Thursday, November 29, 2007

A Bound Man

Last night, I read the insightful new book by Shelby Steele entitled, A Bound Man: Why We Are Excited About Obama and Why He Can't Win. Steele's book offers an in-depth analysis of race relations in this country and he uses Obama's iconic success as a jumping off point to discuss the conundrum of how blacks are bound by racial constraints:

In Shelby Steele's beautifully wrought and thought provoking new book, A Bound Man, the award-winning and bestselling author of The Content of Our Character attests that Senator Barack Obama's groundbreaking quest for the highest office in the land is fast becoming a galvanizing occasion beyond mere presidential politics, one that is forcing a national dialogue on the current state of race relations in America. Says Steele, poverty and inequality usually are the focus of such dialogues, but Obama's bid for so high an office pushes the conversation to a more abstract level where race is a politics of guilt and innocence generated by our painful racial history -- a kind of morality play between (and within) the races in which innocence is power and guilt is impotence.

Steele writes of how Obama is caught between the two classic postures that blacks have always used to make their way in the white American mainstream: bargaining and challenging. Bargainers strike a "bargain" with white America in which they say, I will not rub America's ugly history of racism in your face if you will not hold my race against me. Challengers do the opposite of bargainers. They charge whites with inherent racism and then demand that they prove themselves innocent by supporting black-friendly policies like affirmative action and diversity.

The problem with this bargain/challenger paradigm for Obama is that as a Democrat, he must please blacks who seem to respect challengers such as Al Sharpton more, but whites want "the iconic Negro, the bargainer in whom they see their own innocence and the nation's redemption." Obama needs both the black and white vote to do well in the primaries so, according to Steele, in essence, he is a "Bound Man."

Steele gives his prescription for blacks on how to break the chains of being a bound man, and that is black responsibility. He states:

And here is the pathos of American race relations. Obviously, black responsibility is the greatest -- if not the only -- transformative power available to blacks. How could it be otherwise? Just because we were oppressed, it does not follow that there is a force other than our own assumption of responsibility -- our own agency -- that will lift us up. Where in all of human history has one group been lifted up by the guilt or goodwill or need for innocence of another group? Where have former oppressors transformed their former victims?

Where, indeed? Read the whole book if you get a chance: Steele's last chapter is simply poetic and serves as a wake-up call for all of us who wish to transcend identity politics and move into a new era of interacting with each other in more humanitarian ways. Bargaining and challenging may be great ways to manipulate, but they are not great maneuvers for achieving freedom--which should be the goal of all democratic societies.



Blogger DADvocate said...

Life is always a "pull yourself up by you bootstraps" routine if you want to rise. The best anyone can give you is an opportunity. There are plenty of opportunities in the U.S.

11:55 AM, November 29, 2007  
Blogger geekWithA.45 said...

I gotta say, the books conclusion strikes me as sound.

My comment is, "why does it always come down to race for a lot of people?"

When I look at Obama, I don't see a Black/Brown/OppressedIdentity man. I see a neosocialist nitwit.

12:59 PM, November 29, 2007  
Blogger Goyo Marquez said...

"Where in all of human history has one group been lifted up by the guilt or goodwill or need for innocence of another group?"

While that may be true it amazes me that ordinarily reasonable people have such difficulty in accepting that the corollary is true as well: Where in all of human history has one group not taken the opportunity to lift its members up at the expense of other groups? Is it shocking that rich people would use every available means to keep their children rich?

While this might be acceptable, if immoral, in a private context, a problem occurs when the levers of governmental power before which we are all equal, are used to lift one group over another. When that happens it does not seem particularly unjust for the oppressed group to seek to use government power to reverse the situation.

What makes the situation of black Americans somewhat unique is the ability to clearly establish the past government supported oppression. Usually past oppression can be spun away as sour grapes but the history of black oppression makes that somewhat harder to do. Because of the difficulty of spinning it away the groups who benefited from the oppression have had to resort to arguing the injustice of reverse oppression. How convenient, now they suddenly discover justice.

Why was Justice Thomas' degree from Yale worth less than those of the white students? Was it because of affirmative action? Was Justice Thomas the stupidst man ever to be admitted to Yale Law? Was there never a stupid white man or woman who graduated from Yale and received a great job anyway? Isn't the denigration of affirmative action graduates just another excuse for maintaing one group above another? According to Steele's theorem and its corollary isn't that just what we would expect?

