If you want to know how controversial Shelby Steele has become, consider this: Even writing an article about him has become an inherently political act.

With his new book, "The Content of Our Character," Steele has placed himself squarely at the center of a political and intellectual rumble.

Steele is an English professor who argues that individual achievement rather than collective political action is the key to black advancement. Many politically engaged black Americans see Steele as the latest in a series of black spokesmen who owe their fame to the white establishment. They say whites have promoted Steele in an effort to blur their responsibility for the fate of black Americans. Such criticism is extended especially to the media and, presumably, to articles like this one.

Steele's defenders are equally intense, arguing that his is a refreshingly honest voice in a debate filled with cant and posturing. The attacks on him, his defenders say, are attempts to stifle debate by imposing a party line on black intellectuals.

The passion that Steele invokes betrays how polarized and frayed the American racial discussion has become. Steele is simultaneously the beneficiary and the victim of the difficulties Americans have talking about race these days.

"The discussion has become so politicized," said William J. Wilson, a professor of sociology at the University of Chicago and a widely respected writer on America's racial dilemmas, "that people who agree with him will not look seriously at his limitations, and people who disagree with him will not look seriously at his contributions."

To find himself in the midst of such passionate polemics is heady stuff for a quiet, tweedy professor at San Jose State University who was little known until a couple of years ago, when he began producing his series of highly personal essays about race in America.

But for Steele, who is 44 and has spent most of his professional career writing about African and African American literature, being in the middle of political polemics is not the ideal way to have a good time.

"I'm not a very political person," he said in a late-night interview over drinks at the Mayflower after a hectic day of book touring and panel discussions. "Politics bore me to tears."

Yet for Shelby Steele, there can now be no turning back: Having joined the debate over an issue that has torn at America's conscience and body politic for nearly 400 years, he has strayed into an arena in which politics is inescapable.

Wearily, Steele says he accepts this. "All I do now," said the man who supported Jesse Jackson in 1988 and says he's never voted for a Republican in his life, "is spend my energy saying I'm not a conservative."

The denials are necessary because many black intellectuals link arguments like Steele's -- which de-emphasize collective action -- with political quiescence and social subjugation.

"He says things that are comforting to white people and they write about him so fast their arms fall off," said Roger Wilkins, a law professor at George Mason University and a veteran civil rights leader. "He gives comfort to white people and white people raise him up to a level that his intellectual achievements do not merit."

Steele counters that his goal is not to comfort white people, but to persuade the black movement to move on to a new stage. The overriding task for blacks, he says, is to overcome what he calls "integration shock."

"We have, as a race, been very good at the exercise of collective power," he said. "On the other hand, it's not anti-black, it's not neo-conservative, to say that we have not put enough responsibility on the shoulders of individuals."

"I think black Americans today are more oppressed by doubt than by racism and that the second stage of our struggle for freedom must be confrontation with that doubt," he declares in his book. "Unexamined, this doubt leads us back into the tunnel of our oppression where we reenact our victimization just as society struggles to end its victimization of us."

"We are in the odd and self-defeating position," he writes, "in which taking responsibility for bettering ourselves feels like a surrender to white power."

Steele is especially upset that the very definition of "being black" has come to be associated with being poor. "The poor black has become 'the true black,' and as one moved up and entered the middle class, you became 'less black,' " he said during a panel discussion last week sponsored by the Progressive Policy Institute. "You reward people for the identification with failure and you punish them if they succeed."

Though Steele's arguments are complex and his essays rich in psychological imagery, his central theme is straightforward: "From this point on," he writes, "the race's advancement will come from the efforts of its individuals."

In pursuit of this end, Steele is trying to revive an old word. "Integration is hard," he said. Black Americans, he said, must think of themselves as Americans and embrace America's achievement ethic. "My feeling," he said, "is that it's the only hope for America. And this puts me in the same camp as Martin Luther King -- thankfully."

The Critics Speak You certainly wouldn't know that listening to some of Steele's critics.

Roger Wilkins argues that no one concerned about the fate of black Americans disputes the importance of individual achievement. What Steele vastly underplays, Wilkins said, is the extent to which "that problem was put there by this society." For blacks, he said, the reality is that "this is a racist society that's tilted against them."

"What he does is a very personal, ahistoric analysis," Wilkins said. "If you read him, you would think the history of race relations started when he came to consciousness."

Ronald Walters, chairman of the political science department at Howard University, eviscerated Steele when he appeared with him on the Progressive Policy Institute panel.

Steele, he said, vastly underestimates the need for continued collective, political action, and overestimates the potential of individualism. And Steele's incessant emphasis on the psychological state of black people, Walters said, is a way of "putting the onus back on the backs of the victims."

