Shelby Steele and America’s “Poetic Reality”
“We humans never use race except as a means of power. Running is never an end. It’s always a means. It doesn’t matter in human affairs except as corruption. “
These are some of the first words well-known cultural critic Shelby Steele used 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 job that it has already been banned from a major point of sale. As the Wall Street Journal reported, Amazon viciously blocked the viewing of the film out of concern about its “expectations of the quality of content” before giving in and making it available. Shelby Steele is a Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. He received a National Humanities Medal and a National Book Critics Circle Award for his collection of essays, 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 in 1989 by a racially motivated group of white assailants. Eli is a talented and accomplished filmmaker. Amazon’s “quality expectations” must indeed be high.
The theme of the film is the death of Michael Brown, who became a political hotspot in 2014. On August 9, 2014, officer Darren Wilson shot and killed Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, in a suburb of 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, who appeared not only as a government official but also as a “black man”, soon hired the Justice Department. The media believed it was a racially motivated crime and produced hysterical, often inaccurate reports.
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 was the same as 1950, which killed Michael Brown , the film concludes, was liberalism. Viewers may disagree or find Steele too conservative, but this is a work of honesty produced with integrity by one of the most level-headed voices in American political life. Amazon’s censorship was a shame. It’s amazing how allegations that liberalism was going to be censored and Orwellian – allegations that once seemed a bit hyperbolic – have actually become a reality.
At the opening of What Killed Michael Brown? Offers Steele his reputation as a former liberal activist – in fact, he was a “black militant” in the 1960s. The son of politically active parents in Chicago who protested school separation, Steele was a “warrior in President Johnson’s war on poverty” as a young man. He remembers working in East St. Louis in the 1960s and believed that in a “mood of wild hope” his work would change the country. “America had essentially confessed the evil of its racist past. The government that had put us under pressure yesterday would now construct our uplift. “His hope was short-lived when he witnessed corruption among his fellow activists and brutal black-and-black violence in the communities he sought to serve. After three years he was disaffected: “The development of blacks was not the focus of justice,” he recalls. “Taking advantage of white debt was the focus.”
This is what Steele found when he traveled to Ferguson to investigate the situation following Michael Brown’s death. In the film, he interviews activists both left (Al Sharpton) and right (Robert Woodson), politicians, pastors, NAACP leaders, Ferguson locals, ex-gang leaders and journalists. Son Eli’s directing is graceful and low-key, with a subtle jazz score kept low in the mix so the voices can be heard. The film cuts archive footage with the modern interviews.
According to Steele, the “dependency path” of liberalism has been devastating for the black community.
The Ferguson protests, Steele said, didn’t seem convincing – “the anger seemed ritualized, almost choreographed.” Steele wonders “why it’s so hard to see the truth here” and recreates the crime scene, which is exactly where Brown died. He concludes that what the Justice Department ultimately did: There was no reason to charge Officer Wilson with the unjustified shooting of Brown. According to witnesses, Brown attacked Wilson, who was firing in self-defense. Yet there was “a frame of meaning” before evidence or testimony was available. 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 with which we complain for leverage for power in the world. It’s a partisan version of reality, an act we suggested to build our case. According to Steele, the Michael Brown case has become “a competition between poetic truth and objective truth,” with poetic truth acting like a “tyranny”. The poetic truth “superimposes the present with images of past racist persecution” and links modern events like the racial Michael Brown shooting with past racial atrocities like the murder of Emmitt Till and the whips by Bull Connor.
So, in 1950, Ferguson became more tolerant, diverse and mostly black in South Africa. James Knowles, the mayor of Ferguson, put it: “The media couldn’t wait to say, check out this 65 percent African American town with a white Republican mayor, 85 percent Democrat. They made me feel like this was South Africa. That was apartheid. “Some of the white residents of Ferguson point out that the people like them, who stayed after the ‘white flight’ of the 1960s and who have black friends and neighbors, did not stay in town because they are racists. That the media didn’t do its job here isn’t surprising, however. They don’t do their job anywhere anymore.
When the Justice Department concluded that Officer Wilson had done nothing wrong, a liberal journalist, Jonathan Capehart of the Washington Post, admitted they were wrong. For his honesty, Capehart has been named Uncle Tom and Sellout. “I did it because it was the right thing to do,” he says. From Al Sharpton to Eric Holder to the media, it was necessary to maintain the “poetic truth” that race played a role in Michael Brown’s death. “The danger of poetic truth is that we always have to solve the wrong problem,” says Steele. The problem was not white racism, although it is still an issue, but “the immensely seductive power of 1960s liberalism,” a liberalism that was “far more focused on alleviating white guilt than developing blacks”. From the 1960s onwards, “America’s racial debt was our power. White guilt turned into black power. “To keep this power, blacks always had to be victims. This robbed them of “a sense of agency” in their own destiny.
There were also some disastrous social policies, from “urban renewal” that destroyed black neighborhoods to welfare programs that paid off when there was no man in the house. According to Steele, this “dependency trail” was devastating for the black community. “The great sin of liberalism was to steal black responsibility for black problems and make them vulnerable to destructive social forces,” he concludes. As Steele said in a recent interview, “There is this rush, which is almost desperate, to see the event as an example of black victimization, to establish it as black victimization, and that kind of becomes an argument.”
What killed Michael Brown? is a gripping and thought-provoking film that hopefully will spark an honest debate on the subject of race. It’s the kind of documentary our media once produced.