Former English professor Shelby Steele has a book coming out on another fellow with a white mother and a black father, Barack Obama. John Rosenberg's Discriminations blog reports on Steele's recent visit to Toronto:
… he believes Barack Obama will not win the Democratic nomination for the presidency, in large part because he is caught between pleasing blacks and whites and can never please all Americans at once….
“He needs a self. There’s no self there. I think it comes from a lifetime of being bound up and playing one side, and another side, and never feeling that he had the right to be his own man,” Mr. Steele said in a hotel bar this week. “This is the tragedy, certainly, of the black intellectual class in America. They don’t think they have the right to be individuals, so they’re all just predictable, victim-focused, old line. It’s a generation that’s failed to really take us further. Obama is a part of that. There’s nobody there.”
He argues blacks in America typically wear one of two “masks”: They are either challengers or bargainers. Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson are challengers: Such blacks assume whites are racist until they prove otherwise. Bargainers, on the other hand, make a deal with whites by not rubbing their faces in a history of racism — think of Louis Armstrong or Oprah, he says.
Mr. Obama is an archetypal bargainer, says Mr. Steele, whose forthcoming book on the Democratic contender,
A Bound Man: Why We Are Excited About Obama and Why He Can't Win, will be released in time for the primaries.â€?The question that hovers over Obama to this day: Is he really black enough? If white people like you, itâ€™s very likely youâ€™re not black enough. Black people are very suspicious of that. To prove himself to black people, he has to be a challenger,â€? Mr. Steele says.
â€?White America loves him because they think heâ€™s a bargainer. And so if he goes with whites, blacks donâ€™t like him and say heâ€™s not black enough. If he goes with blacks, whites say, â€?Heâ€™s not the guy we thought he was.â€™ So heâ€™s a bound man.
David Broder says:
Steele writes that "the Sixties stigmatized white Americans with the racial sins of the past — with the bigotry and hypocrisy that countenanced slavery, segregation and white supremacy. Now, to win back moral authority, whites — and especially American institutions — must prove the negative: that they are not racist. In other words, white America has become a keen market for racial innocence."Theoretically, being black ought to free him to take the opposite stands without being denounced with the R-word, just as it has for Shelby Steele.
Steele likens Obama's success to the fame and fortune won by Oprah Winfrey, Bill Cosby, Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods. But the earliest of the crossover heroes he calls "iconic Negroes" was Sidney Poitier.
And it reminded me that in his political biography of Obama, author David Mendell reported the reaction of a focus group of liberal, North Shore (Chicago area) female voters, middle-aged and elderly, when shown a videotape of Obama speaking in his 2004 Senate campaign. Asked whom Obama reminded them of, the answer was "Sidney Poitier." No wonder Hillary Clinton's pollster, Mark Penn, is worried by The Post's report that Obama has tied Clinton among female voters in Iowa.
But while all of the others mentioned by Steele were entertainers of one kind or another, Obama is the first to carry the "masking" technique of the "iconic Negro" into the realm of politics.
Steele contrasts Obama with "challenger" types such as Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson, whose appeal was strictly within the black community and who were seen as threats to the Democratic establishment.Steele, who shares with Obama the lineage of having a white mother and a black father, writes sympathetically of the pressures that drove both sons to choose to live their lives as blacks while operating in largely white institutions.
"The problem here for Barack, of course, is that his racial identity commits him to a manipulation of the society he seeks to lead," Steele writes. "To 'be black,' he has to exaggerate black victimization in America. . . . Worse, his identity will pressure him to see black difficulties — achievement gaps, high illegitimacy rates, high crime rates, family collapse, and so on — in the old framework of racial oppression."
But, as Obama explained at tireless length in his 1995 autobiography, the preppie from paradise had obsessed his whole life over being black enough, so I doubt if he will do more than make pro forma gestures and do something serious, like dump the Afrocentrist radical Jeremiah Wright as his spiritual adviser.
I've read countless articles mulling over whether he is black enough, but I've never seen one that asked why in the world the 7/8ths of the electorate who isn't black would want Obama to be black enough.
I mean, Mitt Romney, who is the second generation quintessence of mainstream corporate Republicanism (his father George Romney was CEO of a car company, a governor, and cabinet secretary), has to jump through hoops to prove that being Mormon doesn't mean he'll do something weird if he somehow gets elected, while Obama's racial religion gets a free pass. Most of the coverage of Obama assumes that everybody hopes he proves he's black enough, which strikes me as about 179 degrees the opposite of the truth.
Perhaps Obama's humiliating loss at the hands of black voters in the 2000 Congressional primary helped him grow up and get over his obsession with his missing Kenyan father, but, as far as I know, nobody has ever directly and asked him about whether he's stopped obsessing over being black enough.