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Misreading Obama's Identity

By George F. Will
Sunday, December 30, 2007

America's foremost black intellectual has published a slender book about the most interesting presidential candidacy since 1980. Shelby Steele's characteristically subtle argument is ultimately unconvincing because he fundamentally misreads Barack Obama. Nevertheless, so fecund is Steele's mind, he illuminates the racial landscape that Obama might transform.

Ronald Reagan's 1980 candidacy fascinated because, as a conviction politician, he sharpened partisanships as a prelude to implementing discontinuities in domestic and foreign policies. Obama's candidacy fascinates because he represents radical autonomy: He has chosen his racial identity but chosen not to make it matter much.

In "A Bound Man: Why We Are Excited About Obama and Why He Can't Win," Steele, of Stanford's Hoover Institution, argues that Obama "embodies" -- an apposite word -- the idea that race can be "a negligible human difference." His candidacy asks America to complete its maturation as a society free from all "collective chauvinisms" about race. And his flair for the presentational side of politics makes him, Steele concludes, immune to affirmative action's stigma -- the suspicion that he is a mediocrity lifted up by lowered standards.

Steele, like Obama, is a child of racially mixed parentage. But Steele, 61, unlike Obama, 46, grew up when "race was a hard determinism." For Obama, his race and how closely he will be tethered to it have been, Steele surmises, choices that have made him a "bound man."

Son of an absent black father, Obama lived overseas and in Hawaii, remote from any large black community, and received an elite education -- all this, Steele believes, created an "identity vacuum" that caused Obama to want to " resolve the ambiguity he was born into."

Since the 1960s, the prevailing dogma of black identity has, Steele believes, required blacks to adopt a morally stunting stance of accusation against white society. Whites eagerly embraced a transaction: Blacks insist that their progress depends on whites' acknowledging through uplifting actions their obligations of guilt to blacks; in exchange, whites get absolution as their guilt is expunged.

Obama, however, is a product of America's mainstream, in which he enjoys unlimited opportunities. He is a model of blacks' possibilities when they are emancipated from ideologies of blackness, particularly those that, Steele says, "focus on self-respect apart from achievement."

In his autobiography, Obama recounts how, when he was living in Indonesia, his mother rose at 4:30 a.m. to work with him on a curriculum more rigorous than the one at his local school so that he would keep pace with American children. To Steele, Obama's upbringing illustrates the primacy of parenting and self-reliance in black progress. Obama's success refutes the theory of social determinism popular with many black leaders. It is the idea that blacks are comprehensively and systematically held back by an oppression that is prevalent even -- perhaps especially -- when not apparent.

Since the 1960s, to "be black" has, Steele says, required blacks to embrace "a deterministic explanation of black difficulty," a determinism that "automatically blames and obligates white power for black problems." It is, Steele charges, condescending of Obama not to use himself, and especially "his exposure from infancy on to mainstream culture," as "a measure of black possibility."

This, says Steele, could be Obama's "Promethean fire, his special gift to his times." But "thus far, Obama is the very opposite of a Reaganlike conviction politician." This is because Obama has chosen to resolve his ambiguous racial identity by embracing the social determinism and identity politics of post-'60s black dogmas. Hence he is a "bound man." He is "bound against himself" because he "has fit himself into the world by often taking his experience out of account."

Steele has brilliantly dissected the intellectual perversities that present blacks as dependent victims, reduced to trading on their moral blackmail of whites who are eager to be blackmailed in exchange for absolution. But Steele radically misreads Obama, missing his emancipation from those perversities. Obama seems to understand America's race fatigue, the unbearable boredom occasioned by today's stale politics generally and by the perfunctory theatrics of race especially.

So far, Obama is the Fred Astaire of politics -- graceful and elegant, with a surface so pleasing to the eye that it seems mistaken, even greedy, to demand depth. No one, however, would have given Astaire control of nuclear weapons, so attention must be paid to Obama's political as well as aesthetic qualities.

Steele notes that Obama "seems to have little talent for anger." But that is because Obama has opted out of the transaction Steele vigorously deplores. The political implications of this transcendence of confining categories are many, profound and encouraging.

georgewill@washpost.com

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