Shelby Steele is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution. He’s the author of The Content of Our Character, A Dream Deferred, and White Guilt. A few years ago, President Bush awarded him the National Humanities Medal.
Steele’s latest book is A Bound Man: Why We Are Excited About Obama and Why He Can’t Win. I’ve read the first half of it (which deals with Obama the man) and I heard Steele speak about the second half (about Obama the phenomenon) at a dinner sponsored by the Hoover Institution on Thursday. Based on what I’ve read and heard, I strongly recommend this relatively short work.
Steele views Obama as the first black politician to ride the strategy of “bargaining” to great success. For Steele, bargaining is one of two approaches blacks have used as a “mask” in order to offset the power differential between blacks and whites. He considers Louis Armstrong the first great bargainer with white America. Armstrong’s deal was, I will entertain you without pretending to be your equal. His mask, partly borrowed from the minstrel tradition, included the famous smile and laughter.
Today the bargain that works is this: I will presume that you’re not a racist and by loving me you’ll show that my presumption is correct. Blacks who offer this bargain are betting on white decency, and whites love this.
For Steele, bargainers include Bill Cosby, Tiger Woods (to some extent), and best of all Oprah Winfrey. The power of the bargain, which is founded on white Americas overwhelming desire to get beyond racism, is capable of creating “iconic Negroes.” It confers an almost magical quality on its best practitioners, such as Oprah. This is manifested in the ability to sell almost any product to whites.
Leading politicians have adopted another mask, that of the “challenger.” They presume that whites are racist until they prove otherwise by conferring tangible benefits on them. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton are paradigm challengers. The challenger strategy works beautifully in an institutional setting — say a university — but less well on a mass scale. Still, black politicians often prefer this approach because not adopting it leads to suspicion among black leaders and their constituents. They fear that if whites are let off the hook too easily, black power will be diminished.
Obama, of course, is a bargainer, and to Steele this is the source of his almost magical appeal and meteoric political rise. Obama has figured out how to ride the great wave available to very talented blacks who tap into white yearning to get well beyond America’s racist past.
Riding that wave demands that the bargainer be content-free (or, to use Steele’s word, “invisible”). John and I observed this quality in Obama’s South Carolina victory speech last Saturday. I was particularly struck by a passage in which Obama referred to those who “tell us” we cannot have “what we long for” — “a politics of common sense, and innovation; a shared sacrifice and shared prosperity” — and must instead “settle for the same divisions and distractions and drama that passes for politics today.” By rejecting this view, Obama offers a bargain that is empty substantively, but that appeals to a huge emotional need.
Why, then, does Steele say that Obama “can’t win”? He bases this view (of which he admits to being less certain now) on the premise that ultimately Americans won’t elect as president someone they don’t feel they know. This puts Obama in a dilemma. Americans can’t know him as long as he wears a mask. But the moment he takes off the mask, he loses his magic. In support of the latter proposition, Steele cites Bill Cosby. Once Cosby told people what he really thinks, he forfeited his status as an icon and no longer sold very many products on television. In particular, a “bargainer” must adopt conventionally black (liberal) political views. Otherwise, he or she lacks the authenticity to offer “absolution” to whites as part of a bargain.
It’s Steele’s first premise — Americans won’t elect as president someone they don’t know — that I tend to question. Wishful thinking is an increasingly powerful force in our politics. Is the electorate serious enough to demand of Obama more than feel-good platitudes and their next of kin, standard-issue liberal policy positions? I suspect not, should Obama receive the Democratic nomination.
Indeed, as I mentioned, Steele himself now entertains the possibility that Obama would not have to remove his mask until after being elected president. The prospect of a president who rides to office on a wave of magic that he must forfeit almost immediately upon taking office is a rather frightening one.
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