It is not uncommon to see Barack Obama described as “comfortable in his skin.” Yet in “A Bound Man: Why We Are Excited About Obama and Why He Can’t Win” (Free Press, 142 pages, $22), Hoover Institution senior fellow Shelby Steele argues that underneath Mr. Obama’s cool-tempered exterior is a soul divided against itself. Specifically, Mr. Steele suspects that Mr. Obama has crafted an oppositional “black” identity of a staged variety, despite having been raised by whites in a culture disconnected from the black American community.
On the subject of Mr. Obama’s blackness, most have considered it a political plus. Mr. Obama’s meteoric ascent has been due partly to his being bright and talented, but these qualities alone have left many a campaigner stranded at the starting gate. As Mr. Steele observes, what has made Mr. Obama a celebrity is being the kind of black person who, in not threatening whites with accusations of racism, offers them the opportunity to show their non-racist bona fides by giving him their vote. Leon Wieseltier, the literary editor of the New Republic, to take one example, has acknowledged, “I plan to be moved to tears on the day that I vote for a black man for the presidency of this stained and stirring country.”
However, Mr. Steele is more interested in Mr. Obama’s attempts at embracing a “black identity” in more overt ways, such as watching him join the Trinity United Church of Christ on Chicago’s South Side, presided over by a black minister caught up in pretending race relations in America have barely inched beyond 1956. Mr. Steele sees these kinds of acts as emblematic of a bind black America is caught in, pretending an allegiance to a separatist, victim-based “black ideology” despite the fact that the only way to true success in America is via mainstream values focusing on hard work and coping with obstacles as they come.
Accurately, he pins black-power rhetoric as having been “little more than a style of clenched fists, Afros, and right-on phrases,” with “no relationship to accomplishment.” Recalling his brief experience of the movement in the ’60s, Mr. Steele recounts “having to pretend, to go along with blackness despite my true feelings.”
Mr. Steele pegs Mr. Obama as pretending in the same way. He usefully points out, “It was not a ‘Black Value System’ that prepared Mr. Obama so well for the world,” and asks, “Doesn’t Mr. Obama’s success make the precise point that ‘blackness’ is a dead-end?” In the end, Mr. Steele writes, Mr. Obama “simply cannot acknowledge the full truth of his own experience,” because to do so would be to sacrifice the appeal of his “blackness.” As a candidate, then, “He is bound against himself.”
As always, Mr. Steele’s general perspective is dead-on, and rendered in his inimitably lapidary and penetrating fashion. However, Mr. Obama is less totemic a figure than Mr. Steele implies, and his character does not fit as neatly into Mr. Steele’s schema as “Bound Man” suggests.
The first problem is Mr. Steele’s psychological analysis of Mr. Obama. Mr. Steele implies that maintaining a distinct “black identity” is a kind of “strategy,” shored up by people who need, for career or emotional reasons, to capitalize on whites’ desire for absolution from bigotry.
Mr. Steele is correct that nothing in Mr. Obama’s background furnishes a logical basis for a genuine black identity. However, his surmise that Mr. Obama must therefore be driven by something peculiar and tragic — such as a quest to compensate for the absence of his Kenyan father — is something of a stretch.
As a politician Mr. Obama must engage with the larger public, and the fact is that most black Americans were not raised by whites, as Mr. Obama was. In addressing them as a “black” man, Mr. Obama is likely trying to build a bridge between his life story and theirs.
Mr. Steele assumes that, deep down, Mr. Obama would like to preach the message of self-reliance that Bill Cosby has been airing of late. However, this misses that Mr. Obama is naturally given to attempting to square circles. That is, he is an intellectual capable of seeing all sides of an issue, and seeking common ground, rather than seeing only ideological divides.
Certainly, Mr. Obama can overdo this, as he has demonstrated by treating corn farmers in his home state with kid gloves, despite being aware of many problems with ethanol subsidies. However, in raceneutral cases such as these, Mr. Obama can hardly be analyzed as donning an ill-fitting dashiki, “infatuated with the possibilities of his skin color.”
At times Mr. Steele’s analysis, so focused on Mr. Obama as a racial entity as to miss Mr. Obama the individual, verges on falling into the very racial essentialism that he condemns in Mr. Obama and his fans. Then, on the other hand, Mr. Steele contends that despite his gestural outreach to the “Soul Patrol,” Mr. Obama is nevertheless not “black” enough to arouse enough of the black electorate in the primaries to get the nomination.
However, it would be hard to say that Mr. Obama is running for president in the deracinated guise of a Sidney Poitier in “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.” He does, after all, attend a church run by a black radical. He worked up the black crowd at the latest Selma anniversary by referring to his debt to what the marchers there achieved (“Don’t tell me I’m not coming home to Selma, Alabama”). He talks to black audiences in “blackcent” cadences, which he learned neither on his white mother’s knee nor in Hawaii or Indonesia, but as a second language.
Of course, there are those voters for whom only someone like Al Sharpton would be a “really black” presidential candidate. But this is a fringe contingent, and black voters were uninspired by Mr. Sharpton when he actually did make a run. Blacks currently unsure whether they will vote for him most commonly cite unfamiliarity as the reason. This suggests that Mr. Obama is trailing Hillary Clinton in the polls among blacks more because his rise to fame has been so rapid than because black voters could only be aroused by black candidates with the politics of Cynthia McKinney.
Like Mr. Steele, I have winced watching Mr. Obama in his more forced gestures — such as linking his black identity to the fact that police officers would see him as black. Overall, however, Mr. Obama is one part politician and one part an individual who, like Bill Clinton, is temperamentally inclined to pleasing all comers. No one considered that quality one of the things that rendered Mr. Clinton our “first black president.”
Mr. Steele’s book is brilliant in many passages. Yet his larger argument does not convince me that Mr. Obama, or someone like him, could not be in the Oval Office one day.
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