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FOR BLACKS, AS for members of other rising ethnic groups before them, moving into America’s middle class has been difficult. Assimilation almost inescapably involves an inner struggle over how strongly to maintain an ethnic identity, given that one’s ethnic culture and the culture of the middle class seem to be in opposition.
An intense debate is now going on about whether middleclass blacks should embrace a strong black identity or just blend in. A related and now urgent question is how to improve black students’ performance in integrated schools.
Claude Steele’s essay in this issue, “Race and the Schooling of Black Americans,” is an eloquent statement of the position that a strengthened black identity can be a way into the mainstream of society, rather than a way of disengaging from it. A leading proponent of a different vision of race in American life is Steele’s identical twin brother, Shelby Steele, who decried “race holding” (clinging fiercely to a racial identity) in his much-praised book. The Content of Our Character.
Claude Steele, forty-five, is a social psychologist at Stanford University; he moved there from the University of Michigan last fall. His main area of academic interest, besides racial prejudice and self-esteem, is alcoholism. A truck driver’s son, he grew up in the working-class Chicago suburb of Phoenix, Illinois. He sees himself and his brother as having overlapping but distinct goals in the area of race: Shelby Steele is an essayist working toward a new vision of race and black identity, and Claude Steele is a social scientist concerned with the question of how to educate diverse groups. In this case, as in many others, what may look to whites like a black ideological civil war is likely to look to blacks like a process springing naturally from what W.E.B. DuBois called the “double-consciousness” with which they live. Both Steeles begin with the assumption that for the black students they are writing about, the essential barrier is not lack of ability or poor preparation or poverty or unjust laws but the process by which the self-perception of blacks is shaped by the prejudices of American society. That the black dilemma can be formulated in this way may seem like another new development in American race relations, but it isn’t. Here is DuBois again, writing in 1903 in a way that makes the eventual appearance of two prominent, respectfully disagreeing black intellectuals seem almost inevitable:
One ever feels his twoness,—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.