Skip to comments.A Bound Man: Why We Are Excited About Obama And Why He Can’t Win by Shelby Steele
Posted on 01/21/2008 7:43:23 AM PST by shrinkermd
Shelby Steele wrote this book before any polls or votes suggested Barack Obama was a plausible contender. As such, the author was both prescient and provocative.
Shelby Steele is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University. His best selling book is The Content Of Our Character: A New Vision of Race in America. He has also written White Guilt: How Blacks and Whites Destroyed The Promise Of The Civil Rights Era. He has written other books and has published widely. President Bush honored him with the National Humanities Medal.
This book is noteworthy because it is slim134 pagesyet comprehensive in appraising current black-white relations. This book summarizes the essentials of Shelby Steeles thinking about race.
The authors points are congruent with what we know about human nature--how a relatively powerless group interacts with a powerful group. The author notes this is a general human response pattern, but narrows his discussion to black-white relations. When I summarize this book, it must be understood Shelby Steele is more nuanced and profound than my simple declarative sentences suggest.
In this short commentary and review, I will spend most of the effort on the authors basic ideas about race. I will discuss Obama but almost as an afterthought. The reason I take this approach is that after many years of reading FR, I am convinced very few are aware of Shelby Steeles thoughts on race.
The author states, Bargaining and challenging are the two great masks that we blacks wear when we seek success and power in the American mainstream. These broad means of interaction can also be thought of as quasi-identities. Of course, those who predominantly use one of these approaches will, from time to time, use the other as well.
Bargainers make a specific deal with whites. The bargainer does not hold the history of white racism against whites if they do not use race against blacks. By taking this approach bargainers give goodwill and receive goodwill. They give before they ask. Bill Crosby and Oprah Winfrey are bargainers. Basically, bargainers give racial innocence (remove the stigmata of racism) to whites; hence, the whites are both relieved and grateful. Their gratitude is such that many talented, black bargainers receive not only white recognition but riches as well.
Challengers confront whites. Challengers put all whites in the position of having to prove their racial innocence (not racist). Challengers assume all whites are racist and whites need to do something to prove otherwise. Among blacks, challengers usually have no power; however, once they interact with whites they gain great power. The black skin gives them moral authority in a society where being labeled a racist is one of the worst sins imaginable. Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson are challengers. Affirmative action and other special actions are demanded of whites. Prominent challengers even function as racial priests. Witness Don Imuss appeal to Al Sharpton after Imus was pilloried for racist remarks.
A few more points about challengers:
Recently Rush Limbaugh created quite a stir when one of his parodies referred to Barack Obama as the magic negro. Rush did not originate that term. It had been previously used in by a political pundit from the LA Times who in turn referenced this to another source.
No matter. Using this term caused quite a stir and threats to take Rush off the air. Nothing happened because Rush Limbaugh is a consummate professional and he proved to be above reproach.
Somewhat similar to magic negro is Shelby Steeles use of the iconic negro. By definition an iconic negro is someone who embodies the highest and best of both longings of both races. In such people one can see the historic shame of their races at last overcome.(Page 86)
Iconic negroes only arise in racially divided societies. Oprah Winfrey and Nelson Mandela are good examples. By dispensing with the sense of otherness it can be replaced with warmth, familiarity and racial goodwill. Racial tension appears nonexistent. The big problem with being an iconic Negro is one must wear the bargainers mask and the prerequisite for becoming an iconic negro is a great ability to maintain this mask and appear absolutely natural.
Barack Obama is the first Black to plausibly run for POTUS. He does so on the basis of being the quintessential iconic negro. Barack Obama entered this race by wearing the bargainers mask. Like the author he is the product of a white mother and a black father. Unlike the author, Barack was abandoned by his father at age 2. Being raised by a white mother and her parents resulted in his becoming an expert bargainer. This was, then, not an earned bargainer position based on outstanding individual effort. No, it was the result of a matching of his racial persona with an American hunger for racial innocence (absence of racism). (Page 152)
In a certain sense Barack Obamas case for being President rests not on a vision for America or the advocacy of personal convictions but his striking success as an iconic negro.
Barack Obama is a bound man. He discounts his white heritage and puffs his black heritage and must continue doing so. He cannot lose his black identity without losing the ability as a bargainer to appeal to whites. Contrariwise, he cannot lose his black identity and keep his black supporters.
Essentially, there are two binds that hamper Barack Obamas chances to be POTUS.
The first is his claim to fame and acceptance is that of an iconic Negro. If he begins criticizing blacks or letting whites off the hook, he will lose the rock star specialness that underlies his political viability. Blacks will lose respect for him as an Uncle Tom and Whites will no longer see him as giving them racial innocence. Whites vote for Obama. not for his policies, but for American racial redemption. Like all bargainers Barack tries to be, more or less, politically invisible; when this is impossible he becomes a tepid leftist.
