The High-Wire Act of Barack Obama

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Hoover fellow Shelby Steele spoke with Toronto Globe & Mail columnist Margaret Wente about his new book, A Bound Man: Why We Are Excited about Obama and Why He Can’t Win:

Margaret Wente: We love Barack Obama up here in Canada. He may be more popular than even Hillary Clinton. On the campaign trail, he gets mobbed by crowds of white people. But you say it’s all about gratitude. What do you mean by that?

Shelby Steele: White people are thrilled when a prominent black person comes along and doesn’t rub their noses in racial guilt. With whites, black people wear two kinds of masks. There’s the challenger, who says: you are racist until you prove otherwise. Those are the Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton types that shake down white America with guilt. The other is the bargainer, who says: I will not shove the history of racism in your face if you do not hold your history of racism against me.

Oprah is the great bargainer of the moment. Whites know they can watch Oprah and not be shamed by the history of racism. The gratitude is just overwhelming, and it transforms into very warm affection. The bargainer knows that. There’s so much reciprocity of warmth built up over the years that people like Oprah and Bill Cosby have become what I call iconic Negroes.

Wente: I’d guess that Obama is a bargainer.

Steele: Obama is naturally a bargainer. And that is the source of his enormous appeal. By supporting him, you can feel that you’re not a racist. Among Republicans, he polls higher than John McCain. Even if people think they’re not going to vote for him, they still like him and wish him well.

The subtext has to do with the whole history of race relations in North America, and he has tapped into it very effectively. That explains how someone can come from the Illinois state legislature and two years later, incredibly, be running for president.

Wente: You’re saying that white people can’t see him for who he really is. What’s your take on him?

Steele: Personally, he’s a nice enough guy—nice, but vanilla nice, not much of a sense of humor. He’s very smart and a very talented politician. He’s very good at articulating both sides of a position and carving out a middle ground, although he hasn’t said much about his deep convictions.

His first book is a first-class autobiography—there’s never been anybody on the presidential level who can write like that.

Wente: Sounds good so far. So what’s the downside?

Steele: He’s got to keep on pleasing white folks without offending black folks and vice versa. But the national black leadership is grounded in challenging. They do the opposite of bargaining. They rub racism in the face of whites. This is what they really mean when they say about Obama, “Are you really black?” What they mean is, “Are you a challenger?” But if he does that, he loses with whites.

He’s bound between these two forces—challenging and bargaining. And that’s a high-wire act. How in God’s name do you pull that off if you have to shake down whites and also make them comfortable? He’s in a tough spot, and it makes him stay away from strong policy positions, not just on race issues. It has prevented him from evolving deep and profound convictions. No one really knows what the man really believes, I think least of all himself.

He needs to say: I’m an individual and this is what I believe as an individual. But if he did develop real conviction, he would lose the gratitude. This is something that all blacks suffer from—all do. It becomes obvious in Obama’s case because he’s running for president.

My feeling is that Barack Obama has not developed a true voice yet. People project things on him, but he’s a little more empty than we think.

Wente: You have serious doubts that he can win. So who’s your money on right now?

Steele: Hillary. She looks indomitable. She has a 53 percent approval rating, and she’s won the debate contest with Obama. I don’t know anybody on the Republican side who has a machine that well-oiled. She looks like the next president right now.

Wente: Who’s the Republicans’ best shot?

Steele: Rudy Giuliani. He fights like a dog and he knows what he believes. He has deep convictions and articulates them very passionately. He would give her the fight of her life.

Wente: Is there any prominent black figure who doesn’t wear the mask?

Steele: Clarence Thomas. He wears no mask at all. He’s not a bargainer or a challenger. He’s his own man. He has deep and profound convictions. You can take them or leave them, but he is unwavering. He is a rather heroic figure—the freest black man in America.

Blacks who stand up as individuals in their own communities are shunned—they’re called self-hating. Blacks loathe him because he won’t play the challenging game. They’ve called him an Uncle Tom. So if you are a white person and you like him, that means you are a racist. President Bush doesn’t want to be in a photo alone with him. That’s the enormous price this man has paid for being his own man.

Wente: In your book White Guilt, you argue that victim-focused racialidentity politics has stifled black advancement more than racism itself has. How has this happened?

Steele: One of the most amazing events of the twentieth century was the moral development of white America. I knew America when, with impunity, it was comfortably racist. Today, the entire Western world fully acknowledges the evil of racism and whites live under this stigma. They’ve lost an enormous amount of power because they have lost moral authority. White people are terrified of being seen as racist.

Meantime, the new black identity has been defined by group victimization. The unwritten law is that no black problem—high crime rates, high rates of illegitimacy, poor academic performance—can be defined as largely a black responsibility because it is an injustice to make victims responsible for their own problems. Racism no longer has any authority to it—it doesn’t mean much and it doesn’t hold you back much, but if you’re black you can’t say that, because you’ll lose power. Your guilt is our power.

