Time Warp

Not all wisdom, alas, is ageless. Some comes with an expiration date—or ought to. And applying outdated wisdom to new circumstances can make yesterday’s wise man look like today’s fool.

I have long been an admirer of Shelby Steele, an attitude that puts me at odds with a great many other black people of my generation. I find him an uncommonly graceful writer and have appreciated his willingness to say—at moments when black establishment orthodoxy couldn’t bring itself to—that the condition of black people in this country was both better and more complex than it had been in the past, precisely because it no longer is shaped solely by white racism. But with his slender volume on Barack Obama, A Bound Man, I fear Steele has applied outdated wisdom to a new phenomenon, and in the process gone from wise man to fool.

As I read his essay, I found myself thinking that Steele was trapped in a time warp, that his knowledge of the currents of thought and attitude among black people stopped sometime around 1990. Less charitably, I found myself thinking that the egregious Al Sharpton is not the only one with an investment in a static view of American race relations.

Steele, a literary analyst, obviously read closely and carefully Obama’s first book, Dreams from My Father. But he seems to have paid no attention to the actual substance of Obama’s life as a grown man, a husband and father, a lawyer and politician in Chicago, and a presidential campaigner throughout the United States. Had Steele done so, he would have discovered a man who, to every possible appearance, is at home in his own skin, comfortable with himself and his identity, and anything but the schizoid, duplicitous, self-betraying man Steele believes Obama has to be.

When I was named editorial page editor of the Chicago Tribune in 1991, the first person who called me to propose having lunch was Barack Obama. I had been back in Chicago (after five years in New York) for less than a year, and while I had heard Obama’s name, I knew next to nothing about him. We had an extremely pleasant lunch at an outdoor restaurant on North State Street, and a delightful conversation, few details of which I can recall now. But I do remember thinking that he was an incredibly impressive young black man, and that he seemed wonderfully, enviably self-confident.

The next time I heard of Obama was from Newton Minow, one of Chicago’s biggest movers and shakers and a partner in the law firm of Sidley Austin LLP. Watch this young man, Minow said. He’s going places.

Obama first went to the Illinois State Senate, where, following the pattern of his immediate predecessor, Alice Palmer, he worked effectively across both racial and party lines. The young senator got his ears boxed in 2000, when he brashly overreached and challenged incumbent U.S. Representative Bobby Rush in the Democratic primary. Rush thumped him soundly. In 2004, an Illinois U.S. Senate seat opened up, and Obama waltzed to victory when his principal opponents in both the primary and general elections were knocked out by embarrassing revelations from previously sealed divorce files. Throughout these years, nobody in Illinois seems to have thought that Obama was, in Steele’s insistent but baffling formulation, a “bound man.”

Steele and I are almost the same age. He was born on the very first day of 1946; I was born a couple of weeks from the end of that year. We both attended predominantly white colleges in the late 1960s. And we both apparently felt the same uncomfortable pressure to subscribe to the “black power” militancy of that day in order to “belong.”

“All blacks of my generation came under pressure to join the new militant identity,” Steele writes, relating his own conflicted response to this pressure as the son of one white and one black parent.

And many became immersed in the same irony—going along with an unexamined “blackness” simply to belong. Whenever collective identities become self-conscious, sharply defined, and highly politicized, people begin to survive them through duplicity. Still, for the mixed-race black, both the need to belong and the inability to believe are likely to be more pronounced. Racial “authenticity” will require even more duplicity and pretense.

I wouldn’t know what a mixed-race black person felt then. But even without that complicating factor, I felt pressure. I had received a good education in predominantly white Catholic schools and for the most part had been treated well, so the idea of an implacably hateful white monolith simply didn’t accord with my experience. But I wanted, as Steele says, to “belong,” and so I feigned a militancy I didn’t really feel.

Steele ultimately rebelled so strongly against this pressure that he became a full-time analyst and critic of it, a “black conservative.” Apparently it was the only way he could be a fully integrated person, true to his whole self, including his mixed-race identity. As for the “militant identity” politics that he experienced in the late ’60s, it hardened into something that he describes this way:

The post-’60s black identity is essentially a totalitarian identity. It wants to be an activist identity; it wants black protest to be built into each black person’s sense of self. So, it demands a solidarity (transparency) very similar to what totalitarian societies demand. It expects many gestures of identification—a liberal politics and a Democratic Party affiliation among them. The obvious problem is that these gestures, which win us solidarity with the group, very often require us to make sacrifices of integrity and principle. Depending on our background, being transparently “black” can come at the expense of what is important to us as human beings.

The hyperbolic invocation of totalitarianism aside, Steele has a point. There was a period—up until about 1990—when a black political orthodoxy clearly prevailed. One who departed from that orthodoxy, which really did play heavily on black victimization, could find himself ridiculed, shunned, or figuratively hurled into the outer darkness, where “black conservatives” wailed and gnashed their teeth.

But even as this orthodoxy prevailed, it was being undermined. Truth-tellers like William Raspberry, former Washington Post columnist, and Clarence Page, my former colleague at the Chicago Tribune, found ways to talk about some of black America’s dirty laundry—out-of-control teen-pregnancy rates, school failure and dropping out, black-on-black crime, and so forth—without losing sight of either historical context or present-day personal responsibility. Page and Raspberry were indisputably black but also self-critical.

By the time Bill Clinton came along in 1992, it was possible to be “authentically black” and to argue that welfare reform was needed, that many black teens needed not more indulgence but a dose of serious discipline, that it was time for old-fashioned black middle-class values to be reasserted.

Steele seems to have seen none of this. As far as he is concerned, Barack Obama has to be some sort of a psychological, emotional cripple, torn between the totalitarian black identity he has adopted and the demands of the political marketplace, where he must appeal to whites if he is to win the presidency. “There is a price to be paid even for fellow-traveling with a racial identity as politicized and demanding as today’s black identity,” Steele writes portentously.

This identity wants to take over a greater proportion of the self than other racial identities do. It wants to have its collective truth—its defining ideas of grievance and protest—become personal truth.... These are the identity pressures that Barack Obama lives within. He is vulnerable to them because he has hungered for a transparent black identity much of his life. He needs to “be black.” And this hunger—no matter how understandable it may be—means that he is not in a position to reject the political liberalism inherent in his racial identity. For Obama liberalism is blackness.

It apparently never occurs to Steele that for a man a generation younger than himself the terms of blackness might be different, that the “totalitarian” demands he encountered in the ’60s might no longer prevail, that Barack Obama’s mixed-race experience might actually be different than Shelby Steele’s.

Steele sounds in this book like a man whose head is full of a music that he alone can hear. It never did become clear to me what he means by the term “a bound man.” But it certainly seems that if anyone is bound, it is Steele himself. He is bound to a set of ideas and theories that he formulated in reaction to his experiences in the 1960s. They once sounded like wisdom, but today they tinkle suspiciously like the bells on a fool’s cap.

Published in the 2008-03-14 issue: 
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