Shelby Steele and America’s “Poetic Truth”

“We human beings never use race except as a means to power. Race is never an end. It is always a means. It has no role in human affairs except as a corruption.”

Those are some of the first words spoken by noted cultural critic Shelby Steele in his brave and penetrating new documentary, What Killed Michael Brown? Written by Steele and directed by his son Eli, What Killed Michael Brown? is such a mature, sensible, empathetic, and penetrating work that it has already been banned by one major outlet. As the Wall Street Journal reported, Amazon shamefully blocked viewing of the film out of concern for their “content quality expectations” before relenting and making it available. Shelby Steele is a senior fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. He received a National Humanities Medal and won a National Book Critics Circle Award for his essay collection The Content of Our Character. He also produced an Emmy-Award winning documentary “Seven Days in Bensonhurst,” about Yusef Hawkins, a black teenager who was murdered by a racially motivated group of white attackers in 1989. Eli is a talented and accomplished filmmaker. Amazon’s “quality expectations” must be lofty, indeed.

The subject of the film is the death of Michael Brown, which became a political flash point in 2014. On August 9, 2014, police officer Darren Wilson shot and killed Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, in Ferguson, Missouri, a suburb of St. Louis. Fueled by the idea that racism had killed Michael Brown, protests and riots that began in Ferguson soon spread across the country. Attorney General Eric Holder, acting not only as a government official but “as a black man,” soon got the Department of Justice involved. The media assumed that it was a racially motivated crime and produced hysterical, often-inaccurate reporting.

From the four schools Brown attended in four years to the bad role models in the neighborhood, from the devastating social policies of the 1960s to the counterproductive anger of the black power movement and the media’s argument that racism is the same now as in 1950, what killed Michael Brown, the film concludes, was liberalism. Viewers may disagree with that, or think Steele is too conservative, but this is a work of bracing honesty, produced with integrity by one of the most level-headed voices in American political life. Amazon’s censorship was disgraceful. It is astonishing how charges that liberalism would become censorious and Orwellian—charges which once seemed a bit hyperbolic—have in fact become reality.

In the opening of What Killed Michael Brown?, Steele offers his bona fides as a former liberal activist—indeed, he was a “black militant” in the 1960s. The son of politically active parents in Chicago who protested to desegregate schools, Steele was a “warrior on President Johnson’s War on Poverty” as a young man. He recalls working in East St. Louis in the 1960s, convinced that his work, done in a “mood of wild hopefulness,” would change the country. “America had essentially confessed the evil of its racist past. The government that had pressed us only yesterday would now engineer our uplift.” His hope was short-lived as he witnessed corruption among his fellow activists and brutal black-on-black violence in the communities he wanted to serve. After three years, he was disillusioned: “Black development was not the focus of justice,” he recalls. “Taking advantage of white guilt was the focus.”

This is what Steele found when he traveled to Ferguson to investigate the situation in the aftermath of Michael Brown’s death. In the film, he interviews activists both on the left (Al Sharpton) and right (Robert Woodson), politicians, pastors, NAACP leaders, Ferguson locals, ex-gang leaders, and journalists. The direction by son Eli is graceful and understated, with a subtle jazz score kept low in the mix to let the voices be heard. The film intercuts archival footage with the modern interviews.

According to Steele, liberalism’s “dependency track” has been devastating to the black community.

The Ferguson protests, Steele said, seemed unconvincing—“the anger seemed ritualized, almost choreographed.” Wondering “why is it so hard to see the truth here,” Steele recreates the scene of the crime, standing right at the spot where Brown died. He concludes what the Justice Department ultimately did: that there was no reason to charge Officer Wilson with the unjustified shooting of Brown. According to witnesses, Brown charged at Wilson, who fired in self-defense. Still, there was “already a framework of meaning in place” before any evidence or witness testimony. If you were black, “all you could see was American racism.”

Steele calls the distortion of what actually happened between Wilson and Brown a “poetic truth.” A poetic truth is “a distortion of the actual truth that we use to sue for leverage for power in the world. It is a partisan version of reality, a storyline that we put forward to build our case.” The Michael Brown case, observes Steele, became “a competition between the poetic truth and the objective truth,” with the poetic truth acting like a “tyranny.” Poetic truth “overlays the present with imagery of past racial persecution,” conflating modern events like the Michael Brown shooting, which had nothing to do with race, with past atrocities that were based on race, like the murder of Emmitt Till and the whips of Bull Connor.

Thus tolerant, diverse, and majority-black Ferguson becomes South Africa in 1950. James Knowles, the Mayor of Ferguson, puts it this way: “The media couldn’t wait to say, look at this 65 percent African-American town with a white Republican mayor, 85 percent Democrat. They made me feel like this was South Africa. Like this was apartheid.” Several of the white residents of Ferguson point out that the people like them, who stayed after the “white flight” of the 1960s and have black friends and neighbors, didn’t stay in the town because they are racists. That the media didn’t do their job here is not surprising, though. They don’t do their job anywhere anymore.

