A Bound Man: Why We Are Excited About Obama and Why He Can’t Win
by Shelby Steele
Free Press, 143 pp., $22.00
On a surprisingly mild January afternoon in Harlem, the day of the Democratic primary in New Hampshire, my barber predicted that Senator Barack Obama would win by a landslide. He shut off his clippers and took the floor. “We need to pull for him. I’m sick of people saying, ‘They’ll never elect a black president.’”
A well-groomed man perhaps in his late thirties reminded us from the chair where his thick beard was being seen to that Obama won in Iowa, which was 98 percent white, and that he was about to win in another state that was 98 percent white. He said that he was ashamed of David Patterson and Charles Rangel, “our elected black officials,” for not endorsing Obama, because no matter who got the nomination, the Democratic Party couldn’t win the presidency without the African-American community, and therefore it didn’t matter how angry at them for not supporting Clinton during the primaries anyone might be down the road.
I was going to point out that Assemblyman Adam Clayton Powell IV had come out for Obama when an even younger man with a heavy Jamaican accent said from the chair where his head was being shaved that it all depended on how developed was your racial consciousness. This young man, the black sheet still tied around his neck, got up and preached about Obama’s readiness. I thought of the scenes in Richard Wright’s fiction that present the black barbershop as a place where black people reveal what they really think, because black barbershops are more private even than black bars. Denny Moe’s, at 133rd Street and Frederick Douglass Boulevard, with its polished tiles, pretty receptionist, and flat-screen TV for the play-offs, looked nothing like the small corner shop of my midwestern youth, but it served the same function as a forum.
The Jamaican youth, exhorting the few patrons in the large shop, seemed to represent the increased percentage of the black population who are immigrants. The youngest barber on the premises looked as much Latino, Italian, or Arab as black, one of those newfangled American youths about whom you can’t guess anything, what nationality they are or where they’re from, until you hear them talk or they tell you. He dapped fists with the dark-skinned Jamaican youth. I felt I was seeing a new youth vote, not just a reinvigorated black vote. There was a woman barber who went about her work and didn’t join in. Because she was young, I wanted to assume that the “Obama for President” placard in the window spoke for her as well and that she would be annoyed or defiant if told that she was putting race before gender in supporting him.
In the past two presidential elections, black voters complained that they were taken for granted as the Democrats fought for the center ground only to find in both contests that there was no center, just one side or the other. On the side that black people for the most part were on, all too many of them found not enough polling stations in their neighborhoods, employers unsympathetic to their willingness to miss work in order to stand for hours on line at what polling stations there were, and challenges to their registration, never mind the shame of the Florida and then the Ohio results. However, dread of what the other side is capable of wasn’t in evidence in my barbershop the afternoon of the New Hampshire primary, not even the mutterings that maybe “they,” whoever “they” are, will kill Obama if he goes too far. Instead, there was excitement, the sense that something historic was happening, that an unprecedented national narrative was taking shape.
I was struck by how far the story had moved since the autumn, when many were saying that Obama’s campaign had unraveled. Back then, Senator Joe Biden was derided for calling Obama “articulate” and “clean,” but George Will was speaking from the same assumptions and in a similar code when on a Sunday morning talk show shortly after Christmas he called Obama “a great getting up in the morning time,” because he wasn’t Al Sharpton or Jesse Jackson. Obama is the assimilated black, such commentators want to say, as if an assimilated black didn’t think about civil rights or, worse, as if civil rights were a narrow, passé issue. Meanwhile, Obama’s candidacy is somehow separate from the success of black athletes and independent of the trust Oprah Winfrey’s huge audience accords her. He is an expression of a general change, not the product of a star system.
He may not be identified with the Congressional Black Caucus, but his path has been prepared by the thousands of blacks elected to local, state, and national offices since the days of the National Black Convention in Gary, Indiana, in 1972. Though, paradoxically, the low percentage of black people who register to vote has always been a frustration to political activists, black people have been visible in politics—and other professions—for a while. White America got used to black people turning up everywhere, except next door. Obama’s way may also have been prepared by a generation of black anchorpeople on local TV stations, and years of hearing their mid-Atlantic accents.
