Shelby Steele: Obama is a Bargainer

Shelby Steele wrote a piece in Time last Friday on his new book, A Bound Man and was on NPR yesterday discussing it. Given that I have yet not read his book, I was interested to read and hear a first-hand account of his thesis on Obama and why he can’t win rather than a review. I don’t always agreed with Steele, but I do find his work interesting. He addresses race at a deep level and brings some interesting ideas to the table.

As I mentioned in my previous post, I think Steele accurately describes the kind of “bind” Obama is in: he’s caught between demonstrating black authenticity to blacks and not scaring whites or smearing racism in their faces. Steele says that part of demonstrating black authenticity is to be a challenger, which in part means to, “assume whites are racist until they prove otherwise.” This is in contrast to being a bargainers who, “gives whites the benefit of the doubt” with regard to racism. Steele argues that Obama is a classic bargainer–which whites like. But he is also confronted with black expectations of him being a challenger from black.

As Clarence Page pointed out, it seems to me that Obama does not fit as neatly into Steele’s bargainer/challenger paradigm. He fits better into a third category of bridge-builder–one whose identity in grounded in reconciling differences between groups of opposing positions. And this fits with how others have characterized him as one with exceptional ability for bringing people together. So I’m not sure why Steele claims Obama is selling out his real identity. It seems to me his actions and speech have been pretty consistent with an identity he has embraced and maintained for some time.

Also Steele seems to suggest that the tensions he describes are a special problem for Obama and that he must stop playing this race game and shed the challenger and bargainer masks he tries to don if he is going to be successful. I question the specialness of his problem. What he refers to as mask-wearing and the tensions he describes are par for the course in politics. What’s special about that? Politicians are always attempting to appease different constituencies and are constantly assessing who their allies and enemies are along with how to best play these complex relationships. It’s like Survivor but with real consequences. How is the nature of this challenge fundamentally any different for Obama? Because it’s a racial issue? Nah.

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7 Responses to “Shelby Steele: Obama is a Bargainer”


  1. 1 SL December 6, 2007 at 7:27 am

    I agree that Obama does not fit neatly into the bargainer/challenger binary Steele establishes. I am frustrated at the fact that because of racial and/or gender difference, some candidates are asked to prove their authenticity. It isn’t fair and no one else is asked to that. Perhaps I live in an alternate world where what matters is a candidate’s platform…how he/she views the pressing issues faced by our country today.

  2. 2 V December 6, 2007 at 12:18 pm

    It is interesting to me that the dichotomy and/or tension that is at the center of this issue is whether Obama is “black” enough or just being a politician and dawning various masks to appease whatever constituents are before him. Isn’t it possible that this dichotomy and/or tension is truly authentic to Obama and existed way before the spotlight was shining on him?

    Long before Obama was a candidate he was grappling with issues of becoming a black man while living in Hawaii with his white family. In “Dreams From My Father,” Obama candidly discusses the tension of being thought that white folks cannot be trusted and yet, in his experience, he knew a warm and loving white family. In Obama’s words:

    At least on the basketball court I could find a community of sorts, with an inner life all its own. It was there that I would make my closest white friends, on turf where blackness couldn’t be a disadvantage. And it was there that I would meet Ray and the other blacks close to my age who had begun to trickle into the islands, teenagers whose confusion and anger would help shape my own.
    “That’s just how white folks will do you,” one of them might say when we were alone. Everybody would chuckle, and my mind would run down a ledger of slights: the first boy, in seventh grade, who called me a coon; his tears of surprise (“Why’dya do that?”) when I gave him a bloody nose. The tennis pro who told me that I shouldn’t touch the schedule of matches pinned to the bulletin board because my colour might rub off; his thin-lipped, red-faced smile – “Can’t you take a joke?” – when I threatened to report him.
    That’s just how white folks will do you. It wasn’t merely the cruelty involved; I was learning that black people could be mean and then some. It was a particular brand of arrogance, an obtuseness in otherwise sane people that brought forth our bitter laughter. It was as if whites didn’t know that they were being cruel in the first place. Or at least thought you deserving of their scorn. White folks. The term itself was uncomfortable in my mouth at first; I felt like a nonnative speaker tripping over a difficult phrase. Sometimes I would find myself talking to Ray about white folks this or white folks that, and I would suddenly remember my mother’s smile and the words that I spoke would seem awkward and false. Or I would be helping Gramps dry the dishes after dinner and Toot [his grandmother] would come in to say that she was going to sleep, and those same words – white folks – would flash in my head like a bright neon sign, and I would suddenly grow quiet, as if I had secrets to keep…
    As I imagined myself following Malcolm X’s call, one line in his book stayed me. He spoke of his wish that the white blood that ran through him, there by an act of violence, might somehow be expunged. I knew that, for Malcolm, that wish would never be incidental. I knew as well that traveling down the road to self-respect my own white blood would never recede into mere abstraction. I was left to wonder what else I would be severing if and when I left my mother at some uncharted border.
    —–Barack Obama, Dreams From My Father (2004).

