Monday, February 04, 2008

A Bound Man?

I usually don’t do an immediate follow up to a topic, but my brother ronjour locke (who by the way has a great blog called Magnify God) asked a great question concerning Shelby Steele’s assessment of Senator Obama as a man and candidate. For those unfamiliar with Mr. Steele he is an author and ideologically conservative commentator on race relations. His book The Content of Our Character: A New Vision of Race In America received the National Book Critic’s Circle in 1990. In this book and consistent with the conservative ideological outlook on race and ethnicity Mr. Steele claims that government social policies tend to increase rather than decrease racial division. He also claims that blacks are more often than not oppressed by their own nagging issues of self doubt than by ongoing societal racism.

Mr. Steele recently authored a new book on the candidacy of Barack Obama entitled A Bound Man: Why We Are Excited About Obama and Why He Can't Win
Our brother Justin Taylor posted a summary of an interview Mr. Steele recently did on the book

I listened to another interview he did a couple of weeks ago on Philly’s local NPR station about the book and in light of his past writings and interviews regarding race relations I was a bit confused. On the one hand Mr. Steele has made a career of encouraging African-Americans to view themselves as individual Americans first and not primarily as apart of an oppressed and subdominant group. He’s challenged black folks to resist the temptation to blame everything on racism and rely on our own innate talents, drive and abilities to take us as far as we wish to go. And above all it seems that Mr. Steele longs for a day when blacks and whites won’t look at each other in terms of color first, but in terms of character.

I’m confused because Mr. Steele evaluates Senator Obama’s candidacy based on the two traditional strategies he says African-Americans have used to manage life with the dominant culture. Those strategies are challenging and bargaining. If I recall the radio interview I heard correctly challengers confront whites on the issue of race by advocating that historic racism is still the obstacle for African-Americans, while bargainers do not. What’s confusing is that Mr. Steele has made a life by advocating that blacks repudiate both ways of dealing with whites and view themselves as individuals who don’t represent their race one way or the other. At one point in the interview with summarized on Justin’s site Mr. Steele said ‘“The black American identity,” says Steele, “is still for the most part grounded in challenging. You never give white people the benefit of the doubt; that’s our power.”

Say what Mr. Steele? Our power? I thought our power lay in our own individual desires and abilities, not in the pressure we as a group can exert on white folks? In my view that statement is a complete 180 from where Mr. Steele has told black people to go for more than twenty years. Whereas before he told us to reject the outdated notion of group think Shelby now despises Senator Obama for doing just that! Another thing that saddens me about his assessment is the refusal to admit that for the first time in history a non-athletic black man is garnering significant support from white people who view him not primarily in terms of color but on the basis of his own unique character. Whether you like the senator’s character isn’t the subject of this post. The fact is however that Barack Obama draws tens of thousands of white people to his rallies and many of those people gleefully identify with him as an individual and genuinely hope that he’ll be the man who represents them in the White House for the next four years. To me Mr. Steele should celebrate Senator Obama’s candidacy as proof that a black man who refuses to see himself as primarily and only a black man can go as far as his dreams, drive and talents can take him. He should see his historic run for president as validation that contrary to what the old line Civil Rights establishment has told us, the time may have come where one can be genuinely regarded for the content of his character and not marginalized by the color of his skin.

To Him Who Loves Us…
Pastor Lance


FellowElder said...

I'm glad you've written an assessment of Steele's interviews. After watching the segments that Justin linked to, I had three pages of legal pad notes in response to Steele's comments. At the end, I was fairly exasperated and decided to read Nichols, The Reformation.

Barack Obama may be the freest man in America right now. And the fact that his candidacy has almost everyone--from the right like Steele, to the left like Charlie Rangal--evaluating questions of identity and allegiances is evidence that he is provoking people in deep-seated ways. May his tribe increase!

Anonymous said...

"I thought our power lay in our own individual desires and abilities, not in the pressure we as a group can exert on white folks?"

Hmmmn....I didn't take Steele's comment that way, though he could've done a better job articulating his argument. When someone says "we are headed for judgment for our sins as a nation", it's a given that this doesn't refer to every individual. And now, maybe I'm not stating it well, either.

christopher said...

Brother Lance,

i'm not sure your understanding of Steele is correct. When he says "[t]he black American identity is still for the most part grounded in challenging...that's our power," i don't think he is speaking normatively, but rather, descriptively. That is to say, this isn't what Steele personally believes, but simply what he
observes to be true for most black folk.

However, i do agree that Steele's analysis of Obama is flawed in some respects. A few months ago, Chicago Tribune columnist Clarence Page suggested that Steele's book created a false dilemma—and unfairly attempted to force Obama into one of the two racial archetypes that he had described in his book, the "Content of our Character." While i have no doubt that "challengers" and "bargainers" exist within the black community as Steele convincingly describes, i am more
inclined to agree with Page who views Obama as playing a different role-—that of bridge-builder. And so Obama is (ostensibly) serving the aspirations of blacks without alienating whites by speaking of race and racially-charged issues not exclusively as black issues, but as matters that concern all Americans. Whether this "works" remains to be seen, but it seems to be getting him good results so far.