The Bargainer and the Usually Hidden Corner of Black Life

Shelby Steele, our most perceptive analyst of American race relations, examines the “Obama bargain.”

An excerpt from today’s Wall Street Journal:

…Mr. Obama’s broad appeal to whites makes him the first plausible black presidential candidate in American history. And it was Mr. Obama’s genius to understand this. Though he likes to claim that his race was a liability to be overcome, he also surely knew that his race could give him just the edge he needed — an edge that would never be available to a white, not even a white woman.

How to turn one’s blackness to advantage?

The answer is that one “bargains.” Bargaining is a mask that blacks can wear in the American mainstream, one that enables them to put whites at their ease. This mask diffuses the anxiety that goes along with being white in a multiracial society. Bargainers make the subliminal promise to whites not to shame them with America’s history of racism, on the condition that they will not hold the bargainer’s race against him. And whites love this bargain — and feel affection for the bargainer — because it gives them racial innocence in a society where whites live under constant threat of being stigmatized as racist. So the bargainer presents himself as an opportunity for whites to experience racial innocence.

This is how Mr. Obama has turned his blackness into his great political advantage, and also into a kind of personal charisma. Bargainers are conduits of white innocence, and they are as popular as the need for white innocence is strong. Mr. Obama’s extraordinary dash to the forefront of American politics is less a measure of the man than of the hunger in white America for racial innocence.

His actual policy positions are little more than Democratic Party boilerplate and hardly a tick different from Hillary’s positions. He espouses no galvanizing political idea. He is unable to say what he means by “change” or “hope” or “the future.” And he has failed to say how he would actually be a “unifier.” By the evidence of his slight political record (130 “present” votes in the Illinois state legislature, little achievement in the U.S. Senate) Barack Obama stacks up as something of a mediocrity. None of this matters much.

Race helps Mr. Obama in another way — it lifts his political campaign to the level of allegory, making it the stuff of a far higher drama than budget deficits and education reform. His dark skin, with its powerful evocations of America’s tortured racial past, frames the political contest as a morality play. Will his victory mean America’s redemption from its racist past? Will his defeat show an America morally unevolved? Is his campaign a story of black overcoming, an echo of the civil rights movement? Or is it a passing-of-the-torch story, of one generation displacing another?

Because he is black, there is a sense that profound questions stand to be resolved in the unfolding of his political destiny. And, as the Clintons have discovered, it is hard in the real world to run against a candidate of destiny. For many Americans — black and white — Barack Obama is simply too good (and too rare) an opportunity to pass up. For whites, here is the opportunity to document their deliverance from the shames of their forbearers. And for blacks, here is the chance to document the end of inferiority. So the Clintons have found themselves running more against America’s very highest possibilities than against a man. And the press, normally happy to dispel every political pretension, has all but quivered before Mr. Obama. They, too, have feared being on the wrong side of destiny.

And yet, in the end, Barack Obama’s candidacy is not qualitatively different from Al Sharpton’s or Jesse Jackson’s. Like these more irascible of his forbearers, Mr. Obama’s run at the presidency is based more on the manipulation of white guilt than on substance. Messrs. Sharpton and Jackson were “challengers,” not bargainers. They intimidated whites and demanded, in the name of historical justice, that they be brought forward. Mr. Obama flatters whites, grants them racial innocence, and hopes to ascend on the back of their gratitude. Two sides of the same coin.

But bargainers have an Achilles heel. They succeed as conduits of white innocence only as long as they are largely invisible as complex human beings. They hope to become icons that can be identified with rather than seen, and their individual complexity gets in the way of this. So bargainers are always laboring to stay invisible. (We don’t know the real politics or convictions of Tiger Woods or Michael Jordan or Oprah Winfrey, bargainers all.) Mr. Obama has said of himself, “I serve as a blank screen on which people of vastly different political stripes project their own views . . .” And so, human visibility is Mr. Obama’s Achilles heel. If we see the real man, his contradictions and bents of character, he will be ruined as an icon, as a “blank screen.”

Thus, nothing could be more dangerous to Mr. Obama’s political aspirations than the revelation that he, the son of a white woman, sat Sunday after Sunday — for 20 years — in an Afrocentric, black nationalist church in which his own mother, not to mention other whites, could never feel comfortable. His pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, is a challenger who goes far past Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson in his anti-American outrage (“God damn America”).

How does one “transcend” race in this church? The fact is that Barack Obama has fellow-traveled with a hate-filled, anti-American black nationalism all his adult life, failing to stand and challenge an ideology that would have no place for his own mother. And what portent of presidential judgment is it to have exposed his two daughters for their entire lives to what is, at the very least, a subtext of anti-white vitriol?

