Shelby Steele: Obama's post-racial promise

For the first time in human history, a largely white nation has elected a black man to be its paramount leader. And the cultural meaning of this unprecedented convergence of dark skin and ultimate power will likely become — at least for a time — a national obsession. In fact, the Obama presidency will always be read as an allegory. Already we are as curious about the cultural significance of his victory as we are about its political significance.

Does his victory mean that America is now officially beyond racism? Does it finally complete the work of the civil rights movement so that racism is at last dismissible as an explanation of black difficulty? Can the good Revs. Jackson and Sharpton now safely retire to the seashore? Will the Obama victory dispel the twin stigmas that have tormented black and white Americans for so long — that blacks are inherently inferior and whites inherently racist? Doesn’t a black in the Oval Office put the lie to both black inferiority and white racism? Doesn’t it imply a “post-racial” America? And shouldn’t those of us — white and black — who did not vote for Mr. Obama take pride in what his victory says about our culture even as we mourn our political loss?

Answering no to such questions is like saying no to any idealism; it seems callow. How could a decent person not hope for all these possibilities, or not give America credit for electing its first black president? And yet an element of Barack Obama’s success was always his use of the idealism implied in these questions as political muscle. His talent was to project an idealized vision of a post-racial America — and then to have that vision define political decency. Thus, a failure to support Obama politically implied a failure of decency.

Read it all.


Posted in * Culture-Watch, * Economics, Politics, Race/Race Relations, US Presidential Election 2008

17 comments on “Shelby Steele: Obama's post-racial promise

  1. A Floridian says:

    Jesus is my paramount leader…Jesus Christ is Lord, King of Kings…all authority is given to Him.

    This abortion, homosexuality, socialism promoter is NOT my paramount leader…

  2. Albany+ says:

    This blog is becoming more and more embarrassing.

  3. Sick & Tired of Nuance says:

    I personally hope that we can now officially end “Affirmative Action” and all official racist practices. Perhaps we can finally move beyond giving certain groups preferences based solely on the color of their skin, and stop discriminating against Caucasian males.

  4. Byzantine says:

    Whoawhoawhoa. Obama is a “black” man? He has as much white DNA as east African DNA, was raised exclusively by his white grandparents and his white mother and followed a completely white track into adulthood but he’s “black?” How does this work? Do African genes get a 2:1 weighting in the offspring of mixed race couples?

    I guess race really [i]isn’t[/i] a social construct. And it looks like we’re going to hear about race more now than ever.

  5. Jeffersonian says:

    Steele gets it exactly right here:

    [blockquote]But there is an inherent contradiction in all this. When whites — especially today’s younger generation — proudly support Obama for his post-racialism, they unwittingly embrace race as their primary motivation. They think and act racially, not post-racially. The point is that a post-racial society is a bargainer’s ploy: It seduces whites with a vision of their racial innocence precisely to coerce them into acting out of a racial motivation. A real post-racialist could not be bargained with and would not care about displaying or documenting his racial innocence. Such a person would evaluate Obama politically rather than culturally. [/blockquote]

    While poli-sci profs like Ken Warren at St. Louis University tap at their calculators to prove that white rural racism denied The One Missouri’s eleven electoral votes, the elephant in the room – that manipulation of gaseous urban/suburban white guilt – is ignored.

    [i] Slightly edited by elf. [/i]

  6. Shumanbean says:

    Well, I for one am glad to see this article in this blog. This is a real question…one of importance…why did we vote for B.O.? We’ve just seen history being made: a fairly inexperienced senator whose views are far to the left of the general population is elected president, and not for the right reasons, but as a way of assuaging white guilt, while probably having little or no useful effect on dysfunction in the black community…or so Mr. Steele suggests. I don’t know if I agree with his classifications for blacks in relation to whites…challengers vs bargainers…but nowhere in this article do I see the suggestion of “white privilege,” or of black liberationism. Nor do I see any notion of B.O. as a messiah, #1. In fact, Steele suggests that B.O. is rather unremarkable; a tweaker rather than a revolutionary. For Mr. Steele, it seems to come down to a matter of pigment. Now, Mr. Steele may or may not be correct in his premise, but it’s important that someone say these things publicly…identify the elephant in the room, so to speak…and I doubt you’d find few whites willing to do so in such a public way as the LA times. Is this an important article? Maybe not, if you’re too concerned with toppling the TEC establishment to read any other subject matter on this blog, but I think it’s quite important…particularly from the standpoint of leading a conservative, racially diverse parish…even if the premise is flawed, it speaks indirectly to the commandment to love one another (and how to do so authentically), and it might provide a starting place for real and effective communication. The other thing I might remind us all of is that B.O. will be our president, come Jan 20. We are obliged to remember that it was God’s will, and that we are to support him, as best we are able. especially in prayer. Hey…he wasn’t my choice, and he may turn out to be a horrible president…or not. But he is still the president, and as Augustine said of bishops…Sometimes the finest gardens are watched over by men of straw.