As for Steele's attacks on black separatism, Walters argued that what is really at issue is black solidarity, "the kind of strength they need to have mobility."

In political and intellectual fights, certain images recur, and among black intellectuals one specter is inevitable: Booker T. Washington.

Thus, in an essay for the Guardian, a radical magazine, Manning Marable, a political scientist at the University of Colorado, directly analogized Steele to Washington. Washington, Marable wrote, "called for separate but equal race relations throughout the South, justifying political disenfranchisement and segregated public accommodations."

"The system," Marable wrote, "has frequently relied on black conservative politicians and intellectuals to justify patterns of race and class inequality."

Steele's admirers say that his genius lies precisely in the fact that he's provoked such powerful reactions.

"Because his position is so intensely personal and not political, it cuts close to the bone," said Joe Klein, a political writer for New York magazine, who moderated the Washington panel. "He challenges people who are used to venting their rage to look inside themselves, and that has to be a painful process." The Tenor of the Times 1990 is the best and the worst of times for a voice like Shelby Steele's.

Something terrible has happened to America's racial conversation. Increasingly, whites and blacks talk past each other as the condition of the black poor worsens and racial tensions in big cities rise.

This is a time when the nation's racial dialogue needs to be shaken up, when people need to speak with greater candor. And it is a time when anyone who tries to do so will inevitably be viewed with suspicion.

For many black Americans -- in the middle class no less than among the poor -- the 1980s were a horrid time in which white America decided to desert black America. The sentiment one hears again and again is that in the 1980s, whites were "given license to be racist again." The villain of the piece is usually Ronald Reagan.

Among whites -- including many white liberals -- there is also frustration and anger. White Americans cannot understand the appeal of separatist figures such as Louis Farrakhan or Al Sharpton. Whites, frustrated by -- and threatened by -- continuing high rates of drug use and crime among the black poor, seem ready to throw up their hands -- or worse. Witness the explosive election result last Saturday in the U.S. Senate race in Louisiana, where David Duke, the former Nazi and Ku Klux Klansman, got an estimated 60 percent of the white vote.

Black Americans sense something eerily familiar. The last time whites "deserted" blacks was in the post-Reconstruction period, from the late 1870s to the turn of the century -- Booker T. Washington's time. Liberal writers who had sympathized with blacks after the Civil War began writing about black failure, including the shortcomings of black politicians in the Reconstruction governments of the South. Soon, the gains that blacks had made during Reconstruction dissolved into Jim Crow laws and rigid segregation. While no one is predicting a revival of Jim Crow, many blacks see far too many parallels in the 1990s.

In short: Where whites see Louis Farrakhan, blacks see David Duke. Where whites see the Central Park jogger case, blacks see Bensonhurst.

Into this welter of suspicion and anger enters Shelby Steele, and to understand where he's coming from, you have to understand first that he comes from California, by way of Illinois.

Steele was born in Chicago and grew up in Phoenix, Ill., in a family steeped in the civil rights movement. His parents were founding members of the Congress of Racial Equality, and Steele says, "I grew up in that ethos of CORE -- high-principled Gandhian activism." Steele's mother was a social worker and his father a truck driver who dropped out of school after the third grade but taught himself to read. He spent the rest of his life reading incessantly. "He was one of the best intellectuals I've ever known," Steele says.

In grade school, Steele had an experience that clearly shaped his views on the importance of pride and the dangers of self-loathing. An unhappy and unsympathetic teacher, Steele writes in his book, convinced him that he was stupid. So convinced, he began to act as if he were stupid, and his performance fell. Ultimately, Steele's parents convinced him otherwise and -- as believers in collective action -- organized a parents' campaign to shake up the school.

Steele graduated from Coe College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and, true to his family tradition of engagement, set off for the slums of East St. Louis and taught high school. "It's the best teaching experience I've had," he says, "in the worst ghetto I've ever been in."

He picked up a master's in sociology while he was teaching, but he decided that his love was literature and went to the University of Utah, where he met and married a student of clinical psychology. He and his wife, Rita, have been married for more than two decades .

His wife is white, and that is something Steele's critics often bring up by way of describing his "isolation" from the black community. "At first it was really painful," he said. "Now it's something I've come to expect. ... You have the whole litany: Shelby Steele who's married to a white wife and lives in California. ... "

"My wife doesn't like that very much," he went on. "She's a Jewish woman whose father is a Holocaust survivor and knows more about human suffering than I ever did. Her family has been through a great deal."

