Tuesday, May 20, 2008

The Challenge of a bound Barack Obama

Obama came out of nowhere to become a viable candidate for president. How did this happen? How is it so that a black man could rise up out of nowhere and become a "movement" in himself. Shelby Steele explains this in his book "A Bound Man: Why We Are Excited About Obama and Why He Can't Win."

It was a pithy book, and we love pithy books. But it was full of insight. A person who is black, according to Steele, has to be "black" in order to be accepted by the black culture. And while a black man must appeal to the black community, he must not do so in a way that he alienates the white community

Thus, in order to be perceived as an icon by the white community, a black man needs to wear a mask. He must be the man the black community wants and needs, and he must wear a mask to appeal to the white community.

While we wish it did not have to be this way, our history is entwined in race. This is simply the way our society has turned out. We wish we could be all one race, according to Steele, but we are born of two. And since we do have a race history, "society throws out iconic figures who seem to transcend the divide." Obama is one of those Iconic figures.

Obama was born to a black father and white mother. He was born in Hawaii and attended Harvard, and was therefore more in touch with his white side. In effect, he was accepted by the white community. His goal through his early adult life was to make himself appeal more to his black side.

It is for this reason that he supports liberal philosophies, because "liberalism is blackness." This, getting in touch with his black side, is exactly why he moved to Chicago and joined a black church. This is why he associated himself with radicals like William Ayers and Reverend Jeramiah Wright. Of course he did not join them because they were radicals, but because they gave him an in to the black community. They helped him get in touch with his black side.

This is also, in my opinion, why Obama had a tough time disconnecting with Wright. In a way, he did not want to do this. It was Wright and Ayers who helped to connect him to the black community in the first place. He had embraced them in order to gain iconic status in the black community, and now he had to reluctantly let them go.

Steele writes that in order for blacks to navigate through the white majority, they need to wear masks. It is a true testament that American's, both black and white, have failed to truly let go of their racist past. So, in order to communicate with one another, they wear masks when approaching the other.

There are two masks that black people wear called bargaining and challenging. Actually, Steele writes that these two masks have been worn by blacks ever since they had to make deals with their slave masters, but they are used to a greater extent today.

Bargaining: This is where, in essence, the mask wearer makes a statement that "I will not use America's horrible history of white racism against you, if you promise not to use my race against me. In other words, bargainers grant whites the innocence and moral authority they need in return for their good will and generosity."

He uses the Cosby Show as one example of this. Bill Cosby was a great bargainer because he was able to draw large white audiences because he promised to be a comedian and provide good entertainment in exchange for the promise that he will not "rub" racism in his viewer's faces. "You can relate to black characters in a human rather than racial context."

Many black people in our society, Steele writes, wear the mask of bargaining; in government, corporate world, government agencies. Colon Powel was also a great bargainer. Oprah Winfrey is, and so is Barack Obama a great bargainer.

The bargaining mask provides whites with "a gift of innocence because it flatters whites with the presumption that they will not be racist in this workplace. It gives whites a way to feel proud of themselves, and a goal to live up to. When bargained with in this way, whites themselves come to have an investment in making sure the environment is clear of racism. Bargaining has granted them a good reputation to protect. So racism becomes something whites, too, will not tolerate for the damage it does to their own good name. The beauty of bargaining is that it turns the black desire to live without racism into a white self interest."

Challenging: This mask, according to Steele, is akin to the mask worn by the likes of the
Reverend Jessie Jackson and Al Sharpton. "Challengers put all whites in the position of having to chase after their racial innocence. The challenger's code: whites are incorrigibly racist until they do something to prove otherwise."

He writes that "among blacks, challengers have no special power. But the instant they enter the American mainstream, the moral authority that goes with their black skin garners them enormous power. In a society where the greatest shame has been white racism, they have power over the guilt and innocence of whites."

Challengers basically charge whites of "inherent racism, and then demand they prove themselves innocent by supporting black friendly policies like affirmative action and diversity."

Don Imas worked as a radio talk show host for 35 years, but when he said one racist remark, the black community was over him like flies on manure. Imas, according to the challengers, had proven that he is a racist, and he must be fired. So, who did Imas go to see, the leader of the challengers: Reverend Al Sharpton.

Sharpton holds no political office, is not wealthy, leads no movement, and holds no office, yet because he is such a great challenger he holds a lot of power over the white community. "Like the modern-day potentate, he can ruin or redeem a white man in one quick trip to the microphone."

But, because bargainers are so gruff, they make bad political candidates, lest both Sharpton and Jackson failed in their bids to become president.

Colon Powel was a bargainer, and he was the first viable black candidate in the political world. However upon given the opportunity to do so, he "demurred."

And this is where Barack Obama comes into play, because he too is a bargainer. And, because he has become such a great bargainer, he, like Oprah Winfrey, has become an icon, or, as Steele writes, an Iconic Negro.

