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Books and Culture

Paul Beston
Obama’s Gordian Knot
The candidate’s politics are entangled in racial contradiction, says Shelby Steele.
14 December 2007

A Bound Man: Why We Are Excited About Obama and Why He Can’t Win, by Shelby Steele (Free Press, 160 pp., $22)

“I am rooted in the African-American community,” Barack Obama told 60 Minutes earlier this year. “But I’m not defined by it. I am comfortable in my racial identity . . . but that’s not the core of who I am.”

“My only trick as a writer,” Shelby Steele wrote in his book White Guilt, “has been to write about America without the schizophrenia imposed on blacks by the culture war. I don’t have to ‘protect’ blacks or any other group by pretending that certain self-serving lies (‘systemic’ racism remains a barrier) are true. . . . It is the rare black who gets to live without the world expecting him to pretend.”

Steele and Obama make a compelling pair. Both children of interracial marriages, they have carved out unique places in America’s racial landscape. Obama, of course, is a black presidential candidate who, unlike his predecessors in that effort (Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton), could conceivably win. Steele is America’s bravest and most eloquent racial commentator; he views American race relations as an existential struggle for moral innocence. In his telling, blacks, by virtue of their history of oppression, claim victimhood as a source of political power. As the historically wronged group, they can collect on grievance by exploiting white guilt. For whites, the quest for racial redemption often leads to a kind of narcissistic selfishness. White liberals, in particular, favor racial policies that preserve their own sense of goodness, even if these policies’ effectiveness, let alone justice, is dubious. The result is a fundamentally corrupt racial dialogue.

In his new book, Steele brings this distinctive perspective to the Obama phenomenon. A Bound Man manages to combine some of the philosophical sweep of Steele’s previous work with a focus on one individual’s character and thinking. Obama’s candidacy has sparked excitement, Steele writes, both because of its plausibility – he is a legitimate contender for the Democratic nomination, not a mere protest candidate – and because it symbolizes “the idealism that race is but a negligible human difference.” And yet, notwithstanding this sense of what Steele calls “high possibility,” Obama is “bound” between the two competing pressures that hold blacks today: the need for belonging within the racial group, which requires that he cultivate his “blackness” and to some degree adopt the language of victimization; and the need to be true to himself, which requires rejecting the crippling and false premises of victimization and Afrocentrism and acknowledging his broader humanity. In Obama’s case, that humanity is broad indeed, as he grew up in Hawaii and Indonesia and was raised largely by his white mother, who emphasized not bloodlines but self-reliance.

Steele is clearly sympathetic with Obama. He identifies with Obama’s struggle as a young man to understand his racial identity, complicated further by his black father’s abandonment of the family when Barack was only two. He has high regard for Obama’s first memoir, Dreams from My Father, which he likens to a novel for its narrative power and anguished psychological probing—and which probably predates Obama’s recognition of his larger political ambitions.

Obama’s struggle to define himself is made more difficult by the confining pressures of racial identity in America, and specifically by what Steele calls the two “masks” that black Americans have typically worn when dealing with whites: challenging and bargaining. Challengers, he writes, assume that “whites are incorrigibly racist until they do something to prove otherwise.” They put whites on the defensive and make demands in return for retracting the accusation of racism: think Jackson and Sharpton. Bargainers like Obama, on the other hand, give whites the benefit of the doubt and say, “I will not use America’s horrible history of white racism against you, if you will promise not to use my race against me.” What both postures have in common is a belief in some degree of white responsibility for black progress. Where challengers threaten consequences if that responsibility isn’t met, bargainers are more collaborative and assume that whites want to help.

The quintessential bargainers, Steele writes, are Oprah Winfrey—now on the campaign trail for Obama—and before her, Bill Cosby. But Cosby, after a lifetime of wearing the bargainer’s mask, tossed it aside and began speaking a forbidden truth in recent years about black inner-city crime and the indispensable role of personal responsibility. As a result, Steele writes, Cosby lost his iconic cultural status, and “no longer sells Jell-O, or anything else, on national television.” Not only did Cosby infuriate many blacks, who felt that he was blaming the victim, but he also denied whites the role that they currently enjoy in the narrative of black progress—moral accomplices who, in overcoming their shameful history, can redeem their souls. “Black responsibility is verboten,” Steele writes, “because it snuffs out the market for white innocence.” Steele argues that if Obama were to take Cosby’s path, he would suffer a similar fate, because “white Americans would no longer see the possibility of their own racial innocence in him.”