When the Department of Justice concluded that Officer Wilson had done nothing wrong, it led one liberal journalist, Jonathan Capehart of the Washington Post, to admit that they had been wrong. For his honesty, Capehart was called an Uncle Tom and a sellout. “I did it because it was the right thing to do,” he says. From Al Sharpton to Eric Holder and the media, it was necessary to maintain the “poetic truth” that race played a part in Michael Brown’s death. “The danger of poetic truth is that it always traps us into solving the wrong problem,” Steele says. The problem wasn’t white racism, although that is still an issue, but “the enormously seductive power of 1960s liberalism,” a liberalism that was “far more focused on assuaging white guilt than on developing blacks.” Starting in the 1960s, “America’s racial guilt was our power. White guilt became black power.” To keep this power, blacks always had to be victims. This robbed them of “a sense of agency” in their own fate.

Along with this were some disastrous social policies, from the “urban renewal” that demolished black neighborhoods to welfare programs that paid if there was no man in the house. According to Steele, this “dependency track” has been devastating to the black community. “Liberalism’s great sin was to steal responsibility for black problems away from black people, leaving them vulnerable to destructive social forces,” he concludes. As Steele said in a recent interview, “there’s this rush that’s almost a desperate frenzy to see the event as an example of black victimization, to establish it as black victimization, and that, in a sense, becomes the argument.”

What Killed Michael Brown? is a gripping and thought-provoking film that will hopefully create honest debate around the issue of race. It’s the kind of documentary our media once had the guts to produce.

Reader Discussion

Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.

on October 23, 2020 at 13:14:42 pm

I haven't yet seen the Steeles' film, and this graceful article bolsters my intention to do so.

However, speaking of poetic truths, it's wrong to call Michael Brown "unarmed." Instead, at 6'3" and 290 pounds, he was a mobile mountain of malevolence charging at the relatively slight cop, so the fact that Brown wasn't bearing a weapon was irrelevant.

read full comment
Image of Paul Nachman
Paul Nachman
on October 23, 2020 at 13:17:26 pm

Ironically, it was Watergate that set the stage for Ferguson. Richard Nixon's goal in his second term was the replacement of Johnson's Great Society welfare state with Daniel Patrick Moynihan's brilliant idea of a reverse income tax. Instead of raising the minimum wage which becomes an onerous tax on small business and usually leads to a loss of jobs and the collapse of small businesses, the reverse income tax would raise the wages of the poorest workers without costing them jobs. It would have restored and supported two wage earner families, instead of usurping the roles of men. But with Nixon's demise at the hands of Democrats and Republicans who equally loathed him, what we got instead was the weak sauce of the Earned Income Credit, a yearly one time payment for those who can successfully navigate the travails of our income tax system. A reverse income tax would have put money in people's pockets every payday and allowed them to pay their rent, pay for their food and maybe even save. The EIC often is used for far more frivolous pursuits.

read full comment
Image of Daniel Mercer
Daniel Mercer
on October 23, 2020 at 15:14:19 pm

And it would not have required the "removal" of working husbands from the till then intact family.

read full comment
Image of gabe
on October 24, 2020 at 23:07:22 pm

Thanks for mentioning the reverse income tax, as this is the first I had heard of the idea as separate from the EIC. Not sure exactly how that would work in practice: employers tell the IRS "I have X employees making less than $Y, so please send me the following amounts to include in their pay packets to meet your defined minimum income thresholds"?? Employer is also ignorant of how much his employees might make from other sources (rental income?) and thus if said employee is actually within some threshold $ amount. Or does the IRS "guesstimate" the employee's prospective current year income from past history and send the extra money to the employee directly or to his employer? Further questions about SS/Medicare taxes, IRA deductions, etc. also come to mind. [I have never been eligible for the EIC so have never explored just how it works in detail either.]

But if such a scheme had been in place prior to the pandemic I suspect this capability would have materially aided in getting the most needy the $ that were "taken by the government" when "non-essential" persons were laid off under lock down commands. The UI systems might also have been less subject to overwhelming demands.

read full comment
Image of R2L
on October 23, 2020 at 14:03:47 pm

Amazon may have finally relented and allowed this film to be shown on Prime BUT - one must wonder:
At $19.99, how many will actually do so. I do not recall Amazon pricing any movie at this high rate.

Also, one should not be surprised that a child who is constantly taught by teachers, activists and the media that he is a victim, that whites will discriminate against him will tend to see such racism anywhere and everywhere and whenever he is unable to achieve his ends.
To expect anything different is simply not rational.
To expect that such instruction and the consequent but forseeable reaction(s) is beneficial to those so inculcated is delusional.

