Shelby Steele on Barack Obama and the 2008 Election

In his 2007 book, A Bound Man, Why We Are Excited About Obama and Why He Can’t Win, Hoover Institute Fellow and African-American conservative scholar Shelby Steele defines two types of African-American public figures. One type, which includes Barack Obama, he calls “bargainer,” an African-American who says to whites, “I will never presume that you are racist if you do not hold my race against me.” The second type of African-American public figure, which includes Jesse Jackson, he calls “challenger,” one who says, “I presume that you, this institution, this society, are racist until you prove otherwise through some concrete form of racial preference.”

Within days of the election, Mr. Steele and I met in a Monterey café to discuss the election of Barack Obama to the presidency.

The Stanford Review: What has impressed you most about this election?

Shelby Steele: One of the things that always interested me about the Obama phenomenon is the fact that, in my humble opinion, it’s an outgrowth of what’s going on in society. I’ve written about the pressures that white Americans have felt since the sixties of always living under the stigmatization of being considered racist. Having to neutralize that, I think the Obama phenomenon, the excitement of him, has had more to do with that than with Obama himself. I think he is a very talented and articulate guy, just perhaps not quite that talented and articulate. In many ways, America has long ago made the kind of progress that it’s really wanted to have a black president. I think that Colin Powell could have had it if he had wanted to run in 1996 against a very weak Bill Clinton at that point. So in that sense, I don’t think that Obama is so much ushering in a change as documenting a change that has already occurred. Even though America has changed from the kind of racist society it was when I was growing up, we lacked proof of that change until now.

TSR: I had always thought that the first African-American president would have more of the political valence of, say, a Colin Powell than a more liberal Democrat.

SS: Well again, I think that hunger in society for someone to document this progress is so powerful. In fact, I think I underestimated how powerful it is that America is willing to take on the politics of someone whose is rather far left—his spread the wealth approach, his higher taxes, etc. It’s quite remarkable. In my life, I’ve never seen a politician run on a platform promising higher taxes.

It’s interesting there’s this almost open-ended forgiveness. Colin Powell, a classic centrist Republican, would not have had all the questions that Obama has had, questions about his loyalty, his patriotism. He would have been an easier fit.

TSR: It seems that, up until the last few weeks, Obama was seen in the media as very much a moderate, rather than a liberal. Do you think there was a conflation of temperament with ideology?

SS: Yes, that’s well said. His persona has been moderate. I think it’s been a real positive. He can’t get angry or he starts to look like a challenger, like he has a racial chip on his shoulder. Obama himself is impeccably calm, self-disciplined, measured and I think self-consciously so.

TSR: Does that fit into the concept of the mask that you’ve written about?

SS: Yes, when minorities enter the mainstream and must deal with a majority, if you go into that mainstream as who you really are, you press buttons and it’s not helpful. We’ve always worn masks and appeared a certain way. I think Obama is a master at that.

TSR: What, at the core, would you say Obama stands for? When his Harvard Law classmates were asked, they mentioned “social justice.”

SS: Yes, I think that connects with the redistribution principle, with Reverend Wright, and also with the sorts of circles he ran in at Harvard Law School. Charles Ogletree, Skip Gates, and others, critical race theory, the idea of positive rights—that you have a right to health insurance or whatever. I think that is his orientation. Are his convictions deep and true there? I don’t know. I kind of doubt it. I think he leans that way. But I don’t even think he’d really put his life on the line for that. I think that is one of the features that makes him an empty slate. That makes him appealing to people, is that he lacks passion for anything. The people he ran against knew what they wanted—Hillary Clinton, John McCain—but Obama, he’s got these leanings. Then he’ll perfectly articulate the conservative point of view, better than most conservatives will. Without noticing that asking for redistribution through a tax system is actually counterproductive to asking for responsibility from individuals. How do you make those two things compatible? You can’t.

TSR: How will Obama’s election affect U.S. national security?

SS: I think that foreign affairs will be his weakness, where the mask may crack first. I’ve been in Europe the last couple of weeks. Even as they call us every name in the book, they’ve been spoiled by reliance on American power. If Obama seems to jeopardize that, then I think their attitudes will change very quickly. They are counting on the fact that we will not let Iran have a nuclear weapon. I think he really will want to be the diplomat, he’ll want to talk. If there’s a point where action has to be taken, and there’s no doubt about it, I think he’ll do it. But I don’t think he’ll be like Reagan, who was so strong, and the world knew it. In domestic policy, he can be a managerial president, but in foreign affairs, you can’t finesse that.

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