Iconic Negro: This is when the "synergy of innocence given and gratitude received elevates (bargainers) to an iconic status in the culture... (This) is someone who embodies the highest and best longings of both races. In such people, both blacks and whites can see the historic shames of their races at last overcome."

In essence, in watching Oprahs show, people:"look up at some point and remember that she is black, but then only laugh at how little that means. And here, in this little laugh of recognition, they see that race in no way separates them from Oprah. They see that the evil of racism is not operative within them, and they admire themselves a little for this. They are quite proud to like Oprah. Iconic Negroes are opportunities for whites to know themselves as people who have simply transcended white racism. For blacks, they represent transcendence of the inferiority stereotype."

Oprah created a movement in herself. She became an Iconic Negro. She paraded out of the background and achieved "enormous success through intelligence, charm, business acumen, and perseverance. (Oprah) has competed against whites and done extremely well on her own merit, thus rendering absurd the charge of black inferiority."

Obama has since done the same. Thus is why Obama and Barack work so well together as bargainers, and have both become so successful. This is why Obama is a viable candidate for president to this day.

One more thought before we conclude this book review. What happens when a bargainer oversteps his bounds? What happens when a bargainer lectures black people that they are the problem and that they need to take some personal responsibility for their own lives? What happens when an Iconic Negro says these things, even if what this person is saying is the truth.

We know what happens because Bill Cosby did this. Bill Cosby used his Iconic Power status to renege on his bargaining power to speak the truth about the black community, or the truth as he saw it. So while in the 1970s and 80s Cosby was the Iconic Negro that Oprah and Obama are today, his recent argument for black responsibility has lessened his status.

Steele writes that Cosby's recent work "represents a disengagement from the idea of black uplift through white guilt. So it leaves him no way to offer innocence of flattery to whites, or to receive gratitude from them. And whites cannot follow him in this focus on black individual responsibility without risking the racist stigma. So he is now something of a liability even to whites who privately admire his 'call outs' and who were proud to be fans of the Cosby Show. He is now a risk to their innocence rather than a source of it."

Thus, you can see why Obama is a bound man as Steele's book title states. He is a bound man because he must continue to cater to his black side, while showing a different face (a mask) to the white side. And he must also not over step his bounds if he wants any chance at all to succeed, because if he does, "he risks being seen as not authentically black. Iconic Negros (need to) appeal to both races."

While Colon Powel was the first to have this opportunity, Obama is the first to test the "charisma of the Iconic Negro in national politics." It has already been proven, with Cosby and Oprah as the best examples, that the Iconic Negro status can sell things, but the major question to be learned by the Obama candidacy to become our next president is: can Iconic Negro status buy votes.

I think this pithy book was well thought, crafted and put together. Yes, there are other issues why or why not people might vote for Obama. Yet, it must also be noted here that if Steele wanted to get into all that, this would be a 500 page book instead of a pithy one. Steele had an intelligent idea he wanted to share with his readers, and he did so indeed.

Excellent read.


Nikki said...

Hey Love this...I saw this guy on Fox. very interesting. I think the fact that Obama is ringing in 90% of the black vote is very telling. I am linking this as my hot topic this week if you don't mind..thanks :)N

Khaki Elephant said...

Really interesting stuff. I'll have to look out for this. In fact, you've convince me to take a second look at your "must read" list as well.

namaste said...

wow. rick, what an excellent post. thanks for turning me onto a writer who, it sounds like, share a LOT of my views on our american culture.


Thinking Sage said...

Excellent review.
Thanks for the link too, I will return.

It seems to me that if some of the athelets entertainers and huge names in the black community would do the same as Cosby that the bulk of blacks would "see the light".
Just my thoughts on it.

Anthony Palmer said...

I am familiar with these three classifications of Blacks. (I got a minor in Black studies as an undergrad.) What Steele is saying is true, but I thought I'd offer these points:

1. Colin Powell did think about running in 1996, but ultimately decided not to because a) his wife feared for his safety, and b) one major part of the GOP base (social conservatives) was adamantly opposed to him and said Powell could not count on their support in his quest for the nomination. (He's pro-choice.) That would be like a Democrat trying to win the nomination without the support of labor unions. Also, you may remember how much Powell was booed at the 2000 convention when he expressed sympathy for affirmative action even though, he argued, the GOP was happy to practice AA in the form of "tax breaks for special interest groups" (those were his words).

2. Barack Obama originally was not winning the majority of Blacks' votes. You may remember that Hillary Clinton had a stranglehold on Black votes until South Carolina. Also, had Obama gotten blown out in the overwhelmingly White states of Iowa and New Hampshire, the Black voters in South Carolina would have stayed home.

3. Whites have been voting for Whites for centuries, but nobody says much about that. But when Blacks vote for Blacks, people make a big deal out of it and call it a race issue. Why the double standard?

Good post.