Shelby Steele summarizes the first problem thusly:
If blacks are not victims of white racism, if their problems stem from pathologies only remotely related to past racismif, in fact, more black responsibility is the only meaningful answer to black difficultythen whites begin to disengage from the idea that their solicitude brinks black advancement. Suddenly, they dont need the innocence that bargainers offer them.. Eventually, all bargainers must lean to the political left, where the focus is on white responsibility for black difficulty . (Page 117)
So Obama is not given to fresh or new ideas. It is hard to be an iconic Negro and original at the same time. He works within convention not against it. When you are an iconic Negro you are original, not in your thinking, but in your person (Page 119)
The second bind Barack faces is the question, Is he black enough? How is it possible to be a white favorite and an icon of the mainstream left and still be an advocate for blacks? Since he gives racial innocence to whites before asking for anything he is doubly damned. challenging now defines the black American identity because whites are now contrite over their historical association with white supremacy In a certain sense challenging has resulted in a situation where neither race can ever fully know itself except in relation to the other.. (Page 126)
To summarize this second point, Barack Obama works entirely within the current scheme of race relations. The masks of bargaining and challenging are essential if this current scheme is to persist. he exploits the world to move himself ahead, not to advance a new configuration of race relations or to end the current configuration altogether Obama is a racial pragmatist more than anything else.
The author concludes thusly:
Nonetheless, Barack Obama entered history by wearing the bargainers mask. He was born to a fate that literally schooled him in bargaining. It was not a hard-earned and carefully evolved individuality that won him entree into national imagination. It was the matching of his racial persona with a hunger for racial innocence in white America
What gave Barack Obama the idea that he could plausibly run for POTUS? Was it that he had evolved a compelling vision for the nation grounded in deeply held personal convictions? Or was it he had simply become aware of the his power to enthrall whites?...(Pages 132-133)
You can find an excellent Bill Moyers interview of Shelby Steele HERE.
As noted the book is 134 pages with a brief index. I paid $15 for my copy. The copyright is 2008 and the publisher is the Free Press, a division of Simon and Schuster.
It is an easy read but very profound depending on how much you reflect on the contents. In a certain sense, Shelby Steele advocates an existential philosophy where every one of us is responsibleresponsible for what we do, responsible for who we are, responsible for the way we face and deal with the world and ultimately responsible for the way the world is. This is the philosophy of no excuses that Kierkegaard and Camus found congenial and meaningful. It is also the world that Shelby Steele lives in.
I have only one recommendation other than buying and reading this bookwe need to prevail on Rush Limbaugh, if he already hasnt done so, to interview Shelby Steele on several or more occasions. His thoughts need to be reflected upon by all of those who really think rather than simply emote. Bill Moyers and obscure book reviews are insufficient.
Shelby suffers from a dual disability-being black and being an intellectual. The former is easier to get around than the latter. If something isnt 300 words or less or amenable to one-liners on the late shows, it seldom makes a dent in what and how we think. Sometimes this is remedied after the authors death but, hopefully, that is many years in the future. Rush could broadcast and give a popular, conservative imprimatur to Shelbys thoughts.
“re-naturalization” does not appear in the index. What does this term mean?
I don’t see a convincing argument here as to why Obama won’t simply be able to use white guilt to be elected. I don’t think he will be required to enunciate any policies and will be protected by the media from substantive criticism. All he has to do is be himself.
IMHO though, a more simple/accurate reason for Obama’s fall is the DNC will never allow a black man to be the nominee/president, messes up the DNC’s white power structure. (Let a slave run the plantation?)
Get black leaders to denounce him.
Find a witness to a cocaine deal.
We are excited about me BECAUSE he can’t win.
3. Word Choice: New Uses, Common Confusion, and Constraints
§ 282. thusly
The adverb thusly was created in the 19th century as an alternative for thus in sentences such as Hold it thus or He put it thus. It appears to have been first used by humorists, who may have been echoing the speech of poorly educated people straining to sound stylish. The word has subsequently gained some currency in educated usage, but it is still often regarded as incorrect. A large majority of the Usage Panel found it unacceptable in an earlier survey. In formal writing, thus can still be used as in the examples above; in other styles, expressions such as this way and like this are more natural.
The American Heritage® Book of English Usage. Copyright © 1996 by Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved
Sorry. Pet peeve.
Shelby, you’ve over-thought it.
Bargainer = non-racist
Challenger = racist
By the way, if Hussein fails to be elected, it will be because he’s a Marxist, not because he’s black.
There was nothing "tepid" about his liberalism as an Illinois senator, he was and is to the left of Hillary.
Nice words from a brilliant but undiscovered intellectual.
But Obama is very dangerous because most American voters are not as brilliant, as nuanced, or as logical as Shelby Steele. Maybe 5% of whites and Republicans will vote for Obama to expunge the last vestiges of their guilt — so they think — and he will win. This includes many women who love his voice. Yes, they will vote for him because he makes them “feel good.”
Even Denzel Washington is considering supporting Obama although he is an outspoken Republican.
Obama is already trying to triangulate. Note his recent laudatory comments about Reagan. This will make the middle-of-the-roaders feel better about supporting him.
I believe he will win if only he can get by Hillary’s dirty tricks campaign in the primaries.
Have you seen the polls answers to who is voting for Obama. It is overwhelminly young people. The older people get, the less they buy into "white guilt" whether they are rats or republicans.
He will carry the Dem base and the black vote (redundant, I know). If he encourages a wave of voting by young people he’s practically a shoo in. I have my doubts the young will turn out though. They are long on enthusiasm and short on carry through.
I'm hopeful of that, also. LOL.
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