Day By Day

Friday, January 22, 2010

Shelby Steele on America's Race Problem

He writes:
America's primary race problem today is our new "sophistication" around racial matters. Political correctness is a compendium of sophistications in which we join ourselves to obvious falsehoods ("diversity") and refuse to see obvious realities (the irrelevance of diversity to minority development). I would argue further that Barack Obama's election to the presidency of the United States was essentially an American sophistication, a national exercise in seeing what was not there and a refusal to see what was there—all to escape the stigma not of stupidity but of racism.
He goes on to argue that this sophistication regarding race has terrible consequences for both blacks and whites. For whites it involves a willful blindness as to the reality of the world -- a retreat into childish fantasies. For blacks it creates a need to construct masks, fantasy figures behind which their authentic personality is hidden.
Mr. Obama always knew that his greatest appeal was not as a leader but as a cultural symbol. He always wore the bargainer's mask—winning the loyalty and gratitude of whites by flattering them with his racial trust: I will presume that you are not a racist if you will not hold my race against me. Oprah Winfrey, Michael Jordan and yes, Tiger Woods have all been superb bargainers, eliciting almost reverential support among whites for all that they were not—not angry or militant, not political, not using their moral authority as blacks to exact a wage from white guilt.

But this mask comes at a high price. When blacks become humanly visible, when their true beliefs are known, their mask shatters and their symbiotic bond with whites is broken. Think of Tiger Woods, now so humanly visible. Or think of Bill Cosby, who in recent years has challenged the politically correct view and let the world know what he truly thinks about the responsibility of blacks in their own uplift.

It doesn't matter that Mr. Woods lost his bargainer's charm through self-destructive behavior and that Mr. Cosby lost his through a courageous determination to individuate—to take public responsibility for his true convictions. The appeal of both men—as objects of white identification—was diminished as their human reality emerged. Many whites still love Mr. Cosby, but they worry now that expressing their affection openly may identify them with his ideas, thus putting them at risk of being seen as racist. Tiger Woods, of course, is now so tragically human as to have, as the Bible put it, "no name in the street."

Obama, in his public aspect, like Bill Cosby or Oprah or Michael Jordon or Tiger Woods, was a carefully constructed fantasy figure comprised in equal parts of the individual's will to deceive and the public's will to believe. When reality intrudes on the fantasy, when the illusions crumble, the backlash can be terrible to behold. I fear that this is precisely what Obama faces in coming months. Will he be able to recover? He certainly has strong institutional supports upon which to draw in the form of Democratic Party loyalists and their media allies. But will Americans ever fully trust him again? No! Not in a thousand years.

Read Steele's perceptive analysis here.

In the latest issue of the New Republic Jonathan Cohn asks "Where is the Obama I voted for?" Shelby Steele provides an answer, John, that man never existed. He was simply an empty suit who allowed, even encouraged, you to project on him your politically correct fantasies -- a construct made up of delusion and duplicity. Still with a person as ideologically blinkered as a staff writer for the New Republic, hope never dies. By the end of his article Cohn is desperately clutching at any straw he or his colleagues can find that suggests an ever-so-slight indication that Obama might be something more than he has revealed himself to be so that he can reconstruct the fantasy and once again begin to believe in his deracialized liberal messiah.