Is there any real difference between the people who in an earlier day would have stamped Justice Thomas' degree with a great big "N" for negro and those who today would stamp it with a big red "AA" for affirmative action? Certainly the end result is the same for both the stampers and the stamped.

Greg Marquez

1:10 PM, November 29, 2007  
Blogger Earnest Iconoclast said...

Unfortunately, Obama will lose because he is not qualified. But the racism-industry will blame his skin color/heritage.


1:16 PM, November 29, 2007  
Blogger DADvocate said...

goyomarquez - I have a hard time telling just what you point is. You say: "Is it shocking that rich people would use every available means to keep their children rich?

While this might be acceptable, if immoral, in a private context,..."

I think it's immoral whenever any parent doesn't do everything possible for the good of their children.

Carl Lindner Jr provides a good example of a man who pulled himself up from poverty. Born the son of an immigrant, he dropped out of school at age 14. He's now one of the 500 richest men on the planet, and a tremendous philanthropist.

Mr. Lindner isn't black but there are plenty of blacks that are doing quite well also. Interestinlg, in Clarence Thomas' case, it was the liberals who "support" affirmative action, etc. who tried stop his approval and who continue to bad mouth him.

One of the biggest problems facing blacks is that too many buy into the spiel that "the man" is against him/her and there are too many roadblocks for him/her to succeed. Believing this, they just don't try hard enough to overcome the necessary obstacles.

1:44 PM, November 29, 2007  
Blogger Cham said...

Putting Mr. Obama aside for a minute I can attest that there may be a problem with any African-American/black/minority (or whatever you want to call them) candidate or politician. Regardless of how qualified or wonderful a black candidate may seem or be, sooner or later the NAACP, Mr. Jackson or Mr. Sharpton and the entire black community will start asking how black the politician is. They will start counting the number of minority contracts award, the skin color of their staff and analyzing every comment ever uttered byt the politician judging every word. I have seen perfectly good black politicians reduced to defending their blackness rather than effectively governing their jurisdictions. The most recent case is of one Mr. Kwame Kilpatrick, the mayor of the fine city of Detroit, who is spending more time eliminating the n word from wikipedia than making any type of attempt of reducing the city's skyrocketing crime rate.

Mr. Obama seems like a nice guy, but I doubt he is going to opt to avoid that inevitable confrontation with Mr. Jackson. The only way a black politician will ever be elected to a major office is if they refuse to entertain the whims of the collective black community.

1:45 PM, November 29, 2007  
Blogger Cham said...

Dadvocate says:

One of the biggest problems facing blacks is that too many buy into the spiel that "the man" is against him/her and there are too many roadblocks for him/her to succeed. Believing this, they just don't try hard enough to overcome the necessary obstacles.

Not exactly. I don't think "the man" enters into the equation. Success is relative, not everyone aspires to a vinyl sided McMansion in the burbs which is the current measure of American success in our present MSM culture. Some people have never visited the burbs or worked with a computer. To them college is something people talk about but nobody really knows what it is or why they should go. For some people success is having control over a few city blocks, they're own cell at a preferred prison, or the best bedroom at their mother's house.

These folks are trying plenty hard enough, just not at a 60 hour a week job with health benefits.

1:52 PM, November 29, 2007  
Blogger DADvocate said...

cham - good points. I often forget that some have a much different definition of success than I, though my definition does not include the burbs either.

2:08 PM, November 29, 2007  
Blogger James said...

I have to say whenever conservatives talk about race it makes me chuckle. While you are not required to like Obama because he's a liberal, it would be nice if you are at least used a little imagination. Good old Cham brings up Rev. Jackson (what would white America do if it didn't have Jackson to mock) as if Obama hasn't dealt with Jackson already. Remember how Jackson had a fit about Obama not being black enough because he didn't go protest the Jenna 6. What did Obama do? Essentailly told Jackson to get his facts straight and moved on.
Finally Obama has said, time and time and time again, that if he loses it's all about him and not "the man." Hate him for his politics, but at least give him props for being a different type of black politician. That would be fair.