BTW: It affects, or has affected evn older generations of balck citizens.
Quick story:
While playing a round of golf with a some black friends, I happened to make a rather improbable par after executing a rather delicate chip shot. Upon making the putt, I exclaimed, "That is a damn par" [ a pause] and then "boy!"
One friend then cautioned me upon the use of the word boy, as follows: "I KNOW you did not mean anything by it BUT some others would I KNOW you are no racist but...."
I told him I understood. BUT I wanted to say that I did not agree but time did not permit.
Consider that what this evidences is either an unwillingness or an inability to understand the nuanced use of english words. He knew what I meant. Was he unwilling to let it be accepted for what it was / intended?
Consider that it also places the parties in needless potential opposition to each other (at best).
Consider that it may also put the one who uses the word on the defensive? Is this intended? Perhaps. And perhaps, it is the attempt to convert (expected) white guilt into power over the offender as Steele suggests.
And yet, what may be overlooked is the resultant diminished assessment of the "offended" party's ability to understand the nuances of language as connoted by tone, tenor and situation.
Or is this simply a forced, self-imposed restriction of ability to understand nuance?
Either one is less than optimal.
I have not played with him since.

read full comment
Image of gabe
on October 24, 2020 at 09:57:42 am

The price is more likely set by the Steeles. The SD version is available for 13.99. It's a very good documentary, thoughtfully executed all around.

read full comment
Image of Michael Bond
Michael Bond
on October 24, 2020 at 16:27:31 pm

This is a nice review, providing what movie and documentary film lovers always want, historical, cultural or psychological enlightenment or artistic enrichment as a good reason to go see a film.

Judge's thoughtful critique indicates that in "What Killed Michael Browne" Steele meaningfully addresses recent American political history and contemporary American culture and psychology. As I read Judge, here is the essence of Steele's historical, cultural and psychological argument:

The cultural problem was not (and is not) white racism, but rather, ''...the enormously seductive power of 1960s liberalism," which was (and is) ''far more (psychologically) focused on assuaging white guilt than on (culturally) developing blacks." Starting in the 1960s (and today,) "Racial guilt meant (political and cultural) power. White guilt became black power.” To receive and retain power, blacks had to assume a cultural and psychological role, that of victims, which, as a matter of history, was a status forced on them in the Sixties by political "liberalism" and which was perpetuated by liberalism for more than half-a-century and which, as a matter of psychology, is a status which has bred a "dependency track" in response to white-guilt political projects, like massive urban renewal that destroyed communities and welfare programs that destroyed families and stole personal responsibility from blacks, causing them to lose control of their own fate. Concomitantly, the political rewards for assuming the cultural status of victim created a built-in psychological incentive for blacks to see disadvantage, mishap, economic misfortune (and law enforcement?) as the consequence of black victimization. Thus, liberalism killed Michael Browne, according to Steele. And I would add: hence the birth of the cries of "racism" and "racist" as sure-fire ways, tried and true techniques now for 55 years, for blacks to gain constitutional, legal, cultural, political and economic advantages.

Something very important is missing from Steele's analysis: A discussion of the political reason for "liberalism" to hijack and wreck the black subculture. "Liberalism" (the Democrat Party) did so, not for eleemosynary reasons, not for the good of the black subculture, but rather to advance the political power of the Democrat Party. Making blacks victims dependent on government largesse created an enormous new bloc of Democrat voters by providing the Democrat Party a boundless well spring for making political promises in return for votes and for making unfounded, demagogic accusations against the Republican Party, which for sound reasons frequently opposed Democrat Party promises to blacks, yet "to get along, go along" being the rules of Washington politics, too-often went along just to avoid accusations of "racism." Political cowardice in that regard hurt blacks as much as it did the Republican Party. Victimization as a psychological status created a ready-made political demand for Democrat promises and a convenient political bogeyman, "racism" and Republicans, as the cause of black victimization. Thus was the race-card birthed by liberalism as the go-to Democrat strategy in every political election and debate.