People have been talking about the demonization of black youth since the introduction of harsh sentencing guidelines during the Reagan years, but it turns out that the nation had been absorbing another image of black people right alongside the lurid tales of gangs and guns. Because of affirmative action, the picture of America has changed. However unpopular it has been as public policy, affirmative action has succeeded in integrating the middle class. Obama is not exotic to white Americans. He is familiar, the really nice black guy who went to school with your son.
Though Obama has been praised by some for not making race an issue in his campaign, and for not coming off as the black candidate, his race most certainly is crucial to his broad appeal. Black people can appreciate as much as white people the inclusiveness of his mixed-race heritage and that his story is in part that of an immigrant. But this is not a color-blind election. People aren’t voting for Obama in spite of the fact that he is black, or because he is only half-black, they are voting for him because he is black, and this is a whole new feeling in the country and in presidential politics. Forty years ago, Robert Kennedy was sharply criticized for saying that a black man probably could be elected president of the United States in fifty years’ time. “Victory tonight,” my barber, Mr. Sherlock, said as we shook hands.
Barack Obama was born in 1961, three years before the Freedom Summer of student sit-ins and nonviolent marches, when their political faith helped black Americans to face down the power of white mobs, fire hoses, and sheriffs with dogs. We look back on those times as the innocent days before Black Power and FBI shootouts, when white allies were still welcomed in the struggle. Obama’s mother, a white, eighteen-year-old coed at the University of Hawaii, married its first African student, a Kenyan in his early twenties. When he went to Harvard to pursue a Ph.D. in economics, he left his wife and two-year-old son behind. After his return to Africa, he saw his son only once, when Obama was ten years old. He died when Obama was in his early twenties.
Obama’s quest for the meaning of his absent father’s life becomes a search for his own identity in Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance. First published in 1995, beautifully written, it is the story of his youthful disaffection and salvation through community organizing in Chicago. He describes his childhood and adolescence in Hawaii, where “there were too many races, with power among them too diffuse, to impose the mainland’s rigid caste system.” Hawaii had been interrupted by Djakarta, where Obama lived between 1967 and 1971, when his mother married again, to an Indonesian engineer who would teach him how to defend himself and how to change a tire. His stepfather’s brand of Islam accommodated elements of animism and Hinduism, but Obama understood in retrospect that the overthrow of Sukarno in 1965, and the massacre of Communists and ethnic Chinese, had changed his stepfather from the idealist his mother had met at the University of Hawaii to an incommunicative man intent on surviving in the new regime.
Unable to afford the International School in Djakarta and wary of the education he would get in the local schools, his mother eventually sent him back to his grandparents in Hawaii, to Punahou Academy, an elite prep school, where Obama encountered race in the form of white boys amused that his father was of the Luo tribe and a white girl who wanted to touch his hair. He distanced himself from the one other black student—”a part of me felt trampled on, crushed”—and in time was left alone, once the novelty of his presence had worn off, though his sense that he did not belong only increased. Before he left Indonesia, his mother had taken a job as an embassy secretary in order to pay for supplementary lessons for Obama from a US correspondence course. She woke him at four every weekday morning to give him three-hour English lessons. Obama realizes that she, “a lonely witness for secular humanism, a soldier for New Deal, Peace Corps, position-paper liberalism,” kept alive his connection to America, to black America:
She would come home with books on the civil rights movement, the recordings of Mahalia Jackson, the speeches of Dr. King. When she told me stories of schoolchildren in the South who were forced to read books handed down from wealthier white schools but who went on to become doctors and lawyers and scientists, I felt chastened by my reluctance to wake up and study in the mornings…. Every black man was Thurgood Marshall or Sidney Poitier; every black woman Fannie Lou Hamer or Lena Horne. To be black was to be the beneficiary of a great inheritance, a special destiny, glorious burdens that only we were strong enough to bear.
This is reminiscent of Langston Hughes, who recalls in his autobiography that in the isolation of his Kansas childhood he was brought up on tales of racial heroism told to him by his grandmother, a widow of John Brown’s raid.