"When you say 'white wife,' " Steele continued with a small laugh, "they picture some blond, blue-eyed movie star. That's the antithesis of what my wife is." The Steeles have two children who, says Steele, have few problems about race or identity.

"They don't worry about it very much," he said. "They know about their Jewish heritage and they know about their black heritage. They know a great deal about black American culture."

They are also Californians, and the spirit of California is central to Steele's worldview and to his impatience with too much emphasis on collective identity. Steele's individualism is a Californian's individualism.

"There's something in the ambiance, something in the atmosphere that allows you to be yourself a little more," Steele says. "They respond to you as an individual human being. They don't feel so bound into their collective loyalties. There's a lot of respect for individual space."

In addition to being a Californian, Steele is a college professor whose scholarly work has been on Ralph Ellison and Richard Wright. That too shapes what he writes about and how he writes about it. Steele is an opponent of affirmative action, and his arguments against it focus on the difficulties black college students have in graduating. What is necessary, he says, is not simply admitting more blacks to universities, but giving them the background and training that will allow them to graduate from universities.

Thus, Steele urges more early intervention programs for infants, an expansion of Head Start programs and improved education programs. "I think we should be doing more than we're doing, and we should do it earlier," he says. "Doesn't that make me a liberal?"

For Steele, "white guilt" has had disastrous consequences. In saying this, Steele seems to be doing exactly what his critics claim: offering absolution to whites. But Steele says his attack on white guilt grows from anger -- at whites.

Guilt grows from "self-preoccupation," he says. It is "so white-oriented, so selfish. You end up with these policies, racial preferences, which do nothing to develop the black community."

"Whites say, 'We've given you your preferences, what more do you want?' They're blinded to what we need, which is development."

At times, Steele can sound like the black nationalist he used to be. When he argues against "victimization," what he's opposing, he said, is the way in which that idea reduces black America's sense of control over its own destiny.

"You don't flatter whites by giving them all the power over your fate," he argues. "You become your own man and you fight for a free society and you develop."

"If you're waiting around for deliverance, it's going to be a very long wait," he said. "The hard message, whether it makes me Booker T. Washington or not, is that we're going to have to help ourselves."

Qualified Dissent The good news for Steele is that leading black intellectuals who profoundly disagree with him are starting to rebel against the tone of the assaults against him.

"Despite my vast differences of opinion with Shelby Steele, I think the way he is being dismissed and the way he's being treated are unfortunate, and in fact, they remind me of the way Ralph Ellison was treated by black nationalists in the late 1960s," said Henry Louis Gates Jr., a professor of English at Duke University. "It is wrong for anyone to feel motivated to police a so-called collective party line to which all African American intellectuals are supposed to kowtow. I resent that deeply."

"We often benefit from having a fresh voice that effectively challenges conventional wisdom," Wilson said. "And I appreciate his attempt to raise issues we ought to be discussing. I admire him for his courage."

But both Gates and Wilson argue that Steele left himself open to attack because he was so relentlessly individualistic. If Steele's critics need to come to terms with his arguments for self-reliance, Steele himself, they say, needs to come to terms with their arguments for collective action.

Steele, says Wilson, "ends up with a one-sided, individualistic explanation of black behavior that, unfortunately, reinforces the dominant American ideology that the poor are somehow responsible for their own plight."

Gates says that Steele's literary and psychological approach to race and racism offers no answer to what he called "the taxi fallacy" that black Americans face every day.

"When I leave the Schomburg Library in Harlem and am standing on the corner of 135th Street and Malcolm X Boulevard, I can't persuade white taxi drivers to stop simply by yelling, 'Race is a metaphor! Race is a metaphor!' " Gates said.

Cornel West, a professor of religion and Afro-American studies at Princeton University, says Steele needs to accept that even a non-political argument has political implications. "If you're going to be an intellectual writing about race in America, you have to be as aware of context as you are of argument." Steele is struggling with these questions himself. He insists that despite the individualistic emphasis of his book, he never denied the importance of collective action.

He thus refuses to be typecast as a man of the right who is simply saying the same things as such leading black conservative intellectuals as Thomas Sowell or Walter Williams. "We're all very different," he said. "Our politics are different. But we're against that orthodoxy. So we're cast out of the church and lumped together."

Whatever the long-term verdict on Steele's work, he has already done the service of shaking up the debate on race in the United States. And if black liberation has always involved a dialectic between individual achievement and collective action, Steele has made a powerful case for the importance of one side of that dialectic.

And there is one thing Shelby Steele is clear about: He knows which side of history he's on.

"The reason I write this," he says, "is because I believe in black people. I believe they can do anything. I believe they can overcome any obstacle.

"I write," he concludes, "out of love."