Steele’s Prediction and Future Danger

At the end of last year, Shelby Steele penned what yet prove to be prophetic book, A Bound Man: Why We Are Excited About Obama and Why He Can’t Win anticipating the dynamics and  consequences of Senator Barak Obama’s presidential candidacy. Although it is probably true that Obama, on the precipice of earning the Democratic Party’s nomination for president, advanced has much farther then many, including Steele, anticipated, Steele’s observations seem eerily correct.

Steele’s thesis is that in contemporary American society the outward face of blacks who have achieved notoriety can be generalized into two categories: “challengers” and “bargainers.” The Jesse Jacksons and Al Sharptons are quintessential challengers. Challengers start with the assumption that American society is inherently racist. Whites must demonstrate and prove their racial bonafides and good will by adopting the full range of liberal policy prescriptions, particularly those that having to do with compensating for past injustices, like affirmative action. Challengers generally make whites uncomfortable, fearful of doing or saying the wrong thing and being tagged as “insensitive.” As a consequence, many whites just avoid racial issues.

Those like Oprah Winfrey, Tiger Woods, and Barack Obama, Steele labels as “bargainers.” The bargain these people strike is that they assume the good intentions of others in exchange for comity. It is not that bargainers believe that racism does not exist or that it has not  resulted in tragic historic injustices, but they given the benefit of the doubt to contemporary Americans. This allows whites to be more comfortable in the presence of bargainers. With bargainers, Whites don’t have fear making an innocent remark that will be misinterpreted as racist. Whites can, at least in day-to-day activities, pretend that we live in gentle, color-blind society.

Obama is a careful bargainer and has a consequence been a very successful presidential candidate thus far. He has been called a “transforming” black candidate who, though conspicuously black, can sails deftly through the seas of the white community. Obama is a talented speaker who has excited the public with the promise of “change”

Early in the Democratic primary season, Senator Hillary Clinton still did very well among black voters. Obama was the candidate of liberal upscale whites, the people whose nagging guilts he assuaged. Now, that he has an opportunity to actually win, Obama has also excited the black community’s pride. In primaries now, he regularly wins an overwhelming majority of the blacks voters n the primaries.

Steele argues that the dilemma for conspicuous blacks is that neither the “bargaining” nor the “challenging” can be completely authentic. They are both “masks” worn by a minority in a majority society as a way of coping.  Masks hide the more difficult tasks for blacks to understand their own minds, and to treat whites as other individuals as blacks ask to be treated. If this mask worn by Obama is shed away there is the possibility that the comfort some whites have for him will atrophy.

This is the grave danger for Obama posed by the issue of the incendiary statements made by Obama’s Paster Jeremiah Wright. It is hard for Obama to appear to be a transformative uniter who brings together blacks, whites, and other minorities when his “spiritual adviser” is a race-bating bigot who urges God to “damn America.” Obama is stuck. He can repudiate Wright’s remarks, but he refuses to “disaown” himself of Wright. They are too close. Obama chose Wright to marry him and his wife and to baptize his two girls.

There is nothing in his demeanor, statements, or past that suggests that Obama subscribes to the extreme positions of his pastor. Yet he continued to maintain an intimate association over two decades. Perhaps he just joined this church to gain some “street cred” to help future political prospects in Chicago. Perhaps, Obama felt some tender loyalty to the person led him to Christ, and when it turned out that Wright had some ugly opinions, Obama felt uncomfortable it confronting Wright directly. This is understandable, but not exactly a profile in courage. Perhaps, while not subscribing to the anti-American rants of his minister, he harbors some lingering sympathy for black liberation theology his church. It is impossible to make this assessment from a distance.

Obama faces two choices: He can distance himself even more from Wright reducing his credibility in the black community, or keep Wright modest proximity and run the danger of becoming the “black” candidate as opposed to the uniter. It is very possible that Obama will be able to rhetorically threat this needle and be spared facing the dilemma. He is nothing if not intellectually and verbally talented and agile. If he can’t manage to resolve this problem, we run the risk that either the Democratic National Convention or the general election or both will become thought of as a“black” versus “white” contest.  And if Obama looses with a racially polarized vote, the 2008 election cycle may prove culturally divisive.

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