Where Hughes submerged himself in the urban Black Belt to come into contact with a black identity, Obama had a “color-coded” popular culture of television, film, and radio that offered him “an arcade of images” and styles to choose from. He played basketball “with a consuming passion.” He made white friends on the court and reminded his angry black friends that they weren’t “consigned to some heatless housing project in Harlem.” People were pleasantly surprised to meet a “well-mannered young black man who didn’t seem angry all the time.”
He learned to slip back and forth between his black and white worlds, “understanding that each possessed its own language and customs and structures of meaning, convinced that with a bit of translation on my part the two worlds would eventually cohere.” Yet racial self-consciousness left him on edge. “There was a trick there somewhere, although what the trick was, who was doing the tricking, and who was being tricked, eluded my conscious grasp.”
He read Du Bois, Hughes, Wright, Ellison, Baldwin, and concluded—as only a young man can—that each had ended his life exhausted and bitter. “Only Malcolm X’s autobiography seemed to offer something different. His repeated acts of self-creation spoke to me.” But in 1979 at Occidental College in Los Angeles he “stumbled upon one of the well-kept secrets about black people: that most of us weren’t interested in revolt; that most of us were tired of thinking about race all the time.” Yet when he remembers that a girl on campus from a multi-racial background nearly cried when she said that black people were trying to make her choose sides, that it was black people who always made everything about race, he reflects that integration was a one-way street, that the minority always assimilated into the dominant culture, as though only “white culture” could be nonracial, neutral, and objective. “Only white culture had individuals.”
Because he didn’t want to be thought “a sellout,” he chose his friends from among politically active blacks and foreign students—Chicanos, Marxist professors, structural feminists, and punk rock performance poets discussing Fanon and patriarchy into the night. He had been involved in anti-apartheid and divestment campaigns, but feared that he would always be an outsider. After two years in California, Obama transferred to Columbia University. While in New York, he received a call from Africa, telling him that his father had died. Polygamous, his father had six other children by three different women (Obama’s mother had a daughter from her second marriage).
Dreams from My Father ends with Obama’s first journey to Kenya in 1987, as he is about to enter Harvard Law School. He tries to close the circle, and writes movingly of his efforts to understand his father and how Kenya’s postcolonial politics nearly destroyed him. He was, as Obama’s half-sister put it, punished by Jomo Kenyatta for telling people “that tribalism was going to ruin the country and that unqualified men were taking the best jobs.” However, the heart of Obama’s book is about finding himself after his graduation from Columbia, as a community organizer in Chicago.
Obama heard Jesse Jackson speak at a rally on 125th Street, but he says he couldn’t figure out how to join Harlem life. He spent three months working for a Ralph Nader offshoot, trying to convince City College students of the importance of recycling. Unemployed, he heard Stokely Carmichael, aka Kwame Touré, speak at Columbia about a vague plan to build economic ties between Africa and Harlem, and it seemed to him that the movement was dead. Obama doesn’t say much about his New York experiences, but he gives the impression that he took a close look at the coke-addled, hedonist bazaar that Manhattan was for the young at the beginning of the Reagan era and knew it was not for him.
Obama confesses that in high school he found that pot, booze, or “a little blow” could sometimes push away nagging questions. Some critics have called Dreams from My Father almost naive in its candor, but few care about his drug use as an undergraduate. If anything, having brought up the subject, he would be scorned now had he not inhaled then. So many voters by now have similar casual histories; it is an acceptable rite of passage.
Obama corrected his course very quickly. What comes across in his touching memoir is not how lost he was, but how determined on the path to elected office he already was when writing his first book. It is the work of someone positioning himself, someone who understood instinctively Malcolm X’s autobiography as a conversion narrative in the American grain. In 1983, what Obama needed was community. On his third day in Chicago, he passed Smitty’s Barbershop on the edge of Hyde Park and the laughter drew him in. They were talking familiarly, affectionately, about Chicago’s black mayor, Harold Washington, and how the white man tries to change the rules whenever a black man gets in power:
Clumps of hair fell into my lap as I listened to the men recall Harold’s rise. He had run for mayor once before, shortly after the elder Daley died, but the candidacy had faltered—a source of shame, the men told me, the lack of unity within the black community, the doubts that had to be overcome.
