The subtitle to Shelby Steele’s A Bound Man was irresistible: “Why we are excited about Obama and why he can’t win”. Oh, really? Right or wrong, this is a fascinating book.
Steele is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution and has written extensively on race relations and cultural issues. Like Obama, he is the product of a black father and a white mother. Right or wrong, the book is exceptionally well-written, insightful, and autobiographical in places.
Steele’s view is that there are two ways for black Americans to make their way in a white-dominated society: as bargainers or as challengers. The bargainers say “I’ll overlook your history of racism if you’ll overlook my race”, and Steele gives as examples Bill Cosby, Oprah Winfrey and Colin Powell. The challengers say “you OWE us” and the examples are Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton.
Steele’s thesis is first, that we are excited about Obama, because as the first black bargainer on the national political stage, he offers white Americans absolution, and second, that he can’t win because black American culture is predominantly in the challenger mode and will not support a bargainer.
I can see echoes of this theme in the criticisms of Obama as “not black enough”, in Bill Clinton’s effort to label Obama as the “black candidate” and even in Hillary’s goading Obama to “reject and denounce” Louis Farrakhan.
Since the book’s publication in December 2007, Obama has shown that blacks will vote for him in large numbers, so it looks like Steele is wrong.