Is Obama a Bound Man?

shelby-steele.jpgShelby Steele, an essayist on race from Stanford’s Hoover Institute, has a new book on Obama called A Bound Man. I haven’t read it yet but an article in Sunday’s Washington Post summarized Steele’s thesis:

In “A Bound Man,” Steele makes the case that Obama has adopted “a mask” familiar to many African Americans, designed to appease white America’s fear of being thought racist by offering it the opportunity to embrace a nonthreatening black person.

Steele writes that “the Sixties stigmatized white Americans with the racial sins of the past — with the bigotry and hypocrisy that countenanced slavery, segregation and white supremacy. Now, to win back moral authority, whites — and especially American institutions — must prove the negative: that they are not racist. In other words, white America has become a keen market for racial innocence.”

“The problem here for Barack, of course, is that his racial identity commits him to a manipulation of the society he seeks to lead,” Steele writes. “To ‘be black,’ he has to exaggerate black victimization in America. . . . Worse, his identity will pressure him to see black difficulties — achievement gaps, high illegitimacy rates, high crime rates, family collapse, and so on — in the old framework of racial oppression.”

Steele makes a good point that part of Obama’s appeal to whites is that he doesn’t trigger white guilt. And it is true that Obama is on a slippery slope of trying to prove to black folk that he is down for the cause and prove to whites that he is non-threatening. But I think Steele goes too far in saying that Obama’s response to these pressures is to “mask” his true self or blackness. All politician’s wear some kind of mask and Obama is no exception, but I assume Steele is asserting that Obama presents even less of a self than what is typical. To the contrary, I see Obama as doing an excellent job of accurately presenting himself as a multidimensional black man–a concept that has been difficult for America, white and black, to grasp and accept for a very long time. He has been successful at helping people get beyond imposed expectations of what a black political leader is (or should be). Also, he has not pandered to blacks in terms of exaggerating the black condition as Steele argues. As mentioned in the article,

Obama has said repeatedly that while blacks face real issues of discrimination, they also have responsibility for their own lives. Parents must turn off the TV, he says, and read to their children. Fathers must take responsibility for the children they bring into the world. That is definitely part of his message.

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5 Responses to “Is Obama a Bound Man?”


  1. 1 gasdocpol November 26, 2007 at 7:51 am

    Barack Obama is a a man who is extremely qualiified to be President who happens to be black.

    Having his impressive family in the White House would certainly bring out the best in Afro-American citizens and Caucasians alike but that is not the reason to elect him.

    At this point in time, Barack Obama is what the this country needs.

  2. 2 SL November 26, 2007 at 9:43 pm

    Obama faces a difficult challenge: how to promote unity without denying the racism and discrimination that exists in this country? And it does exist, even if I don’t always experience it because I’m surrounded by white liberals who are extremely PC and overly sensitive about issues of ethnic and racial difference.
    However, outside of my strange little world, I suspect that we there’s quite a lot to say about the ways in which ethnic minorities are (mis)treated in this society.
    That being said, I think Obama is smart to present himself in a non-threatening way. That’s politics and that’s how you win.

  3. 3 beverly lloyd January 13, 2008 at 3:27 pm

    i don’t know. Obviously, Obama is quite gifted. However, I find myself lately seeing more rhyme and reason to Hilary. She is being so viciously attacked and scrutinzed by the media. Obama is treated with kid gloves by the media. I think it’s easier for a black man to win political acceptance than a woman in this country. Be that as it may, I think that Hilary is better qualified for the job. Perhaps Obama could be our next president after her. He’s young enough. She’s not. I think Obama has all of the chi chi fashionable support that the media, the celebs will back him so he could win……he could. but i would not be happy about it. Forget race and gender. We need a real leader right now. More than ever. To dig us out of the horrible mess that we’re in, we need a miracle!!! C’mon let’s find ourselves a true leader.

  4. 4 gasdocpol January 13, 2008 at 3:41 pm

    OBAMA HAS EXPERIENCE AND GOOD JUDGEMENT.
    Hillary Clinton voted for the war and did nothing to stop the march to war.

    Barack Obama said in October 2002

    ” I know that even a successful war against Iraq will require a US occupation of undetermined length, at undetermined cost, with undetermined consequences. I know that an invasion of Iraq without a clear rationale and without strong international support will only fan the flames of the Middle East, and encourage the worst, rather than best, impulses of the Arab world, and strengthen the recruitment arm of al-Qaeda.

    I am not opposed to all wars. I’m opposed to dumb wars. “

    WHATEVER EXPERIENCE OBAMA HAD, IT GAVE HIM THE GOOD JUDGEMENT TO SPEAK OUT AGAINST THE IMPENDING IRAQ FIASCO.

    WHATEVER EXPERIENCE HILLARY HAD IT WAS NOT SUFFICIENT TO GIVE HER THE GOOD JUDGEMENT TO OPPOSE THE IMPENDING IRAQ FIASCO.

    Having common sense, good judgement and the communication skills of Obama are the hallmarks of a great leader.

  5. 5 Elle July 2, 2008 at 7:35 am

    Obama is a Bilderberg puppet. Americans are falling into the New World Order without even knowing it.


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