2:45 PM, November 29, 2007  
Blogger submandave said...

While often portrayed as rasicm, the biggest hurdle any minority candidate has with regard to the "white male" voter is the appearance of parochialism. I believe most white Americans have no problem with a President who is black, even if many may have a problem with a Black President. I would not prefer a candidate that appears to be unduly biased toward any small constituency, be that a recognized minority or any other group (e.g. left-handed harelips).

One of Obama's strengths among white votes is that he is not as vocally and obviously parochial as previous black candidates such as Jesse Jackson or Al Sharpton. Curiously, this has also been a disadvantage with black voters, as they have trained over the years that the absence of blatant bias for indicates a secret bias against. This is manifested in the experiences cham noted above.

2:55 PM, November 29, 2007  
Blogger Helen said...


That is exactly the point that Steele makes in his book. Obama cannot get black votes if he is a "bargainer" with whites and cannot get the white vote if he is acts as a "challenger: with whites. A sort of catch 22.

3:00 PM, November 29, 2007  
Blogger James said...


But isn't that a generational thing? Sure old bitter black folk like me will be dismissive of Obama, but for younger black folk, who have grown up in a much different America, Obama is them.

3:19 PM, November 29, 2007  
Blogger Unknown said...

Obama - and quite a few sexual minorities - have a problem. If they leave the plantation, their interest group and the Left will tear their livers out. If they stay on the plantation, they aren't their own person, and don't deserve to be elected.

If we ever have a black, or gay, president - they'll have to be a Republican. The left would never allow one they couldn't control.

4:39 PM, November 29, 2007  
Blogger Serket said...

I think Obama is sincere and optimistic, too bad his views are so far to the left. I would gladly vote for a conservative candidate who was black. I think people need to realize that history is behind us and should try to treat everyone with respect regardless of race. But if Obama's race is so important, we need to acknowledge that his mother's family is not black.

I like these lyrics from "Rockin' the Suburbs":

I pull up to the stop light
I can feel that something's not right
I can feel that someone's blasting me with hate
And bass
Sendin' dirty vibes my way
'Cause my great great great great Grandad
Made someones' great great great great Grandaddys' slaves
It wasn't my idea
It wasn't my idea
Never was my idea
I just drove to the store
For some Preparation-H

5:09 PM, November 29, 2007  
Blogger Unknown said...

James, I'm not sure what makes you think that young blacks are more attuned to Obama than older generations. One of Steele's themes is that the gains of the Civil Rights movement have been squandered by resort to the politics of racialism, which turns MLK's message of self-empowerment on its ear. Young black people are taught every day that, as long as there is one white racist out there, they will never have to take responsibility for their own fate.

After all, when was the last time that a liberal columnist wrote passionately about how many opportunities there are out there for young blacks who are willing to get good grades and act responsibly rather than decry how the deck has been stacked by "the man"?

5:33 PM, November 29, 2007  
Blogger James said...

Doctor Ellen,

Not to be too funky here, and not to take over the conversation, but do you realize how insulting your language is? Let me guess. The plantation is liberalism and freedom is good old conservative politics? One of the reasons why I've given up talking about race with most white folk, be they conservative or liberal, is that they can't get beyond the slave metaphors. The black folk who disagree with them are slaves, while the blacks who share thier ideology are freedom loving negroes who should be examples to those slave negroes. Black folk do this also and now when I hear the Uncle Tom charge I just say that he was the bravest character in the book.
Anyway it would be REEEAL nice if we gave up the plantations metaphors. They are a bit annoying and ultimately are all about ending the conversation.

Have you watched "The Boondocks." There is a funny show that talks about the problems of race in the way you described. What about prof. Gerald Early from St. Louis? There is Henry Gates at Harvard. Then there is radio host Tavis Smiley. They all talk about opportunity.

Don't mean to hog the conversation. I'm at work and would rather be home. :-)

5:46 PM, November 29, 2007  
Blogger Unknown said...

James, I don't know about Early, but my impression of Gates, and especially Smiley, is that they put forward the same tired racialist doctrine that has been with us for well over thirty years, now.