But Harold had tried again, and this time the people were ready. They had stuck with him when the press played up the income taxes he’d failed to pay…. They had rallied behind him when white Democratic committeemen…announced their support for the Republican candidate, saying that the city would go to hell if it had a black mayor. They had turned out in record numbers on election night, ministers and gang-bangers, young and old.
Though he was young and hadn’t been in Chicago when Washington was elected mayor, he felt that the older men in the barbershop assumed he understood their feelings. He wondered if they would still have taken his understanding for granted had they known his history, had his maternal grandfather walked in. Obama says he heard in Smitty’s voice a fervor beyond politics. He and his customers weren’t just proud of Harold Washington, they were also proud of themselves. The election had given them a new idea of themselves, holding out the promise of “collective redemption.”
Harold Washington died suddenly, a few months after his reelection in 1987. His second campaign, Obama notes with interest, was very different from his first in that Washington “reached out” to old-time machine politicians, to the Irish and the Poles, “ready to make peace.” Businessmen sent him their checks, but some of his black supporters disapproved of “his willingness to cut whites and Hispanics into the action.”
Obama was at City Hall the night Harold Washington’s coalition fell apart. Not long afterward, he received his letter of acceptance from Harvard Law School. He was gratified that, far from resenting his success, his co-workers, with whom he had shared early mornings, thankless meetings, and tiresome door-to-door canvassing on behalf of modest neighborhood and employment initiatives, accepted that he had other options. His mobility was a sign of their progress, but at least one of his colleagues was certain that Obama would return to Chicago.
Obama asked himself if this simple desire for acceptance had been the reason for his coming to Chicago. He found an answer in the black church, at Trinity United Church of Christ, in the Reverend Jeremiah Wright Jr.’s sermon “The Audacity of Hope”:
I imagined the stories of ordinary black people merging with the stories of David and Goliath, Moses and Pharaoh, the Christians in the lion’s den, Ezekiel’s field of dry bones. Those stories—of survival, and freedom, and hope—became our story, my story; the blood that had spilled was our blood, the tears our tears; until this black church, on this bright day, seemed once more a vessel carrying the story of a people into future generations and into a larger world.
He would take this newly discovered communal spirit to Africa, where he decided that what Africa most desperately needed was courage. He gives, as if from memory, the oral history of his father’s family on the banks of Lake Victoria, presumably as it was told to him, just as he earlier recreates a fair amount of Reverend Wright’s sermon. Maybe some poetic license went into the recounting of so many conversations in Chicago’s projects and churches, but on the other hand, Obama comes across as someone who stored away for future consideration practically everything that was ever said to him, and who had a talent for watchfulness, part of the extraordinary armor he developed at an early age.
In Dreams from My Father, Obama makes it clear that his father’s absence left a hole and that the communal experience, working with and for others, went some way toward fulfilling him. He says that he wanted nothing less than to give black people that fervor about their lives that he saw them get from Harold Washington. He wanted them to get that feeling from him, the same feeling he got from them. The Reagan years in which he came of age were an era of individual advancement and collective decline for black people, he observes, and he’d learned “not to put too much stock in those who trumpeted black self-esteem as a cure for all our ills.” Politics are his solution.
Dreams from My Father may have been written when Obama was thinking merely of Harold Washington’s office. The Audacity of Hope, however, is the presidential candidate’s manifesto for the campaign season, down to the respectful quotation from Profiles in Courage and Obama’s observation that Reagan spoke to America’s longing for order and offered the country a common purpose that liberals did not. His first book concentrated on his father; The Audacity of Hope is for his mother, who died before his Senate victory. Though he now judges her understanding of the politics of the 1960s to have been limited by her romanticism, he is careful to honor her memory as someone who didn’t just declare her principles but acted on them as well.
The Audacity of Hope tells us a little about his courtship and marriage, the birth of his two daughters, and his deep involvement with their church, Trinity United, which he joined when he returned to Chicago after Harvard. The Audacity of Hope tells us how much Obama minded losing his congressional bid in 2000. It also says how aware he is of what he calls his “spooky good fortune” to have faced Alan Keyes, a black conservative ideologue of no charisma, in the Illinois Senate campaign of 2004. His deference to Senator Robert C. Byrd (while recalling his early membership in the Klan) is a mark of how seriously he takes the Senate. Its history is real to him, and to judge from the savor in his descriptions of its workings, Obama seems to have grasped readily how power works in the corridors and committee rooms. He recalls that as an Illinois state senator he would “partner up” with his most conservative colleagues to work on a piece of legislation.