The only way, then, that Obama can maintain his appeal to whites is to hold out the promise of redemption, a message of healing that promises a moral partnership with whites in finishing the work of black uplift; and the only way he can maintain standing with blacks is to offer enough suggestions of challenging, of being “authentically” black, to convince them that he is not letting whites off the hook. If he sounds too much like a challenger, he will drive whites away; yet if he seems too free of racial resentment, he risks his membership in the black community, already fraught by virtue of his mixed racial heritage and his instinctively magnanimous bargainer’s personality.

For the first time in reading one of Steele’s books, I felt that he was imposing abstractions on a messy world. While Steele articulates complex racial dynamics as brilliantly as ever, his formulation is deterministic, ascribing a seeming immutability to these forces that denies the individual agency that he otherwise so firmly upholds. Rather than rejecting Obama if he starts talking about black responsibility, whites, it’s easy to imagine, might rejoice in a black candidate who speaks this language—which many whites, for fear of being called racist, feel they can use only among themselves. Steele does not consider the possibility that whites might receive the talk about black responsibility not as a denial of their innocence, but as a confirmation of it (which might well cause other problems).

Of course, the racial dynamic that Obama must master is not the only obstacle he faces: in the harsh world of politics, he is contending with a ruthless, well-funded opponent and attempting to win over voters who are scrutinizing his ideas, experience, and political viability. In Steele’s narrative, though, Obama’s effort is so subsumed within the conflict of challenging and bargaining, so overwhelmed by the struggle for an authentic black identity and the complex existential choices that it offers blacks and whites, that his actual candidacy is a dim shadow in a thick mist.

Steele does note, accurately enough, that Obama “is decidedly not a conviction politician. His supporters do not look to him to do something; they look to him primarily to be something, to represent something.” Indeed, Obama’s apparently unscotchable appetite for platitude has encouraged a soaring rhetoric that reveals almost nothing about his actual ideas. His voting record is much more consistently left-wing than his NutraSweet slogans of unity would suggest. Woefully inexperienced, Obama is a presidential candidate, Steele suggests, because of “his power to enthrall whites.” Even so, he is polling well and raising money—indeed, putting fear into Hillary Clinton’s campaign. If it was safe to dismiss his chances in February, when he announced his candidacy, it is less so now, three weeks before the Iowa caucuses, where some polls show him in the lead. Something seems to be happening out there.

Steele isn’t buying. His final assessment is blunt: Obama “is a bound man because he cannot be two opposing worldviews at the same time—he cannot grant whites their racial innocence and simultaneously withhold it from them.” To which one is tempted to reply, with apologies to Jay Gatsby: “Can’t be two things at once? Why of course he can!” The country Obama proposes to lead embodies duality; its circles are never squared. That Obama could represent opposed ideas to opposed groups, that he could veer between representations at different points on the campaign trail—as Steele points out, he is already doing this—and that he might be able to win the presidency in just this fashion is not so implausible. Think of it as the political equivalent of what Keats called Negative Capability: “That is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” A serious black presidential candidate in the U.S. will, almost by definition, conduct his politics within a contradictory space.

Neat, platonic categories of analysis tend not to fare too well in American life, where surprises are common; that Obama has come this far has already surprised most hardened political observers. Yet Steele, the great voice of black individualism, seems closed to the possibility of transformation as the Obama story unfolds. He overlooks the defining feature of our culture—its relentless, grinding pace of change. That pace leaves logical abstractions, even those involving race, in mangled heaps, trampled on by events that we are always attempting to understand and predict, with vision that is nearsighted at best.

Paul Beston is associate editor of City Journal.

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