Shelby Steele: Why Obama is a "bound man" (interview)

Historians in the News

BILL MOYERS: Here's one of the intriguing and lingering questions of the week: how is race shaping politics this year? The polling in Iowa was right on - showing Barack Obama winning there. So what happened in New Hampshire? The polls predicted another big Obama victory - Did they just get it wrong -- all of them -- or was there more to it?

One Obama supporter put it this way in a widely circulated essay on the web: "The exit polls in New Hampshire were accurate for the Republicans and for the second tier Democrats. The only miscalculation was the amount of support for Obama. That miscalculation is about race. Iowa caucus goers stood by Barack, in part, because when voting with their bodies, in front of their neighbors, Iowans are held accountable. In the quiet, solitary space of the voting booth, some New Hampshire voters abandoned Barack."

We'll never know but as now the contest moves to Michigan, Nevada, and South Carolina where over half of the electorate is African American. But it's not as simple as numbers-race never is. That's why I invited Shelby Steele to our studios. Shelby Steele is one of our foremost public thinkers. His scholarship and ideas have earned him a senior fellowship at Stanford University's Hoover Institution and an influential audience in the public square. President Bush honored him with the National Humanities Medal in 2004 for his "learned examinations of race relations and cultural issues." for his bestselling book, THE CONTENT OF OUR CHARACTER: A NEW VISION OF RACE IN AMERICA, he received the National Book Critics' Circle Award and now he is out with another one. It's called A BOUND MAN: WHY WE ARE EXCITED ABOUT OBAMA AND WHY HE CAN'T WIN. And it's well worth your time.

Shelby Steele, welcome to THE JOURNAL.

SHELBY STEELE: Good to be here.

BILL MOYERS: The subtitle of your book, why we are excited about Obama. Are you excited about Obama?

SHELBY STEELE: Yes. Yeah. Actually, I am. Yes.

BILL MOYERS: Are you rooting for him?

SHELBY STEELE: I can't say that. You know, our politics are probably different. But I'm proud of him. And I'm happy to see him out there. He's already made an important contribution to American politics.

BILL MOYERS: But you go on to say why he can't win. Now, that would seem to suggest you don't think he can become President.

SHELBY STEELE: My gut feeling is that he's going to have a difficulty-- a difficult time doing that. The reason I think that we don't yet know him. We don't yet quite know. What his deep abiding convictions are. And he seems to have, you know, almost in a sense kept them concealed. And a part of the I think infatuation with Obama is because he's something of an invisible man. He's a kind of a projection screen. And you sort of see more your — the better side of yourself when you look at Obama than you see actually Barack Obama.

BILL MOYERS: You say in here that his supporters want him not to do something, but to be something.


BILL MOYERS: To represent something. What do you think they want him to be?

SHELBY STEELE: I think to be very blunt about it, in a lot of that support is a desire for convergence of a black skin with the United States Presidency, with power on that level — the idea is that to have a black in that office leading a largely white country would be redemptive for America.

BILL MOYERS: Redemptive?

SHELBY STEELE: Redemptive. Would take us a long way. Would indicate that we truly have moved away from that shameful racist past that we had.

BILL MOYERS: That's perfectly logical isn't it?

SHELBY STEELE: Yes, it is.

BILL MOYERS: And desirable. You seem to--


BILL MOYERS: Yeah, sure. And women want it for--


BILL MOYERS: In fact I feel for black women in this. Because they've got this first time unprecedented choice of a plausible woman candidate, as a Democrat, and a plausible black candidate.


BILL MOYERS: They must feel a tension.

SHELBY STEELE: They have to. I think that the black community in general has been very conflicted about Barack Obama. Precisely because he's been so successful among whites. And that makes black people nervous.

BILL MOYERS: Yeah. You say in here, white people like Barack Obama a little too much for the comfort of many blacks.



SHELBY STEELE: Well, the black American identity, certainly black American politics are grounded in what I call challenging. It's basically, they look at white America and say we're going to presume that you're a racist until you prove otherwise. The whole concept is you keep whites on the hook. You keep the leverage. You keep the pressure. Here's a guy who's what I call a bargainer who's giving whites the benefit of the doubt.

BILL MOYERS: Give me a simple definition of what you call a bargainer. And a simple definition of what you call a challenger.

SHELBY STEELE: A bargainer is a black who enters the American, the white American mainstream by saying to whites in effect, in some code form, I'm going to give you the benefit of the doubt. I'm not going to rub the shame of American history in your face if you will not hold my race against me. Whites then respond with enormous gratitude. And bargainers are usually extremely popular people. Oprah Winfrey, Bill Cosby, Sidney Poitier back in the Sixties and so forth. Because they give whites this benefit of the doubt. That you can be with these people and not feel that you're going to be charged with racism at any instant. And so they tend to be very successful, very popular.

Challengers on the other hand say, I presume that you, this institution, this society, is racist until it proves otherwise by giving me some concrete form of racial preference.