Finally, two literary points about Steele's documentary. First, I strongly object to the use of the phrase "poetic truth" to describe what is both falsehood and demagoguery. Doing so is an insult to poetry and truth, in defiance of the spirit and letter of Aristotle's "Poetics."
Secondly, I note the irony that in order to accept Steele's arguments (which I do) about black's acceptance of victimization status and the willing embrace of victimization as constituting an incentive for irresponsibility, a cause of dependency and a source of hyper-sensitivity to race, one must also accept that the black subculture, in fact, has been the unwitting victim of the Democrat Party's political Machiavellianism.

read full comment
Image of paladin
on October 24, 2020 at 23:29:39 pm

I look forward to reading your typically candid and forthright comments, but was "eleemosynary reasons" really necessary? Are you competing with George Will for word slinger extraordinaire? Then again, you are a lawyer. :-)

On your last paragraph, 2nd point: I wonder if if follows that a subculture that accepts dependency and irresponsibility, providing votes for money and largess, is really an "unwitting victim"? I grant that the Democrat Party is materially aided in this "program" by a large and active racialist industry, but a part of me suspects this phrasing might lead to a charge of "bigotry of low expectations" [which presumably is not your real view at all].
Then again, many people of all races and socioeconomic ranks fail to look past their near term benefits to the potential long term harm of their decisions.

read full comment
Image of R2L
on October 25, 2020 at 10:20:41 am

Paladin is correct in asserting that the Dems did not advance victimization out of a sense of charity (I can't even pronounce eleemosynary,BTW) as this is borne out by LBJ's comment that the effect of his civil rights initiatives "will be to keep those *neegrahs* (the polite southern variant of ni**ers*) in the Democrat Party for 100 years" as quoted by robert Caro.
Let us hope he was only half right at the half century anniversary of those remarks.

read full comment
Image of gabe
on October 25, 2020 at 11:40:45 am

Hmmm? Is comparing me to George Will an insult? Sounds like an insult, but I will take it as a compliment because Will's incomparable love of words, history and baseball leads me to ignore his intellectually inexcusable, politically insignificant disdain of Trump as president. And William Buckley was also a logophile, so all in all I am in good company.

R2L is right about contemporary blacks being willing victims (and useful idiots) of the Democrat Party. The innocence of unwitting victimhood ended with the dawn of the Great Society, when black leaders became knowing co-conspirators. Arguably by the time of Carter and inarguably by the time of the Clintons the black masses knew or should have known that they were being used.

My point is, however, that in the period 1964-68 when they were first recruited as victims by LBJ and the Democrat Party, blacks did not know that Democrats were not embracing but exploiting them, that they were not being offered equality and justice but toleration and money, in return for votes as the oppressed, role-playing as victims, and animosity toward Republicans as racists. That awareness came later.

read full comment
Image of paladin
on October 26, 2020 at 22:09:31 pm

No insult intended. My mother gave me a strong appreciation for the richness of the English language, but my only formal exposure to "the liberal arts" and potential for unusual word usage was in high school English class, since college and grad school were pretty fully engineering oriented. Amazing how many words you pick up via reading that you may never or seldom speak or write.

Thanks for the further clarification on the timing of victimhood. Detroit and Baltimore, St. Louis or East St. Louis, and some other failing cities support your comment fully. Now we are even seeing San Francisco, Seattle, Portland, perhaps Chicago & LA, where the Dems are also exploiting the "woke" privileged whites.

read full comment
Image of R2L
on October 28, 2020 at 08:39:13 am

Mark Levin interviewed Shelby Steele about the documentary. It was thoughtful, provocative, and insightful to say the least. I’m not sure there are many Blacks that will see it let alone accept it. The indoctrination that has plagued my (Black) community over the past 50 years has been glaringly effective and it keeps us in the “mental plantation.” Fortunately a generation is rising up and simply asking the question “why?”. Once we begin to walk in our freedom then we can truly begin building our communities again. Our reliance on government has been our demise and it needs to stop.

read full comment
Image of OM
on October 23, 2020 at 07:38:34 am

[…] Source link […]

on October 24, 2020 at 01:10:38 am

[…] Under Fire, Trump Supporters Feel Pressure to Remain Silent – M. Graham at [Inside Sources] Shelby Steele & America’s “Poetic Truth” – Mark Judge at Law & Liberty A Death Tax is Still Alive & Well in Australia – […]

on October 24, 2020 at 09:37:55 am

[…] What killed Michael Brown? […]

on October 30, 2020 at 18:52:30 pm

[…] day the story broke, I could see cause to keep an open mind in the face of the narrative. There was more to the Ferguson story than I knew till much later. But I saw from the start that there was more to […]

on December 17, 2020 at 06:23:21 am

[…] created by Netflix, has been hailed and watched across the globe. Who Killed Michael Brown, an independent film concerning the killing in Ferguson, nearly didn’t get an viewers, after Amazon initially […]

on December 17, 2020 at 06:42:13 am

[…] created by Netflix, has been hailed and watched around the globe. Who Killed Michael Brown, an independent film about the killing in Ferguson, almost did not get an audience, after Amazon initially blocked it […]

on December 17, 2020 at 08:46:12 am

[…] created by Netflix, has been hailed and watched around the globe. Who Killed Michael Brown, an independent film about the killing in Ferguson, almost did not get an audience, after Amazon initially blocked it […]

Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.