An illuminating examination of the complex racial issues that President Barack Obama faced in his race for the White House, a quest that forced a national dialogue on the current state of race relations in America, by the author of the New York Times bestseller and NBCC winner The Content of Our Character.
Poverty and inequality are typically the focus of dialogues that take place during presidential elections, but Obama’s bid for so high an office pushed the conversation to a more abstract level where race is a politics of guilt and innocence generated by our painful racial history—a kind of morality play between (and within) the races in which innocence is power and guilt is impotence.
Steele writes of how Obama was caught between the two classic postures that Blacks have always used to make their way in the white American mainstream: bargaining and challenging. Bargainers strike a “bargain” with white America in which they say, I will not rub America’s ugly history of racism in your face if you will not hold my race against me. Challengers do the opposite of bargainers. They charge whites with inherent racism and then demand that they prove themselves innocent by supporting Black-friendly policies like affirmative action and diversity.
Steele maintains that, during the race, Obama was too constrained by these elaborate politics to find his own true political voice. Obama has the temperament, intelligence, and background—an interracial family, a sterling education—to guide America beyond the exhausted racial politics that now prevail. And yet he is a Promethean figure, a bound man.
Says Steele, Americans are constrained by a racial correctness so totalitarian that we are afraid even to privately ask ourselves what we think about racial matters. Like Obama, most of us find it easier to program ourselves for correctness rather than risk knowing and expressing what we truly feel. Obama emerges as a kind of Everyman in whom we can see our own struggle to accept and honor what we honestly feel about race. In A Bound Man, Steele makes clear the precise constellation of forces that bind Obama and proposes a way for him to break these bonds and find his own voice. The courage to trust in one’s own careful judgment is the new racial progress, the “way out” from the forces that now bind us all.
Why we are excited: Obama is a talented, charismatic politician and living proof that whites have welcomed blacks into the mainstream. Why he can't win: He's still mired in an ideology of racial victimhood and separatism that Steele (White Guilt), a Hoover Institution fellow and, like Obama, the son of a black father and white mother, deplores in this stimulating, conservative critique. Obama's conflict over his mixed parentage and abandonment by his father, the author argues, engenders a need to prove his racial authenticity by accommodating a black identity politics that, while it energizes his African-American base, risks alienating white voters. Worse, as president Obama might reflexively support affirmative action and government initiatives to help African-Americans, instead of emphasizing the self-reliance, individual responsibility and avid assimilation that Steele contends are the only remedies for the black community's problems. The author's tendency to psychologize Obama's policy agenda sometimes overreaches. Still, the book is full of fresh insights into the cultural politics of race; Steele's analysis of Louis Armstrong and Oprah Winfrey as "iconic Negroes" granting moral absolution to whites, for example, is a tour de force.