Wente: Why is it that whites, not blacks, are the strongest supporters of affirmative action?

Steele: White people need cover. They think, “If I can support affirmative action, it shows I’m not a racist.” These policies exist, I believe, entirely for the purpose of institutionalizing that kind of cover. You can’t be in business today and not have diversity programs. It doesn’t matter whether diversity helps minorities—it helps the institutions. It gives them moral legitimacy.

No white person can say what they really think to blacks—or Native Canadians—because they don’t have the moral authority. If they do, they will instantly evoke this stigma. Look at people like Don Imus, who made a three-word mistake. You are vaporized. There is no redemption. You are worse than a pedophile. You are banished from society.

“How in God’s name do you pull that off if you have to shake down whites and also make them comfortable?”

Don Imus is not a racist. He just made a stupid, stupid mistake. But if you make racist remarks in the workplace, you are completely finished. The joke blacks tell now is that when they go into a white situation they say, “Watch out—I have Al Sharpton on speed dial.”

Wente: What’s been the impact of black power on blacks?

Steele: It’s been ruinous. It’s had the worst impact of anything short of slavery. It’s given us the idea that our future is going to come from the manipulation of white people rather than from our own imaginative creativity and hard work. A worse thing couldn’t happen to a group than to feel that our future is tied up with manipulating white people. It’s taken the life out of black American culture. It’s a very sad, tragic thing. The pursuit of black power is the worst thing we can do. It’s the kiss of death. Seventy percent of all black children are born out of wedlock. What’s black power going to do about that?

Wente: Do you see a way out of this self-defeating trap?

Steele: The only way we’re going to get out is a merciless focus on academics— so that blacks can become intellectually competitive in modern society. If we don’t do that, we’ll be at the bottom for the next 100 years.

Black kids do poorly and drop out because their parents don’t give a damn. They don’t read to their kids when they’re small, they don’t speak in complete sentences, they don’t give them language. So the black kids in America come to kindergarten two years behind white people. No school system is going to make up for that.

The only social programs that will ever work are ones that ask something of people—and we’ve never had that. They’re all white-guilt policies. Whites don’t think they have the moral authority to ask anything of black people, certainly not to judge them. But there’s something wrong with people who have a 70 percent illegitimacy rate.

“One of the most amazing events of the twentieth century was the moral development of white America. I knew America when, with impunity, it was comfortably racist. Today, the entire Western world fully acknowledges the evil of racism and whites live under this stigma.”

This is a group of people who are lost. But we are surrounded by whites who refuse to tell us that. The system works very well for whites—affirmative action is a cheap price to pay to fight off that stigma. But for blacks, especially the bottom half, it’s built for failure.

Wente: Talk a bit about your own background. I know that you grew up in Chicago during the last decade of segregation.

Steele: Yes, it was still the era of racism. My parents met in the Civil Rights movement in the early ’40s, and I grew up as a Civil Rights child. I went to a segregated all-black school that was terrible. So my mother and father organized the community to boycott the school. It was a rough fight. Then, in 1960, they got me into a white high school.

When I was in college the black power movement began to burgeon, and I became very much a part of that. But even in my most passionate moments I had doubts. People who talked black power weren’t going to school. They were using it as an opportunity to drop out and have fantasies of Pan-Africanism and so forth. But common sense tells you that no matter what you may think of whites, you still have to compete in the most competitive society on earth. There is no room to indulge.

By the mid-’70s, I had plowed my way through graduate school. I was married and had kids to support. The real world was all over me. I began to see that opportunity was everywhere and that I could do anything I wanted to do, so long as I was willing to apply myself and work at it. The veil began to lift, and it became clearer and clearer to me that black power was just making fools of us. We needed to get serious about development.

Wente: What’s your definition of a black conservative?

Steele: Anybody who says the number one black problem is not racism.

Wente: On a personal note, you’ve said that a black conservative will surely meet a stunning amount of demonization, misunderstanding, and flat-out contempt. How do you deal with that?

Steele: Well, I have the company of other black conservatives. Thomas Sowell, the first real black conservative, says we could all meet in a phone booth.

It’s not easy, and I accept this. If you’re going to push against something, you’re going to get blowback, especially if you push against something that has a lot of fear around it. Privately, blacks come up to me all the time, and they’re complimentary and very thoughtful. They really want to talk and think about these things. They just don’t want to do it in front of white people. They think that you can’t let white people see you doing that because you’ll lose power. And they’re right.

There’s more color-consciousness than ever, and that’s sad. “Individual” is a very negative word in black America today. People forget that Martin Luther King talked about blacks as individuals. He said, “We want to be free, because we’re human beings.” If Martin Luther King were alive today, he’d be a conservative.

This interview appeared in the Toronto Globe & Mail on October 20, 2007. Reprinted with permission.