” which I don’t blame them for. I used to live around the corner from where Nicole Simpson was murdered by OJ Simpson. So obviously people just taking pictures, people every anniversary [inaudible]. It was like that in Ferguson.
We had to show up and knock on doors, and usually we interview people we’ve talked to before. And but [inaudible] what we were looking for, we were looking for voices that were not heard in what they call the unrest of 2014. And we really wanted to find a lot of voices that had been silenced, or ignored, or what they faced especially if they’re black, they will face consequences for speaking to you [inaudible] where the narrative, the whole narrative of “hands up, don’t shoot” started everything, and this marching.
And you’re going to pay the price, so we really wanted to speak to those kinds of people. And so that’s why I’m proud about this film: it is a pretty rare film, where you don’t have you know, black elites or black, you know, academics, except for my father, you don’t have all these people dominating, dominating the narrative.
It’s really the local people, the salt of the earth—like the people. And actually though what we do as filmmakers expecially, we want to hear what you have to say. And then I asked them, “What’s the main thing people did not ask?” I think that’s why you get a lot of rich perspective, a lot of new things. That’s what makes the film, I think, very [inaudible] became you’re just hearing a lot of new things, and it’s refreshing in a way because you know you’re not being lied to.
You know the people are not pushing an agenda. You know the people want to say what they have to say, and so that’s what we’re proud of. It’s very diverse, mostly of blacks.
Jan Jekielek: Eli, you mentioned the media. I think in the film, you also make the case that many of our mainstream media are married to this victimization narrative, systemic racism narrative. Shelby, is this something that’s kind of ubiquitous, and that’s the reason it’s so much in the media, or is there some other reason?
Shelby Steele: That this narrative you hear is adhered to by the media?
Jan Jekielek: Yes.
Shelby Steele: Yes. Because it’s the same thing [with] Amazon, why they’ve done what they did. It’s sort of cowering, it’s white guilt. To live under the accusation [that] just because you’re white, that you’re a racist, is the problem. So without really thinking about it, that’s a pressure, and so whites live under that pressure, and so they’re constantly on the lookout for opportunities to demonstrate that they’re not racist and to win their innocence.
Their great mission is to restore the innocence that was lost way back there when America confessed to what it had done, and we really underrated the power of that socially in American life, culturally, and otherwise. White guilt is a huge power that invades almost every walk of life, where whites now, in whatever position they’re in, they have to figure out a way to deal with diversity, they have to deal with inclusion, somehow, or rather they’re visited with this reminder that they’re white, and that as a minority, I have a certain power there that I can use and you better go along with it.
So the media takes the script of black victimization and adheres to it so that they won’t be called a racist. They don’t care about black people. They care about their own innocence, their own legitimacy, and that’s one of the tragedies of American racial policies, that they’re all concerned with white innocence rather than with black development. Four centuries of oppression did to us as blacks is to underdevelop us.
How do you come out of that? My father was allowed to go to third grade—that’s it. He had to teach himself to read and write—he did. You look at the whole race of people treated in that way, what we need is development, [but] what we get from the media is their preoccupation with whether or not they’re innocent, whether or not they’re racist, and totally preoccupied with that.
Political correctness is nothing but a sort of white’s self-preoccupation with innocence. It gets us nowhere, but whites are stuck to innocence as black people are stuck to victimization and will not entertain anything in between, anything that mitigates that in any way.
The battle has to be fought out there. Just because someone is black and because they’re a victim, does not mean they have truth. Here’s the dirty little secret: white Americans have lost their moral confidence. We behave like, “I’m not quite sure. After all, they’ve accused us of racism for centuries. I’m not sure. I can’t take our innocence for granted anymore. I’ve got to find little things to do to prove that we’re innocent.”
A lot of what goes on is just the lack of confidence that “I’m not a racist.” In fact, it’s important for me to think that “I am a racist,” in order not to be one. So when you’re black and you see whites confused like that, that’s an opportunity. I’m going to come in and demand that you set up a diversity program over there—hire all my relatives!