My impression of Smiley may be due to the hard left-leaning guests that he tends to have on his show. As someone who is keenly aware of how hungry corporate America is for qualified young black people, I find the whine-fests on his show to be insufferable.

5:55 PM, November 29, 2007  
Blogger Unknown said...

No, I haven't seen "The Boondocks." But of course I only started watching "The Sopranos" recently when it began its run on A&E. I've always been behind the curve on that sort of thing.

5:57 PM, November 29, 2007  
Blogger James said...


Smiley and Gates racialist?! Never heard that before. Smiley who told folk to stop whining about the Don Imus mess. Smiley who actually interviews conservative black people and takes them seriously, even though he agrees. Smiley who donates time and money to young people and tells them to succeed in school. Going to have to disagree with you there.
Same with Gates. This guy is despised by the Black Arts movment crowd. You should read his lecture "The Trials of Phyliss Wheatley." No racialist there.

6:07 PM, November 29, 2007  
Blogger Unknown said...

James, old wombat, you may be black, but I'm one of those sexual minorities. And I assure you, the Left is damn resentful of my acting as if they do NOT own me.

Offensive? Yeah, I'm offensive. I'm white. That means I'm racist. You know the song, I'm sure you've heard it. Doesn't matter what I say or do, I'm gonna get the "racist" card played on me. You're male. Want me to play the "sexist" card back?

You don't own me or my politics, any more than I own you and yours. Better we jointly give the finger to those who DO think they own us.

7:29 PM, November 29, 2007  
Blogger James said...

Doc Ellen,

I don't think I called you a racist. What I did say is the whole plantation metaphor is tired, over-used, hackneyed, and is not meant to engage people. Also why is that folk who always use that metaphor are convinced they are plantation free? You complain, rightfully, of people on the left trying to own you; HOWEVER, you then resort to the very language you say you despise. Mmmmmmm. Makes me think.
I have no problem giving people the finger who paint me, or anyone, in a box. But we can't complain about boxes if we are putting folk in them ourselves. Your plantation metaphor is nothing but a box. Same difference.

8:03 PM, November 29, 2007  
Blogger Cham said...

Every conservative seems to think they know exactly what everyone on the left thinks.

8:05 PM, November 29, 2007  
Blogger Unknown said...

James, I'm not saying you called me racist. But there are plenty who will. The University of Delaware recently was discovered to be officially promulgating this

and of course, the Duke University faculty was pretty obnoxious about white guilt in the Duke Lacrosse Scandal, ignoring all evidence in their rush to condemn. You could check out the "Durham in Wonderland" blog for an accounting, which eventally led to a best-selling book, "Until Proven Innocent" by K. C. Johnson.

You're tired of it? So am I.

As far as my feeling "freedom is good old conservative politics" I'm pretty much a Jesse Ventura libertarian. But the rightists that disagree with me are usually more polite about it than the leftists, so I suppose there is something in what you say.

9:12 PM, November 29, 2007  
Blogger James said...

But Doc you never deal with my original issue with you, which was your use of the tired plantation metaphor. On one hand you say how tired of it you, but you use the very language you say tires you. Explain please. Also what pray does the Duke mess have to do anything I mentioned?

9:20 PM, November 29, 2007  
Blogger Unknown said...

James, you said you didn't think you'd called me racist. But sufficient people, in similar discussions, do.

Strangely, I hadn't used the plantation metaphor in years. But I'd recently left a group where everybody was leftist and was trying to convince me there was something wrong with me, that I didn't see that only the Left was a viable choice for a person of my characteristics. And when I tried to explain - to a friend who was a straight white male leftist - he noted that they obviously were overwrought because I had left their plantation.

It fit. It works as a metaphor. I use it. I am sorry you don't like it - but don't you think, perhaps, that there are a number of groups out there that think they own you and will get incensed if you stray from the fold? I don't like it when they think they own me. I like it even less when they get insistent about it, as they have.

I'm simply not going to bow to political correctness when a metaphor or simile works. The Lords and Ladies of Correctness are being equally considerate of my feelings.

In a very different situation, but one with some application here, I have a friend who says, "Visually handicapped? That would mean I needed glasses. I'm blind."

10:12 PM, November 29, 2007  
Blogger James said...


