Shelby Steele Posits a Bogus World Where Obama Is “A Bound Man”

Shelby Steele contends that Obama is in a bind. The same bind every (liberal) black person must tackle because the liberal options are limited to wearing one of two masks: a “bargainer” or a “challenger.”

A “bargainer” is one who makes a tacit agreement to “give whites the benefit of doubt” that they are racially innocent if they “don’t hold [the bargainer’s] race against him.”

I’m not sure why this has to be a strategically donned “mask.” If you don’t hold my race against me, you aren’t being racist. So, why shouldn’t I treat you as though you’re not? It just seems fair.

In other contexts, Steele has said “this idea that we live in a hostile society that is determined to keep us down… is not true.” So, he seems to accept that racial hostility is no longer a factor in American life (but unlike those he criticizes, he seems willing to assume innocence even against all evidence to the contrary: according to him, during segregation, when there was “no white guilt,” everyone was expected to perform. He mentions that he had white teachers who expected him to do “what everyone was expected to do.” Interesting. Was he expected to sit in the same section of the bus, drink from the same fountain, and go to the same good schools with the better teachers, as “everybody else”? But… I digress.)

A “challenger” is a black person who openly criticizes racial animus or the history of racial oppression. Not sure what’s the problem with this, either, but then, I’m a liberal. I’m sure Steele would say that challengers cry “racism” whenever faced with any adversity instead of taking “responsibility” individually. (He says: “We are now 90% responsible for keeping ourselves down.”) I think there is some truth in the idea that a victim mentality in identity politics can harm the very people it purports to represent. My problem is with Steele’s extreme position on “responsibility” in terms of self-reliance alone and his philosophical willingness to absolve people of “responsibility” for actions that have damaging consequences for other people. (Reminds me of a doctor I briefly dated who expressed a general outrage against the whole idea of medical malpractice suits, declaring that patients should learn to “take responsibility” for their own injuries. The fact that he did things to them for which they paid him large sums of money apparently placed no responsibility on him.) But, again, I digress.

Steele’s Obama thesis, put in the most reasonable light, is something along the following lines:

Black politicians (in the liberal “white-guilt” based tradition) can’t have a nuanced and authentic point of view because they are expected to fit one of the two roles (bargainer or challenger). Blacks can succeed in niche demographics where those masks have appeal but they lose in broader fields. For example, bargainers frustrate blacks but do well enough with liberal whites. Challengers alienate whites but win in majority-minority constituencies. Anyone not strictly conforming to the accepted roles fail because they stir suspicions among both groups and are left wondering which is the “authentic” person. Something as vast as the general American electorate, therefore, can’t be won over because there simply aren’t enough of either black voters or the liberal white “civil rights” niche voters to carry a bargainer or a challenger, respectively. And, presumably, never the ’twain shall meet.

Of course, that conversation took place long before the South Carolina Primary.

I think one Mr. Barack Obama is proving you wrong, Dr. Steele.

In interviews with Brian Lehrer of WNYC and Harry Smith of CBS (see links below) Steele has explained the surge of black support for Obama, the bargainer, as really triggered by his success with white voters. In other words blacks will support him only if they think he can win with whites. Doesn’t this completely undercut the idea of a fissure between the “bargainer” and “challenger” roles?

Also, if liberal whites like bargainers because they assuage white guilt, why don’t they like guys like Shelby Steele who absolves them of even the “original” guilt? Interestingly, while Steele doesn’t seem to blame segregation or racial discrimination for anything, he did say to Bill Moyers (see link below) that whites (meaning LIBERAL whites) “use us, buy their innocence with us” but “nobody helps us.” I’m confused. I thought you didn’t want any help?

At any rate, it seems that Steele is the one trying to bind Obama by refusing to accept anything the Senator does at face value. He said to Bill Moyers he wanted to ask Obama “well, which is it? Is it your mama or is it Black Nationalism who’s responsible for you being here?” First of all it’s not clear what connection Obama has to black nationalism (does Steele mean race-sensitive liberal politics generally?) But either way, why does it have to be one or the other? Can’t it be that his mother brought him up to be capable but the politics shaped some of his core views (or helped shape a cultural context that allows black people to be taken seriously?)

A black liberal can do nothing right by Steele. Unless you share Steele’s conservative views you can’t even be genuine. He bills Clarence Thomas (an affirmative action hire who denounces affirmative action) as the Freest Black Man in America but told Brian Lehrer in an interview (see link below) that the “problem with bargainers” like Obama is that “they can never tell you what they really think… what their deep convictions are. When they do that they lose that special magic, they break that reciprocity with white Americans and become simply an individual.”

And your point is what?

*That if you were really an “individual” you would invariably turn up like Shelby Steele or Clarence Thomas and therefore the liberals wouldn’t like you?

*That the “real” views of a black Democrat must necessarily be odious to white people and make them feel the “guilt”? (if so, are you tacitly buying into the “challenger” worldview?)

*That liberals can’t possibly like real individuals because all their views are based on inauthentic stereotypes?

Tell us, Dr. Steele, if there is no general racial hostility in our society except, ostensibly, in the liberal construction of the world, then where are all these free, authentic, responsible, black leaders in your putatively non-hostile conservative America? Where is the viable conservative black candidate for president?

If Obama’s race poses a threat to his chances it will be because conservatives can’t get past his perceived strangeness. One comment to a review of Steele’s book on crystallized this perfectly: “By the way, if Hussein fails to be elected, it will be because he’s a Marxist, not because he’s black.”

Nice! I’m going to talk about rejecting his ideas rather than his ethnicity, but oh, yeah, I’ll call him by a name that draws attention to why his ethnicity should trouble us.

For reference:
Here are three of the many media appearances in which I heard Steele talk about his new book and Obama.

Bill Moyers interview

Brian Lehrer in an interview

Harry Smith guest appearance

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