Throughout he maintains a note of surprise at everything that has happened to him since he stepped up to the rostrum at the Democratic convention in Boston in 2004. “I was the beneficiary of unusually—and at times undeservedly—positive press coverage.” However, his readiness to meet destiny fits with what he views as a profound social change: the psychological shackles of Jim Crow have been broken and the new generation of black professionals rejects “any limits to what [it] can achieve.”
There is a generational divide in black America between those who remember Jim Crow and those who do not. Older blacks maybe sometimes react to Obama from an acute awareness of what had not been possible for them. The last time black people were urged to get on the bandwagon for a black man, we got Clarence Thomas, Bush Sr.’s insult to the memory of Thurgood Marshall. They will mention that the racist ad that maybe helped to defeat Harold Ford for the Senate in Tennessee was recent history. One elderly black newspaper vendor pointed to a photograph of the tearful but dignified track star Marion Jones, punished for lying about having taken steroids, and said that this was America and America would remind Obama where he was. Recent Urban League studies show that for the majority of black people, income and housing relative to the total population are not much better than they were in 1960—an unemployment rate among black youth at 17 percent, a 50 percent dropout rate, and births to single mothers at 79 percent.
While Obama acknowledges that the battles of the Sixties have not been resolved, he repudiates partisanship, the taking up of old ideological battles. President Clinton may have fought the right wing to a draw, Obama contends, but the right emerged yet more powerful and in Bush Jr.’s first term it took over the US government:
In the back-and-forth between Clinton and Gingrich, and in the elections of 2000 and 2004, I sometimes felt as if I were watching the psychodrama of the Baby Boom generation—a tale rooted in old grudges and revenge plots hatched on a handful of college campuses long ago—played out on the national stage.
The youth rhetoric of Obama’s campaign is unsettling to an older generation that once used the same sort of rhetoric and are now on the receiving end of it. One of its effects has been to turn Senator Clinton into the incumbent, rather than the woman candidate. After all, her campaign is also historic. But then, as one recent Skidmore College graduate said, she thought of Hillary as a Clinton first and a woman second.
The day before Martin Luther King Jr. Day, when the Obama campaign opened a Harlem headquarters in a smart storefront at 130th and Lenox Avenue, between the Malcolm Food Market and the It’s A Wrap Hair Salon, a young black volunteer was saying that he thought it was very healthy for black people to have differences and not to be perceived as having a monolithic vote. This was before the debate in Charleston and the week that backfired on the Clintons, as though they could not bear to be sassed, the week that consolidated the black vote in South Carolina for Obama. New York State Senator Bill Perkins led some thirty campaign workers with shiny signs and posters from the storefront down Lenox Avenue, to the call and response of “Fired Up,” “Ready to Go,” and the chant of “Obama/08/Be a part of something great!” Shopkeepers and pedestrians applauded here and there.
The French and German television crews trailing the Obama volunteers caught their encounter on the corner of 125th Street with a half-dozen Clinton volunteers. The two sides brandished their blue signs in the cold and traded jibes good-naturedly. A man in a Hillary T-shirt yelled that so many Republicans were for Obama because they were sure they could beat him, but they weren’t so sure they could beat her. Obama would be president one day, but not this year. A woman answered that the title of the First Black President was like the Miss America crown: the judges could take it back.
In The Audacity of Hope, Obama goes on record, again, on a range of issues, from his qualified support of abortion to his opposition to the war in Iraq. At the same time, he wants to demonstrate that just because he is a black legislator it doesn’t follow that his votes in the Senate can be predicted.* He favors looking into merit pay for teachers, though the teachers’ union is against the idea, and he says that he has called for higher fuel-efficiency standards in cars, though the UAW opposes them. He stresses his admiration for Lincoln the pragmatist as well as Lincoln the man of convictions: “I reject a politics that is based solely on racial identity, gender identity, sexual orientation, or victimhood generally.” In writing about his understanding of our political history, it is as though the Constitution’s system of checks and balances reflects his dual heritage, his desire to reconcile in his person and in his policies the polarized nation.