So let me see if I understand you? You hate it when people try to own you but feel free to use the good old plantation metaphor when it suits your purposes? :-) Sure. Okay. If you insist.

And please, o please, do not throw that pc charge my way. Here is my point, and thank you for indulging me today: the plantation metaphor, no MATTER who uses it, is a tired trope that has nothing to do with conversation. It has everything to do with wanting to end debate. It's tired when my side uses it. It's tired when your side uses it and needs to be called into question every time.


11:05 PM, November 29, 2007  
Blogger El Duderino said...

It’s nearly impossible to separate the man from his message. Barrack Obama’s candidacy is doomed because his message is tired old liberal tripe reheated to luke warm by a oleaginous politico of questionable experience.
We will see a black president in our lifetime and because of Steele’s catch-22 I’ll bet he or she will be a Republican.

11:12 PM, November 29, 2007  
Blogger Unknown said...

James' obsession with Dr. Ellen's use of "plantation" is missing what I believe to be Dr. Ellen's legitimate point -- that the left is so convinced of its right to monopolize minority viewpoints that any minority individual who fails to adhere to liberal orthodoxy is immediately shouted down or chastised. Recall Harry Belafonte's slander of Condi Rice and Colin Powell as "slaves" because they served in a Republican administration, just for example.

I remember telling a liberal colleague about a passage from Shelby Steele's "The Content of Our Character." My liberal friend was absolutely befuddled; he couldn't believe that a "real" black man would write such things. I had to practically show him the page to convince him.

12:13 AM, November 30, 2007  
Blogger DADvocate said...

Every conservative seems to think they know exactly what everyone on the left thinks.

I just love it when someone says something like this. Of course, every liberal does know what every conservative thinks - they're all racist for starters.

Or like the black guy, Glen, who used to call in to WLW radio (maybe still does, I don't get to listen as much as I used to.), he always threw in, you white guys don't know what it's like to be black. But, he seemed to think he know just what it was like to be white.

And, every feminist seems to think she knows what it's like to be a man while no man has any idea what it's like to be a woman.

I just don't understand how half the world are clairvoyant mind-readers and the rest of us are so clueless.

12:18 AM, November 30, 2007  
Blogger James said...


Yeah you caught me. You throw out the plantation noise, and you ain't talking about history, then you are no better than the folk you complain about (ie. Harry Belafonte). Call it an obsession but if I'm going to take my political allies to task for that silliness, I'm going to do the same with folk on the opposite side of the aisle.
Thanks for listening peoples. It's been fun. For me at least (grin).

12:25 AM, November 30, 2007  
Blogger Cham said...

Which feminists say they know what it is like to be a man?

7:14 AM, November 30, 2007  
Blogger DADvocate said...

All the ones that say, "You're just an angry white man," and talk about the "advantages" of the good ole boy network, etc.

I'm not in the mood to search for specific people in the media but I personally know several including a sister, which is why I chose to not go to her house for the family gathering Thanksgiving.

9:26 AM, November 30, 2007  
Blogger Unknown said...

I have often lamented the fact that I never got my "red phone" to the white male patriarchy.

9:54 AM, November 30, 2007  
Blogger submandave said...

Outside observation: seems James and the Doc are, for the most part, in violent agreement with each other. Both resent others' political expectations of them based upon race/sexuality, but differ on how to express it. C'mon and celebrate diversity. 8^D Can't we all just get along?

"Which feminists say they know what it is like to be a man?"
Maybe those who buy strap-ons?
(Thanks folks, I'll be here all week)

12:06 PM, November 30, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't give a crap what color he is. As long as he can do the job...

The whole 'bargaining vs. challenging' paradigm is just another way to classify black people as somehow separate from everyone else - as damaged goods, in fact. They were slaves, the common wisdom goes, so somehow they will always be crippled, never quite fitting into society. Everything a black person does is part of some special 'survival strategy.' If he wears suits, he must be bargaining; if he wears gang colors, he must be challenging. But the fact is, we know that many if not most black people in this country do far more than merely 'survive.' And we know that their ways of dealing with life are as varied as their individual situations. The only reason for the bargaining/challenging paradigm is that it provides a simple, dramatic contrast and simple, dramatic contrasts help sell newspapers and books.

5:48 PM, December 03, 2007  
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