    I find a discussion that does not at least involve the real possibility that Obama, while being completely authentic, exists in a space somewhere between challenger and bargainer to be quite limited. I live in a reality where it is possible for Obama to punch a white kid for calling him a coon and honestly feel like “that’s how white folks will do ya” and then go home to his white family seeking, and receiving, all the love and affirmation possible. I think it is just as possible for Obama to move between his constituents with the same kind of fluidity and authenticity that he began cultivating as a child, long before he became a politician.

    For those reasons, isn’t it just as likely that Obama is the first candidate with a very unique and authentic perspective? He identifies, genuinely, with the black constituents because he has witnessed and suffered some pain caused by “white folks” and yet he was raised to be the man he is today by “white folks.” I believe Steele has said that Obama and the “black intellectuals” are caught in a place where they cannot be themselves. And, I find it sad that in 2007 being yourself is really defined as your “blackness.” I am still confused as to what group of unknown people is given the authority to define “blackness” and why the criteria that qualifies as “black enough” is still elusive.

    Rather than discard Obama for intangibles, I am inclined to believe that Obama is the first black candidate that may have a shot. Because, he is “black enough.” And, because I believe, perhaps naively, that not all black folks are chomping at the bit hoping to “smear racism” in the faces of white folks. Instead, I think some of us would be happy if racism could be acknowledged, honestly, and discussed, candidly.

  3. 3 Neuman December 6, 2007 at 12:49 pm

    Interesting that Steele’s overarching premise in his former books on race is that blacks’ who assume a posture of victimhood are not really in the game at all, and then argues that Obama has to be a “challenger” which implies that the challenger is marginalized from the (what’s the opposite of challenger? champion?) champion. Steele’s whole premise of challenger/bargainer is bunk, as everyone points out.

    V is wrong in her analysis because the relevant perspective is not Obama’s but ours. Who cares if he moves fluidly from black to white and back again? In the eyes of voters, he is a black man, and he knows that because at some point he pledged allegiance to a “black” lifestyle: he worked among blacks on the South Side, he married a black woman, he championed specifically black issues as a state senator, he joined a black church. (And yes, if a white man does any of the foregoing he is leading a black lifestyle. And, no, that does not make him black.) So, as a black man, I think Mike is right that he has to persuade blacks that he is black enough and persuade whites that he isn’t too black. I’m not sure if there is an objective test either here, but voters will know it when they see it.

    How about Andrew Young pointing out, on the topic of Obama’s blackness, that Bill Clinton has probably dated more black women that Obama? Hilarious. Sad, but hilarious.

  4. 4 Mike December 7, 2007 at 1:07 pm

    I hadn’t heard that about Andrew Young. Upon looking it up, sure enough, I found the quote, “Bill [Clinton] is every bit as black as Barack,” he said. “He has probably gone out with more black women than Barack.” Very sad indeed–especially coming from Andrew Young.

  5. 5 Steve February 25, 2008 at 10:00 pm

    A very well spoken, intelligent discussion of race and perception. I am white but have more in common with Sen. Obama than Hillary Clinton. Sen. Obama and I are both men, the color of our skin being the main difference. Sen. Clinton, being a woman, is very different than me, physically, mentally, hormonaly. The color of ones skin is the most minor of differences, and actually not fair to Sen. Obama to be judged on….by blacks or whites.

  6. 6 Scot March 18, 2008 at 1:58 pm

    Isnt the black comunity demanding that he choose the race? Why cant it be that he just be as he is, not color. Isnt that your argument for him being special. But it is the community that he has tried so desperatly to associate with that has cast the most critisism. To white people he leads us to believe that he will unite America and rise above racism (Bargain) but at the same time he tries to show his “Blackness” by challanging. Does this not show where the true racism is in this country? Whites wanting him to rise above and represent all, while the Black comunity is demanding him to be only Black. In doing so he is going to turn off all people.

    He is showing himself to be conflicted and no longer the Uniter he claimed himself to be and below the racism out there. His whole Presidential platform is crumbling! His Reverend is the perfect example of this. He is a member of a Black congregation that preaches Black values. Not Human values but Black. How is that unifying? How is that rising above the racial devide? It is the complete opposite of his running platform. But the sad part is it was mandatory for him so that he could get black exceptance and that is sad for Am. and the Black community. To have to be racist so that you can be black enough for black people to like you and then have to turn around and not be so white people will like you. That is a losing position to be in, and telling!

  7. 7 Carlos Navarro March 22, 2008 at 8:45 pm

    Shelby Steele is one those black intellectuals who makes his living writing and lecturing about the difficulty African Americans experience trying to assimilate into a dominant white society. If Barak Obama wins the Democratic nomination and goes on to become our next President, he will have blurred the racial divide, and Mr. Steele and others like him might be out of a profession. That could be why he is making the rounds on talks shows promulgating the idea that Obama is unelectable because, as a black politician, he is culturally compelled to conceal his true self, to wear a “mask,” as he puts it.

    This mask idea, by the way, is not original of Mr. Steele. It appeared in a poem by Paul Lawrence Dunbar, “We Wear the Mask.” (1896), and was expanded by W.E.B. Dubois’ in his book of essays, The Soul of Black Folks. (1903)


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