I’m going to demand this, I’m going to demand that. That’s my power: Your lack of confidence. We play those games obviously way too much in American life. All we try to do in the film is say, “Here it is. Here’s what is really happening. When you see this poor boy shot and killed, and within moments, people screaming that he was executed, and he was assassinated. Victimization, victimization,” right away, the grabbing for power.
His body hadn’t been removed yet, and it was already a power grab in play. All of his friends getting these poetic truth, these falsehood together to, again, “White cop, black victim. Oh my god! America is still racist.” Wow. When are we going to get exhausted and tired of all that? I hope that I live to see it.
Jan Jekielek: One more question, just as we’re finishing up here. You somehow managed to escape that mentality, maybe you never had it. So my first question is, how do you think that happened, and two, what is your advice to Americans?
Shelby Steele: I came to it naturally. My family was very much involved in civil rights movement. We were founding members of CORE, of Congress of Racial Equality. I grew up thinking it, but the first people I began to read seriously were people like James Baldwin, Richard Wright, and Ralph Ellison. So I read and thought, Booker T. Washington, Frederick Douglass, Malcolm X. I grew up thinking about these things with a kind of obsession, I suppose, and I still have it.
I still voluntarily think about this, “Am I missing something? Am I overlooking something? What is really, really true?” What I have discovered is that what I’m really doing is trying to see clearly the human condition. Nothing, no insight I’ve ever had, no understanding I’ve ever come to, that isn’t grounded in the human condition.
Blacks, after all, at the end of the day, are humans. Whites at the end of the day are humans. They react. They’re driven by the same forces, and the same anxieties, the same fears. Just from the point of view of writing [internet interrupted] is to come to terms and to learn things about what it means to be a human being.
Jan Jekielek: What is the next step? You make some suggestions in the film, I think, but to someone watching this interview right now and maybe getting a little inspired by what you’re saying, maybe getting ready to go to your website and watch the film, what’s your advice?
Shelby Steele: Oh, my advice is to keep an open mind, and to see it, try to learn something from it. I suppose my bottom line advice is trust yourself. Your own instincts, your own sense of what life means, what things mean—trust yourself. It doesn’t mean you lie to [yourself].
It means that you really put yourself at risk, your beliefs at risk, and see what fate brings, and trust yourself to figure that out. That’s, as I think, what we all have to do. So I hope this film, I really hope and pray, this is what we were trying for is a film that enables to simply trust the people who trust themselves, and look at this in a different way.
We’re not all black victims and white racists. Much different than that. We’re much more complex and much more of a human story than a racial story. After all, races has no meaning in itself. As we say, race is always a means, never an end, always a means to power. If I’m playing with race, I’m trying to get something. It’s never an end to itself. So be careful. Don’t see yourself try to make something out of race. You may be embarking on a corruption at some point.
Jan Jekielek: Eli, any final thoughts?
Eli Steele: One thing that’s very interesting because when he [my father] started publishing, started writing, speaking, when I was probably about 15 years old, and started giving live speeches at college campuses or somewhere else. There’s always that one student who stands up and faces him. “What is the solution? Well, how do you fix it?” And what they do is they ask that question, [inaudible] racism. But all it does is that they’re not really dealing with his point.
He’s saying, “But you, the people are the solutions.” You’re the one who has to wake up every morning. You’re the one that has, and as you say in the black community, there is a saying, you have two hands, you have two feet, you have two ears, you have two eyes, you have a mouth, you have a brain. What more do you need? I mean, you have all. I mean, the human body is amazing what we can do.
The mind can execute. It needs to have a passion to move forward. And that’s the message. We’re not saying you’re in a vacuum, that you’re all by yourself. No. What we’re saying is, the more you develop yourself, the more other people help you. And I know that because in my own life, if I had not gone into Ferguson, if had not developed as a filmmaker, and I had not gone into Ferguson, those people would not help. There would be nothing to help. You can’t help somebody who’s helpless. And so they help. And here we are, we have a movie.
Jan Jekielek: Shelby and Eli Steele, such a pleasure to have you on.
Shelby Steele: Such a pleasure to be on. I enjoyed myself. Thanks so much.
Eli Steele: Thank you, Jan. I really enjoyed the conversation, so thank you.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.