Bound Men

Why black conservatism has so much explaining to do and why it’s already lost.

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If you’re the author of a book called Why We Are Excited About Obama and Why He Can’t Win, one would expect that you would be humbly engaged in the task of explaining why you got it all wrong and that you’d lay off the bold predictions for a while.

But maybe that’s too much to ask of black conservatives who never say “sorry.” Instead, if you’re Shelby Steele, author of A Bound Man: Why We are Excited about Obama and Why He Can’t Win, you just go on to the next thing—in this case accusing Supreme Court nominee Judge Sonia Sotomayor of “Hispanic chauvinism” on the opinion page of the Wall Street Journal—and predict that “identity politics” will “plague [Obama’s] presidency.” Oh, and for good measure, he calls Judge Sotomayor’s now oft-quoted Berkeley speech “racist and dim-witted.”

Why are black conservatives allowed to peddle their stale, tired and now proven-wrong theories about what they call “identity politics”? Typically, when scholars are proven wrong by events, we return to the armchair (or the ivory tower) and try to figure out how we got tripped up. We emerge two years later with a book that offers a revised version of our earlier theory, taking account of new developments and re-positioning ourselves as chastened super experts on the very subject that precipitated our fall. Black conservatives, largely because white conservatives love them so much, always get to bypass this route of contrition.

The election of Barack Obama proves, once and for all, how wrong black conservatives have been­—about voting rights, about affirmative action and about integration. Instead of recasting their arguments, they pretend that the very foundation of their intellectual offerings of the past 30 years have not just suffered a cataclysmic blow.

The reality is that Obama would never have been elected in 2008 without so many of the initiatives and programs that black conservatives have railed against for decades. The phenomenon of Barack and Michelle Obama would not be possible without affirmative action, which opened the doors of Princeton and Harvard and Yale to both students and professors of color, many of whom ended up in the Obamas’ inner circle, and that benefited so many of the mentors and power players who’ve advised them.

Those benefits inured to both whites and blacks at elite schools who made strong connections years ago, building bonds and trust that permitted them to work on a campaign to move with unified purpose, unmarred by the kind of racial warring that so often splits interracial work groups whose members come from deeply divergent backgrounds.

It was affirmative action and integration that enabled so many members of the team surrounding the Obamas to have had meaningful experiences across race. Justice Thomas may think his Yale Law degree is worth 15 cents. But the Obamas figured out how to put their Harvard Law education and contacts to pretty good use.

The Voting Rights Act—the crown jewel of the civil rights movement—transformed black electoral strength in the South and laid the groundwork for the rise of black elected officials. After several decades, the presence of those officials got white voters in places such as Virginia and Florida accustomed to black electoral leadership. And of course, the 1984 and 1988 presidential bids of Jesse Jackson—the all-purpose nemesis of black conservatives—registered millions of new voters and built a grassroots coalition of black, white and brown voters that set the stage for Obama’s successful candidacy.

Most of all, President Obama himself is an ongoing challenge to black conservatives. With his proud and beautiful black wife, his unashamed love and mastery of basketball, his dap and his appreciation of—at least some—hip-hop, Obama demonstrates that it’s not necessary to jettison your culture or your affinity for the black community to prove your intellectual heft or to convince whites of your bona fides. Even Michelle Obama, who many conservatives hoped would be an easier target, has charmed whites who’d been encouraged to be suspicious of her. 

So why isn’t it time to call out black conservatives for getting it wrong? At the very least, shouldn’t they have to show us precisely what fruit their anti-civil rights ideology has yielded? Shouldn’t they at least be compelled to answer some of these questions before they take off on the same old rants—this time against the first Latina Supreme Court justice nominee? By continuing to give Shelby Steele a place of privilege in its pages without requiring that he revisit and rethink his earlier theses, outlets like the Wall Street Journal engage in “a crude form of racial patronage.”

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