What could he have been thinking? Of course he wasn’t thinking. He was driven by insecurity, by a need to “be black” despite his biracial background. And so fellow-traveling with a little race hatred seemed a small price to pay for a more secure racial identity. And anyway, wasn’t this hatred more rhetorical than real?

But now the floodlight of a presidential campaign has trained on this usually hidden corner of contemporary black life: a mindless indulgence in a rhetorical anti-Americanism as a way of bonding and of asserting one’s blackness. Yet Jeremiah Wright, splashed across America’s television screens, has shown us that there is no real difference between rhetorical hatred and real hatred.

No matter his ultimate political fate, there is already enough pathos in Barack Obama to make him a cautionary tale. His public persona thrives on a manipulation of whites (bargaining), and his private sense of racial identity demands both self-betrayal and duplicity. His is the story of a man who flew so high, yet neglected to become himself.

That “usually hidden corner of black life: a mindless indulgence in a rhetorical anti-Americanism [and race-hatred] as a way of bonding and of asserting one’s blackness” is really the Achilles heel of most black candidates for offices other than in predominantly black or far-left districts. I suspect that only more conservative black candidates such as a Colin Powell or a Condoleeza Rice could overcome this weakness. But then they are regularly accused of being not really black. Remember Harry Belafonte’s odious remarks about Powell’s being a “house slave”?

Ironically, Obama’s “unifying” candidacy is forcing us to look into that hidden corner, an experience most painful to liberals as evidenced by Hillary’s (and her supporter’s) refusal to go there. If you want to see pain personified, try and find Chuck Schumer’s response to Chris Wallace’s questions about Obama and Jeremiah Wright on last week’s Fox News Sunday. Schumer looked and sounded like he was undergoing a prostate biopsy.

If all of this results in the black community’s cleansing its own house of race and Jew hatred, then something positive will result. But I wouldn’t hold my breath.

Here’s a link to Obama’s race speech.

An excerpt:

Like other predominantly black churches across the country, Trinity embodies the black community in its entirety – the doctor and the welfare mom, the model student and the former gang-banger. Like other black churches, Trinity’s services are full of raucous laughter and sometimes bawdy humor. They are full of dancing, clapping, screaming and shouting that may seem jarring to the untrained ear. The church contains in full the kindness and cruelty, the fierce intelligence and the shocking ignorance, the struggles and successes, the love and yes, the bitterness and bias that make up the black experience in America.

And this helps explain, perhaps, my relationship with Reverend Wright. As imperfect as he may be, he has been like family to me. He strengthened my faith, officiated my wedding, and baptized my children. Not once in my conversations with him have I heard him talk about any ethnic group in derogatory terms, or treat whites with whom he interacted with anything but courtesy and respect. He contains within him the contradictions – the good and the bad – of the community that he has served diligently for so many years.

I can no more disown him than I can disown the black community. I can no more disown him than I can my white grandmother – a woman who helped raise me, a woman who sacrificed again and again for me, a woman who loves me as much as she loves anything in this world, but a woman who once confessed her fear of black men who passed by her on the street, and who on more than one occasion has uttered racial or ethnic stereotypes that made me cringe.

These people are a part of me. And they are a part of America, this country that I love.

Sounds nice, no? He equates the racist words of his pastor with the words of racist whites including his own grandmother. He also infers that in rejecting Jeremiah Wright, he would be rejecting the black community. He’s imploring non-blacks to be tolerant of black folks’ race-hatred and anti-Americanism as a part of black identity, in the same way he was tolerant of his grandmother’s racism. However, I see no evidence in the real world that blacks are the least bit tolerant of white racism from anybody, let alone a candidate for president. Is Obama saying that blacks ought to be tolerant of white racism in the same way he’s imploring whites to be tolerant of black racism? I don’t think so.

In the end, non-black people need to ask themselves this: Would you remain for two decades a member of a church or synagogue in which the minister or rabbi engaged in white supremacist rhetoric?

Power Line has a similar view:

…Obama says he can no more disown the “white America” hating Wright than he can disown his grandmother who, he says, occasionally uttered racial epithets. “These people,” he intones “are a part of me, and they are a part of America, this country that I love.”

But there is a key difference between Obama’s grandmother and Rev. Wright. Not only is his connection with Wright voluntary, but Obama selected Wright to be his spiritual leader. If he still says Wright is “part of me” (and he can longer claim that he doesn’t know the full scope of Wright’s hatred of “white America”), then he should be judged for containing that “part.”

It will not do to say that Wright is “part of America.” Lots of deplorable people are part of America, including white racists. Political candidates are not required to embody every strand of America, much less the most noxious hate-filled ones. Political candidates embrace the strands that speak to them, and we should embrace the political candidates whose strands of thinking speak to us. No other candidate for president contains Wright’s thinking as “part of them.” In all likelihood, no other remaining candidate takes Wright’s views seriously.

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