  7. RoyIII says:

    #4, +1: Why don’t the elves clean some of this up? I think it’s embarassing, too, and invites trolls.

  8. Sarah1 says:

    RE: “This blog is becoming more and more embarrassing.”

    Well, to you, maybe — not certain why anyone should particularly care that you are “embarrassed” by the blog. Go start your own, and then you can be proud of your blog.

  9. Branford says:

    Albany+, I don’t understand the comment. Shelby Steele is a well-known and very legitimate commenter on American political and racial life.

  10. Sherri2 says:

    Who decides what is the “right” reason to vote for a candidate? And who decided that Obama’s votes came from “white guilt”? I live in a small town in the rural south. My town was close to evenly divided between Obama and McCain. The most common reason I have heard from white people who voted for Obama was that they didn’t want another four years of Republican government. Next up was that the voter felt that Obama would have more concern for the “little people.” That’s not a scientific poll, but it rings true for my community and for a lot of voters, I suspect. Is it so hard to believe that for a lot of people, the promise of positive change meant more than skin color, whatever the color?

  11. Vincent Lerins says:

    Steele does bring up some very good points. However, for me, Obama’s election brings hope that anything is possible in America. That’s what resonated with voters, not his race. I could argue that people voted for McCain because he is white and they didn’t want a black president. Personally, I differ from Obama on most political issues; however, between him and McCain, Obama was the better choice. I really like the image of the black family they will bring to the media. I wish they had a son to round out the family image. It will be groundbreaking like the Cosby Show in the 80’s.

    #3 Sick & Tired – Give me a break. White male discrimination? LOL. As an African American, I will admit that I have been hired over more qualified candidates. It wasn’t due to race, but to networking. I’m a good networker. I get involved in various high profile projects at work, I network with management, I’m a team player and I work hard. Management takes notice of people like that and those are the ones who get the jobs. People tend to trust people they know. If you are only a name on a resume or someone who is quiet at work, you aren’t going to get noticed. This is no different from well connected whites who receive jobs because of family or social connections. How do you think people like George W. Bush have gotten through life?


  12. Dee in Iowa says:

    “This blog is becoming more and more embarrassing.”
    Perhaps this statement is a bit off course, but inviting viewers to haul their interest in this blog to some other place is also a bit off course.

  13. Jeffersonian says:

    [blockquote]It will be groundbreaking like the Cosby Show in the 80’s.[/blockquote]

    With very few exceptions (i.e. “Barney Miller”), I’ve never been a sitcom kinda guy, but I’ve caught a few reruns of the Cosby Show on nighttime cable lately and was impressed at what a great show that really was. Seeing it now, I regret not catching it when it was running.

    I do recall, though, that TCS was pilloried by many so-called black leaders at the time as insufficiently authentic.

  14. azusa says:

    I don’t exactly know how Obama fits the politico-ethnic moniker ‘African American’ (though he most definitely is one in fact!) since he isn’t descended from ‘Negro’ slaves but from a British subject and a white American woman, and grew up in Indonesia and in Hawaii, the most racially diverse state in the Union, where whites are a minority. Not too different from Colin Powell, whose parents were British subjects (but unlike Obama, included slaves as well as white British in their ancestry).
    Nor do I understand how it is racist to vote against a candidate because of his/her ‘color’, but not racist for 95% of the same racial/ethnic group to vote for the candidate.

  15. Dave B says:

    Just a quick thought, the Black vote for the dems in 2004 was about 89%, so we had 6% more voting for ethnic reasons perhaps? I am not sure we can make a blanket judgment about the black vote for Obama being based on race. Maybe it was based on the perception of Bush portrayed in the media and perception McCain would continue those policies.

  16. Sick & Tired of Nuance says:

    Vincent Lerins,

    I have seen racism against Caucasian males in the military, in higher education, in the private sector, and in government employ. Your failure to see it or appreciate it does not make it nonexistent. In fact, your failure to see it is part of the problem. If you can’t even conceive of the possibility of what I have witnessed first hand, it speaks more to your own insensitivities rather than to the reality of my experiences. It is real and it is pervasive.

  17. C. Wingate says:

    I see racism all the time, too, and it’s going to stick around as long as it serves as a convenient flag for other kinds of categorizing. But my hope is that Obama’s election will shove it further into the shadows. And I think it has, at least to the degree that it has made the “it’ll never happen” list grow a little shorter.

    But I think the core of Steele’s essay touches on exactly the right point, and then draws exactly the wrong conclusion. He is right to point out that Obama’s appeal doesn’t extend all that far into his political position. The polling evidence testifies to this at length. His labelling Obama as a “bargainer”, though, makes it sound as though Obama is doing something wrong by not presuming that whites are racists. Might I suggest that by abandoning that presumption, Obama showed a refreshing willingness to let racial tensions die?