Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Shelby Steele on Obama and Sotomayor

I read two very short books while I was in Kingston, Jamaica, earlier this month. One, a tattered copy of St. Clare Drake's The Redemption of Africa and Black Religion (1977), I bought at a vending table set up for the Caribbean Studies Association Conference in New Kingston. I am trying to finalize a syllabus for a grad seminar in the Fall, and I was planning to check a copy out of the library later on this summer.

The second book, Shelby Steele's A Bound Man: Why We Are Excited About Obama and Why He Can't Win (2007), I brought with me from home. I'm trying to write an afterward for the paperback 2010 edition of my recent book, Racial Paranoia: The Unintended Consequences of Political Correctness (2008), and it seems pretty clear that I have to address Obama's election as a watershed moment in American history, one with clear implications for that book's basic claims. So, I have been galloping through recent book-length commentaries on Obama (including Gwen Ifill's The Breakthrough, Richard Wolffe's The Renegade, and Chuck Todd's How Obama Won) just to make sure that I'm not simply repeating what everyone else is saying about his victory and its implications for the future or racial and electoral politics in the United States.

Soon after I got back to Philadelphia last week, Steele penned an op-ed on the Sotomayor nomination that is a summary of his book's basic argument. Steele thinks that Obama is "bound" by the myopic and misplaced mathematics of race, a math of one-drop-rules and too-easy invocations of would-be racial impurity-by-addition ("black" plus "white" equals inauthentically "bi-racial").

According to Steele, Obama is bound in two ways. First, he is forced to play the conciliatory role of "bargainer" in contradistinction to the more hard-lined racial "challengers" (the Jesse Jacksons and Al Sharptons) who use "white guilt" as their political weaponry. This means that he has to come off as post-racial, as not hostile or bitter toward whites, an optimistic racial politics that doesn't necessarily stand him in good stead with the more cynical/skeptical strands of African-Americans thinking on race. In other words, the very traits that make him palatable to many liberal white voters potentially estranges him from black ones. His electoral coalition is split right down the middle.

Steele also argues that Obama is bound by his own misplaced attempt to actually embrace a gentler (more open-minded) form of racial politics (as opposed to eschewing it altogether and declaring its complete bankruptcy), which Steele would prefer, even as Obama gives lip-service to the idea of his own post-raciality. And Steele blasted Obama's nomination of Sotomayor this past week for just that very reason.

"The Sotomayor nomination commits the cardinal sin of identity politics," Steele writes. "It seeks to elevate people more for the political currency of their gender and ethnicity than for their individual merit. (Here, too, is the ugly faithlessness in minority merit that always underlies such maneuverings.) Mr. Obama is promising one thing and practicing another, using his interracial background to suggest an America delivered from racial corruption even as he practices a crude form of racial patronage. From America's first black president, and a man promising the 'new,' we get a Supreme Court nomination that is both unoriginal and hackneyed."

University of Maryland Law Professor Sherrilyn A. Ifill just wrote a response to the Steele op-ed that dismisses his critique as so much-more "stale, tired and now proven-wrong theories" of black neo-conservatism.

Obama won the election, and Ifill thinks it weird that Steele would have the audacity to say anything other than that he was flat-wrong on that prediction. Of course, Steele was not just implying an electoral defeat for Obama. The other point was that Obama couldn't win (even if he actually won the election) because of America's racial logic and his unwillingness to denounce it.

I'm off to a morning meeting, but I just wanted to make sure that folks were up to speed on this before I had a second (hopefully) to write a more substantive response to this dispute.


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