While Obama holds that goals for minority hiring may sometimes be the most meaningful remedy available when there is strong evidence of discrimination in a corporation, trade union, or government office, he also lends his voice to the argument that black people must take collective and individual responsibility for their welfare, an echo of the criticisms made by black conservatives, such as Shelby Steele in The Content of Our Character (1990), in the bitter days of the culture wars. Obama observes:
A cottage industry grew within conservative think tanks, arguing not only that cultural pathologies—rather than racism or structural inequalities built into our economy—were responsible for black poverty but also that government programs like welfare, coupled with liberal judges who coddled criminals, actually made these pathologies worse.
Yet Obama faults liberal policymakers and civil rights leaders of the Seventies and Eighties for not addressing “entrenched behavioral patterns among the black poor” that he believes contribute to the poverty that passes from generation to generation, and he is certain that on social issues most black people are “far more conservative than black politics would care to admit.” However, it is at this point that Obama draws back from the black conservative critique. While he is not surprised that conservatives won over white opinion by emphasizing the distinction between the deserving and the undeserving poor, he argues that black Americans cannot make such a distinction; they cannot separate themselves from the poor, and this is not just because “the color of our skin” makes all of us only as free as the least of us, but also because “blacks know the back story to the inner city’s dysfunction.” He means that he cannot separate from the black poor. He is his mother’s son.
Dreams from My Father was one of several memoirs at the time in which a new generation reported back from the front lines of integration. Obama’s book, along with Kinship (1999), another intense memoir about a youth coming to terms with his American and African heritage, by Philippe Wamba, the son of a Congolese rebel, and Soul to Soul: A Black Russian American Family, 1865–1992 (1992), by Yelena Khanga, offered new insights into the complexity of black identity. Because they were looking at race from an international perspective, they seemed less provincial than the black conservatives telling their stories about the difficulties they faced adjusting to life at elite schools in the 1970s and 1980s because of the added pressure they felt from other black students to conform to a militant style of being black.
Shelby Steele hopes to liberate Obama from his black identity in A Bound Man: Why We Are Excited About Obama and Why He Can’t Win, a thin and unhappy meditation on what he considers Obama’s costly refusal to repudiate the Sixties and its false, politicized definition of blackness. Steele asserts that “the post-sixties black identity is essentially a totalitarian identity.” Furthermore, the emphasis black educators place on black identity has been “one of the most debilitating forces in black life since the 60s.”
Black identity for Steele is a parasitic force, a sort of Invasion of the Body Snatchers contagion. “This identity wants to take over a greater proportion of the self than other racial identities do.” “It” wants its collective truth; “its” idea of protest must become personal truth; “it” wants to make loyalty to this truth a reflex within the self; “it” wants you to think as a black, not as yourself. Moreover, this is a policed consciousness:
The popular movie Barbershop stirred controversy because of a scene in which one of the barbers not only criticized Jesse Jackson but also said that O.J. Simpson was guilty—two statements that clearly violate the challenger’s mask and would likely not be said in the presence of whites. There was controversy precisely because the movie was released for everyone to see. Both the movie and its release were breaches of discipline.
For Steele, Obama’s upbringing created in him an “identity vacuum,” but the transparent black identity he constructed for himself comes at the price of excluding from that black identity essential parts of himself—”family values, beliefs, ambitions, loves.” He cannot be himself, he cannot bring his own experience into his black identity. Steele refers to a scene in Dreams from My Father in which Obama relates the bad breakup with his long-term white girlfriend in New York, saying that he realized that they would always live in different worlds and that he was the one who knew how to live as an outsider. Assimilation, not blackness, is the key to success, Steele counters, and he insists that Obama knows this, because he grew up in mainstream culture, not black culture.
Obama’s white grandparents informed his identity as a black man, but maybe not as the antidote to blackness Steele imagines. They fled Kansas and ended up in Hawaii, disappointed but decent people. Maybe the myth of his father was a comfort in the way that the sound of his grandfather, trying to sell insurance from home, making humiliating phone calls Sunday nights, was not. Obama’s white girlfriend was rich, and class as much as race may have been the thing about her life that made him feel like such an outsider. What perhaps informs Obama’s desire to be inclusive as a black candidate is his feeling for the insecure white America that doesn’t recognize itself in the images of middle-class well-being.
