Shelby Steele: The GOP Can't Win Either


Despite the cringe-inducing title of his last book, "A Bound Man: Why We're Excited About Barack Obama and Why He Can’t Win" (out in paperback, y'all!), Shelby Steele is still being afforded the “credibility” of expressing himself on the WALL STREET JOURNAL’s opinion page. Here’s Steele’s valiant attempt to explain to the tastemakers why black people aren’t, on the whole, Republicans:

In an era when even failed moral activism is redemptive — and thus a source of moral authority and power — conservatism stands flat-footed with only discipline to offer. It has only an invisible hand to compete with the activism of the left. So conservatism has no way to show itself redeemed of America's bigoted past, no way like the Great Society to engineer a grand display of its innocence, and no way to show deference to minorities for the oppression they endured. Thus it seems to be in league with that oppression.


I believe that by “failed moral activism” he means the entire Democratic governing agenda from Lyndon Johnson to Barack Obama. (What, I wonder, might Steele think of Bill Clinton’s assorted slaps at black folk, or Richard Nixon’s domestic liberalism?) This is, just to point out, a strong divergence of perspective from, say George Packer, who believes, with E.J. Dionne, that the GOP’s shrill, “disciplinary” approach is in fact helping them win the current debates over the Recovery Act, earmarks, and the proper role and nature of government. But Steele continues:

Added to this, American minorities of color — especially blacks — are often born into grievance-focused identities. The idea of grievance will seem to define them in some eternal way, and it will link them atavistically to a community of loved ones….. Today the feeling of being aggrieved by American bigotry is far more a matter of identity than of actual aggrievement.

Aah, the old "you're making this up" argument.

Say it plain: It is not racial but economic repression that has been the great scourge of American public life. Slavery, after all, was transactional. And it was not purely racism but the impact of racist legislation from both parties that “redlined” black communities and kept them from acquiring wealth. But today, it is, as Michael Dawson wrote for THE ROOT, conservatives who mock the precocious Ty'Sheoma Bethea for writing to the President—while her Republican governor threatens to reject funds that might improve the lot of students like her. And it is the Republican economic policy that fted deregulated financial products and made Jamaica, Queens—a historically middle class black neighborhood and the single county in America where median African American income levels were higher than white income levels—still the target for subprime lenders, who pushed the bad mortgages onto 60 percent of its residents.

Steele tries mightily to flatten and simplify aggrievement of an economic kind into pure racial angst. As a Nigerian American—who does not so much share the grievance-inducing history with America as I share the human covering that produces racial difference in the US—I agree with his assessment of identity, but feel gobsmacked by his ignorance of the social and political differentiation that arises in the sphere of color.

It is this ignorance (not to mention Steele’s wild-eyed book titles and talk-show jawing and Malcolm X name-checking) that produces Democratic solidarity. And with Steele's predictive track record, what should we make of a man who says the GOP can't win, either?



Covers the White House and Washington for The Root. Follow her on Twitter.