BILL MOYERS: Affirmative action.

SHELBY STEELE: Affirmative action. Diversity programs. Opportunities of one kind or another. And so, there is a much more concrete bargaining on the case of challengers. And you go into any American institution today and they're all used to dealing with challengers. They all have a whole system of things that they can give to challengers, who then will offer absolution.

BILL MOYERS: And what are the--

SHELBY STEELE: Then we'll say this institution is vetted now. It's not racist anymore.

BILL MOYERS: One of the worst things that can happen to you in this country is to be charged with being racially biased.


BILL MOYERS: Racial stigma.

SHELBY STEELE: You never get over it. On your obituary, it'll be the first line. And there's almost no redemption. The good side of that is it makes the point of how intense this society is in its desire to overcome racism and its past.


SHELBY STEELE: So it's a good thing on the other hand. On the other hand, the bad side of it is that it has become a form of cruelty. And all you're doing is terrifying whites. I wrote in the last book, WHITE GUILT. Whites live under now, we've underestimated the power of this. Whites live under now this threat of being stigmatized as race. Our institutions live under this threat of being stigmatized as racist and they're almost panicked over it. What makes me sad there is then whites look at what happened to Don Imus. And now, they're never going to tell me what they really feel.

Whites know never tell blacks what you really think and what you really feel because you risk being seen as a racist. And the result of that is that to a degree, we as blacks live in a bubble. Nobody tells us the truth. Nobody tells us what they would do if they were in our situation. Nobody really helps us. They use us. They buy their own innocence with us. But they never tell us the truth. And we need to be told the truth very often.

You know, America is a great society, a great country. Has all sorts-- the values have gotten us to this place where we are the world's greatest society in many ways. Well, those values, yes, we had a history of terrible racism. But those same values will work for blacks. They will help us join the mainstream, become a part of it. But whites can't say that because then they seem to be judgmental. They're seen as racist. And so, no one says it to us.

BILL MOYERS: So you can understand though, why some whites would look to Obama as a redeemer from that--

SHELBY STEELE: They think that Obama is a way out of all of that. That he will bring an American redemption. And whites are very happy for that bargain and show gratitude and even affection for bargainers. Oprah Winfrey is the classic bargainer who has also a kind of magic about her that I think again reflects the aspirations of white America.

BILL MOYERS: But she never challenges white America.


BILL MOYERS: She's successful in part because she makes us.

SHELBY STEELE: She makes you feel that this aspiration is possible. That-- it's-- real. White American women love Oprah. Love Oprah. And so, she makes them feel that way.

BILL MOYERS: Bill Cosby did that with his--

SHELBY STEELE: Bill Cosby did that.

BILL MOYERS: Cliff Huxtable.


BILL MOYERS: Remember? The--

SHELBY STEELE: But he made a big mistake, Bill Cosby.


SHELBY STEELE: He finally in the last few years has one of the iron clad rules for bargainers is they can never tell you what they actually think and feel. They can never reveal their deep abiding convictions. Because the minute they do that, they're no longer an empty projection screen. They become an individual. And whites begin to say, well, I didn't know you felt that way. I didn't know you believed that. And the aura dissipates. If Barack Obama starts to say, you know, I really think there's a value to racial preferences even though it conflicts with equality under the law, people are, you know, that that's a little too-- that's a little too revealing of who he might really be.

BILL MOYERS: So you're saying he can not serve the aspirations of one race without antagonizing the other?

SHELBY STEELE: That's right. That's right. They're two different agendas. And so his answer, this is the answer of all bargainers in a sense is to remain invisible as much as possible.

BILL MOYERS: What do you mean invisible? Because he's all over television.

SHELBY STEELE: He's all over television. But if you listen to his -- speeches 'change,' 'hope.' I mean, it's a kind of-- it's an empty mantra. I mean a surprising degree of emptiness, of lack of specificity. What change? Change from what to what? What direction do you want to take the country? What do you mean by hope? There's never any specificity there because specificity is dangerous to a bargainer.

BILL MOYERS: But, to be a successful politician in a presidential campaign in particular you have to engage a larger public. That's why so many politicians use ambiguity.

SHELBY STEELE: In Obama's case, there's more ambiguity. We have a pretty good idea. I mean, Hillary Clinton does the same thing, uses ambiguity. But we still have a pretty good idea of who she really is and what she wants to do with the country and so forth. John Edwards has probably got the straightest, most concrete message of any of them. We really know who he is. But Obama is still more invisible. We don't quite-- we don't know what he would do....

Read entire article at Bill Moyers talks with Shelby Steele on PBS

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Arnold Shcherban - 2/24/2008

In my opinion, Shelby Steel is right
Obama's uncertain, ambigious demands for "change", etc. and, also, about him being if not "invisible", then a grey candidate.
It is high time for him to come out and explicitly state what exactly "change" and "hope" mean in his socio-political vocabulary.
But I'm afraid, if he does that, he will ruin his electorial chances vs. McCain, which are small even now.