In A Bound Man, Steele attempts to apply to the election his notions about the uses of “black victimization” and “white guilt” that he worked out in The Content of Our Character. “You must never ever concede that only black responsibility can truly lift blacks into parity with whites,” because to do so would be to give up control over white guilt. In politics, blacks wear either the mask of the challenger or that of the bargainer. The purpose of these masks is to enable blacks to gain things from the white majority by “manipulating their need for racial innocence.” Because whites are “stigmatized with past racism,” blacks have a monopoly over racial innocence and believe, as only the oppressed can, that this is their greatest power in America.
Steele argues that after Obama, a bargainer of formidable power, became president of Harvard Law Review, he was no longer at risk of being seen as a creation of affirmative action. Yet he made his “Faustian” contract with affirmative action. Even the activist black church Obama joined in Chicago is proof to Steele of Obama’s “hunger” to be defined as black in that old-fashioned way, which means that he cannot reject “the political liberalism inherent in his racial identity.” If Obama stopped talking about government programs for blacks and emphasized individual responsibility, then he would hurt himself politically.
Steele accuses Obama of presenting himself as a protester to blacks and a unifier to whites. But when he holds that Obama cannot serve the aspirations of one race without betraying those of the other, it is Steele, calling black people blackmailers, who seems out of date and most threatened by Obama’s candidacy. It is impossible to read Taylor Branch’s three-volume biography of Dr. King and not believe that he and the thousands of black people who joined him were responsible for one of the proudest episodes in modern American history. Obama and his audience know it, when his voice starts to take on somewhat King-like cadences.
In 1940, B.A. Jones taught his history class at the Atlanta University Laboratory High School a rhyme originally from the 1870s and that he said came to allude to the rumor widespread in black America that Warren G. Harding was the first black president, because he had black grandparents back in Ohio:
Ma Ma Where’s Pa?
Gone to the White House
Ha ha ha
When Julian Bond was nominated for the vice-presidency at the Democratic Convention in 1968, he drew warm applause when he said he had to decline, because the Constitution said he was still too young. Shirley Chisholm ran for president in 1972 as a kind of one-woman show, calling politics “a beautiful fraud” in her autobiography, Unbought and Unbossed (1970). Black glossies used to fantasize about the presidential chances of Edward Brooke, Republican senator from Massachusetts.
Jesse Jackson was attacked from the black left after 1984 for having conducted a campaign largely of ritual and symbol. The Internet is Obama country, but radio is where you will hear black people of a certain age—the ones who aren’t in the mood to be less partisan, because to do so would be, they feel, to excuse the right wing for its disastrous policies. They point out that of the leading candidates, Senator Edwards, the white guy who sounds so white, is the populist; that Edwards had rocked Riverside Church on Martin Luther King Jr. Day the previous year; that one of Clinton’s foreign policy advisers is Madeleine Albright, while one of Obama’s is Zbigniew Brzezinski; that in their announced policies, all three say similar things, and so it is a contest of symbols. Yet uncounted numbers in the middle class who have had to understand that America is much less like it used to be and much more like the rest of the world now fervently want a black man to be the face of the United States to the world.
It could be said that Obama’s way has been prepared not by Colin Powell, dutifully holding up the vial at the UN, but by Nelson Mandela, who emerged from his prison not bitter, calling for reconciliation. It is possible that the emerging youth vote is an anti–”War on Terror” vote, not just an anti–Iraq war vote. Mandela was also the one figure on the world stage who persuaded us that he was exactly what he seemed to be. The anti-apartheid movement was one of the few things happening on campuses in the 1980s. Since then white students in their thousands have taken Black Studies classes, reading Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, bringing Derrida to bear in their term papers on the hip-hop artist Nas’s debut album, Illmatic, even as black student enrollment nationwide has been falling. Shelby Steele ridicules institutions obsessed with diversity, but they, like Obama, are right to be inspired by the civil rights movement. The youth vote that gave him such a margin of victory in South Carolina, and kept his campaign going on Super Tuesday, missed the Sixties. Here is their chance.
—February 7, 2008