by Shelby Steele
Book Review by Kam Williams
“Louis Armstrong adapted a mask that came out of the black minstrel tradition… It communicated to white audiences that Louis Armstrong would entertain them but not presume to be their equal. The relentlessly beaming smile, the handkerchief dabbing away the sweat, the reflexive bowing, the exaggerated humility and graciousness- all this signaled that he would not breach the manners of segregation, the propriety that required him to be both cheerful and less than fully human…
What is exceptional about Barack Obama is the same thing that was exceptional about Louis Armstrong. Neither man discovered a new way for society to racially arrange itself. But both men found a way to capture the goodwill of whites in a way that facilitated their lives and careers.” -- Excerpted from pages 61 and 127.
Only last year, I saw a movie in which characters seriously speculated about whether the United States would elect a robot or a black President first. Regardless of the answer, the intended message was that the country was nowhere near ready to vote for an African-American.
Nevertheless, Barack Obama has managed to mount a competitive campaign for the Democratic nomination. And, should he succeed in defeating Hillary Clinton in that endeavor, the only question left will be whether he can win in November.
Already weighing-in with an answer is Professor Shelby Steele, public intellectual, black conservative and author of such books as The Content of Our Character and White Guilt. Steele, like Obama, has a black father and a white mother, so he presumes to understand Barack’s mindset better than most of us.
It is his contention that the Junior Senator cannot ascend to the presidency because he is a two-faced phony, since “he cannot be himself without hurting himself politically.” According to Steele, “With blacks he is a protester carrying forward the care’s cause; with whites he is the ‘one people’ unifier, minimizing the importance of racial difference.”
Consequently, he’s a “bound man,” a hypocritical opportunist more interested in exploiting the status quo “to move himself ahead, not to advance a new configuration of race relations.” Certainly, such incendiary allegations would be easier to stomach if it weren’t coming from an African-American who’s also a darling of the right-wing Republican Establishment.
That being said, the book does offer an intriguing theory about a dilemma faced by blacks trying to assimilate into the mainstream. It claims that African-Americans seeking such success must adopt one of two masks: either that of “The Bargainer” or that of “The Challenger.”
Bargainers strike this deal with white society: “I will not use America’s horrible history of white racism against you, if you will promise not to use my race against me.” Examples Steele gives of Bargainers are Colin Powell and Oprah Winfrey.
Challengers, by contrast, leverage guilt to get power, indicting whites as inherently racist “until they do something to prove otherwise. The author says Reverends Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton are your average Challengers.
The problem for Obama, and why he can never become President, supposedly, is that he behaves like a Bargainer, a latter-day Satchmo, in front of whites, but more like a challenger when trying to appease blacks. In sum, Shelby Steele makes a persuasive case in A Bound Man, yet in my mind there remains the distinct possibility that there might be a third type of black person, and maybe that’s precisely why so many folks of every hue find something about Barack so appealing.
Monday, February 4, 2008
by Shelby Steele