Why Shelby Steele Is Right

To get elected, Barack Obama had to downplay the importance of race. But should black Americans buy into that deal?

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I can’t believe I am writing this. But I am. Shelby Steele is right. Not in the conclusions expressed in his recent article in the Wall Street Journal about Judge Sonia Sotomayor and what her nomination reveals about President Obama’s supposed contradictions. That is the stuff of fantasy.

But Steele is right about one thing: That to win the White House, Obama and his surrogates had to downplay the significance of his race in order to garner the support of fellow white citizens while subtly appealing to traditional forms of black identity politics. 

Obama’s presidency has led some to believe that we have turned a corner in matters of race; Steele sees only a sophisticated calibration. For him, Obama’s nomination of Sotomayor betrays the lie that much has changed in the nation: He, like us, remains “a captive of America’s ongoing racial neurosis.”

We need not accept Steele’s conservatism to embrace the insight. Race matters abound. Many find it difficult to talk about them and find it even more difficult to generate policy to respond to the nettlesome racial problems that continue to confound the nation. What we are witnessing, even as we revel in the historic significance of Obama’s presidency, is a deepening of our national pathology—a scandalous silence about the various ways racism continues to impact the lives of many of our fellow citizens—as some seek to “get shut,” as Ralph Ellison would say, of blackness. When, for example, conservative opponents of Sotomayor derisively speak of her nomination as the latest instance of bad identity politics, they in effect proclaim that race and gender do not substantively matter in our public deliberations.

African Americans are the poster children for bad identity politics. Conservative critics view efforts to redress historic and structural wrongs as insidious attempts to reward people because they are black rather than because of individual merit. They maintain that such politics carry with it the weight of historic grievance, the unwarranted bitterness of frustrated dreams and unjust indictments of others as the beneficiaries of generational misery. Guilt is the primary currency of identity politics; its mode of engagement is antagonism. And for critics like Steele, such politics must end. Theirs is simply the latest example of what Ralph Ellison brilliantly described as “the fantasy of an America free of blacks.” The irony, of course, is that our first black president occasions its most recent iteration.

Ellison published in 1970 an insightful essay entitled, “What America Would Be Like Without Blacks?” There, he rightly rejected any attempt to deny the centrality of African Americans to this fragile experiment in democracy: Our style, our language, indeed our very presence are essential to the distinctiveness of American life. That presence also calls attention to the contradictions that have shadowed our country since its inception, and it is here that the American fantasy takes root. Our national effort to rid ourselves of the great scandal of the USA—that “recurring fantasy of solving one basic problem of American democracy by ‘getting shut’ of the blacks through various wishful schemes that would banish them from the nation’s bloodstream.”

Barack Obama’s presidency ironically gives new life to this fantasy. For some, he can’t talk explicitly about racial inequality without being accused of engaging in identity politics; and, if he chooses to do so, he must delicately balance his formulations with talk of self-help and personal responsibility. Black Americans are not completely banished; our presence, however, no longer disturbs and disrupts. Yet and still, white men continue to nominate other white men for powerful positions, even those with noxious words about race in their past, and no one sees a problem. To be sure, Obama is not the beginning of some post-racial era; instead, his limitations deepen a dangerous racial game (our other national pastime).

President Obama is a bound man—bound by the constraints of the Oval Office, bound by the necessary calculations of a Democratic Party desperately trying to maintain control over the reins of power, by the ghosts of America’s racial past and present.

His constraints, however, must not be our constraints. African Americans, from whatever background, must struggle to come to terms with the significance of Obama’s presidency and what that means for our efforts as a nation to achieve racial justice. This involves coming to terms with a painful past and a complex present. How we work out our relation to that past and present cannot be determined by the exigencies of today’s politics—not by conservatives from the right or triangulating interests on the left.

We must continue, not in the name of some racial agenda but in the pursuit of justice, to ask hard questions of President Obama and demand specific answers. How might his health care proposals impact African-American communities? How has he addressed the racist dimensions of the housing crisis? How will he explicitly tackle the chronic double-digit unemployment that cripples our communities? This is not bad identity politics; it is simply the voices of American citizens, shaped by a particularly powerful and painful history, seeking answers for those problems that frustrate their dreams and aspirations.

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Sept. 19 2014 8:34 AM