Sending Mixed Messages?

Scholar Says He Isn’t Sure Where Barack Obama Stands on Issues of Race

Posted December 10, 2007 at 6:06pm

When it comes to race relations, who is the real Barack Obama? That’s what Shelby Steele would like to know about the Illinois Senator who, according to recent polling, is surging in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination.

“He has to answer that question in his own heart and build policies according to that,” said Steele, author of “A Bound Man: Why We Are Excited About Obama and Why He Can’t Win,” which came out last week.

“Then we would have a reason to vote for him,” Steele said in an interview. “But what reason do we have to vote for him now? That he’s a nice black guy? That he’s pleasant? That he makes white people feel good?”

Steele, who like Obama is biracial, studies race relations as a fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University’s think tank. Steele has criticized blacks for relying too much on the government and help from whites.

“A Bound Man” describes current American racial dynamics and then explores where Obama fits in. The author breaks blacks into two categories: bargainers and challengers.

Bargainers enter mainstream society by giving whites the benefit of the doubt and promising not to hold past racism against them. Challengers have victim mentalities and never bypass a chance to cry racism, he writes.

Steele describes Obama as torn. Sometimes he must challenge, like the Revs. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton (“grating annoyances” and “opportunists,” in Steele’s words), to appeal to blacks. At other times he must bargain to appeal to whites, Steele said.

Which one is the real Obama?

“I really cannot answer that with any certainty …” Steele said in the interview. “He says everything on both sides and says it very well and very eloquently. The problem is that the two positions are inherently contradictory.

“Whites who like Obama think they’re getting an almost raceless figure who’s going to be a transformative politician and change society. Then when Obama goes and challenges and shows blacks that he’s really black, he’s the exact opposite. He’s an old lion Al Sharpton civil rights leader, a real black politician.”

Although the book’s subtitle says Obama can’t win, the text itself describes the bind Obama is in but stops short of saying he can’t overcome it.

Steele himself predicted in the interview that Obama will win Iowa.

“He’s very much in the game and he always has been,” Steele said.

But the author said Americans still don’t know the candidate. And if they did, he suggested, Obama might be labeled a “black conservative.”

Steele pointed to Obama’s upbringing by a white mother after his Kenyan father abandoned them.

“I think if he really looked at his own life, the things that account for his success are the devotion of his mother and the sense of responsibility she imposed on him,” Steele said. “Wouldn’t it be an amazing thing for a black politician to make his politics out of that? Yes, he’d instantly be called a black conservative, but he could take us all further down the road.”

But it’s hard to get a candidate to change course when his current course is working, and Steele said he doesn’t expect to see Obama get candid with the American people during the campaign.

“I think he’s gotten so adept at bargaining and so used to engendering that warm glow in white people … that he’s not going to be motivated to do this very difficult thing of becoming an individual,” Steele said.

“I wouldn’t bet on it, it’s sad to say,” he added. “But I certainly hope he does.”