Shelby Steele On The Obama Bargain
Posted by madcap on March 18, 2008
Shelby Steele has an interesting article in the Wall Street Journal on how much race plays a major roll in Obama’s popularity. Steele has a great book on this topic titled “White Guilt” that goes into detail on the history and effect of “Black Power”on the black community. The Moyers link is excellent. I think Steele hits the nail on the head in so many ways.
“How to turn one’s blackness to advantage?
The answer is that one “bargains.” Bargaining is a mask that blacks can wear in the American mainstream, one that enables them to put whites at their ease. This mask diffuses the anxiety that goes along with being white in a multiracial society. Bargainers make the subliminal promise to whites not to shame them with America’s history of racism, on the condition that they will not hold the bargainer’s race against him. And whites love this bargain — and feel affection for the bargainer — because it gives them racial innocence in a society where whites live under constant threat of being stigmatized as racist. So the bargainer presents himself as an opportunity for whites to experience racial innocence.
This is how Mr. Obama has turned his blackness into his great political advantage, and also into a kind of personal charisma. Bargainers are conduits of white innocence, and they are as popular as the need for white innocence is strong. Mr. Obama’s extraordinary dash to the forefront of American politics is less a measure of the man than of the hunger in white America for racial innocence.”
But bargainers have an Achilles heel. They succeed as conduits of white innocence only as long as they are largely invisible as complex human beings. They hope to become icons that can be identified with rather than seen, and their individual complexity gets in the way of this. So bargainers are always laboring to stay invisible. (We don’t know the real politics or convictions of Tiger Woods or Michael Jordan or Oprah Winfrey, bargainers all.) Mr. Obama has said of himself, “I serve as a blank screen on which people of vastly different political stripes project their own views . . .” And so, human visibility is Mr. Obama’s Achilles heel. If we see the real man, his contradictions and bents of character, he will be ruined as an icon, as a “blank screen.”
Shelby Steele – Race and the Obama Campaign
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