Shelby Steele Thinks Barack Obama’s Campaign Is A Gamble That’s Coming Up Craps

Conservative author Shelby Steele. Photo from Canada’s National Post.

This is part of a black conservatives on Obama series at The Black Snob. Previous entries were done on Amy Holmes, Condoleezza Rice, and Ward Connerly.

Shelby Steele has always been fascinating to me. On one hand I find his views interesting. On the other hand I feel like his views on race are severely stunted. Like his opinions on anti-intellectualism in black culture. I don’t think black people have cornered the market on anti-intellectualism. Modern American culture, black and white is pro-anti-intellectualism. How else to you explain the election of George W. Bush and the pushback against science? The people who make museums that argue that the earth is 6,000 years old and that men and dinosaurs roamed the earth at the same time?

Americans often are slow when it comes to history, mathematics and reading levels across the board. Blacks have it worst than most, but don’t own this phenomenon. Anti-intellectualism has been spreading since the advent of the “idiot box,” television, now augmented with video games, internet chat rooms, text messaging (which is murdering spelling and handwriting, by the way) and insta-porn. The people want to be satiated with garbage. It’s difficult to force books upon them when most people groan at the dedication and imagination it takes to read.

Steele, like a lot of black conservatives, argues that programs like the Great Society plan, welfare, the public school system and Affirmative Action are harming black people. That these ideas are more rooted in white guilt that black advancement. Like many black conservative he has adopted some of Booker T. Washington’s notions of black self-reliance through entrepreneurship and education.

He feels that too often white Liberals and blacks turn to the government to solve their problems and inequities when the real solution lies within.

I’m attracted to this logic to a certain extent. But I’d also argue that black entrepreneurship has often been stymied by banking institutions who either deny blacks loans for starting businesses or lock them in with unfair loaning practices with much higher premiums. (Subprime loan, anyone?) And the animosity towards public education is rooted in pro-business and Libertarian ideologies, not the original reason for public education, which was to make sure everyone in American could be educated. It would make more sense to reduce the inequities in funds for schools based on property taxes. Education is still separate and unequal if you have the misfortune of growing up in a rural area, where there are no options and little funding or in the inner city which is falling apart from decades of neglect.

Shelby is a senior fellow at the conservative, Libertarian-leaning think-tank, the Hoover Institute. He’s written lots of books on race, including one short book on Barack Obama, aptly entitled “A Bound Man: Why We’re Excited About Barack Obama and Why He Can’t Win.”

Naturally, this is a real back-handed compliment of a book. Obama is smart! Obama makes people feel good! Obama is a race “bargainer” bound by his “blackness” which force him to work within Liberal, defeatism presets that hurt black people!

Said Steele to ABC News:

Even though he is, in Steele’s estimation, “quite good” at “articulating black responsibility,” his long struggle to “prove his blackness” requires him to see blacks as “society’s children.”

“Obama doesn’t get it,” said Steele in an interview with “He wants to make black responsibility contingent on what whites do, on what the government does, and on what school systems do and so forth.”

“Good luck,” he added. “You keep advocating that and blacks will be on the bottom forever.”

Steele thinks Obama’s alleged insecurity about his racial identity explains not only his 20-year relationship with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright but also his continued support for affirmative action and refusal to say whether he would have signed the welfare overhaul approved by former President Clinton in 1996.

It also explains, in Steele’s view, why Obama said during a recent “Nightline” interview that blacks do not have the “luxury” of being “selective” when it comes to other blacks.

Steele tends to wrap his “psychobabble” in rosy rhetoric. Also biracial, Steele feels he has an insight to Obama’s own racial/political psychology, which is a farce. He assumes that Obama adopted Liberal policies because of his blackness, not because he agreed with them.

Obama, like many black people and especially biracial people, had a choice. He could be ambivalent to race or he could thrust himself right into the thick of our racial debate. He chose joining the debate. I don’t think his entire political career is an exercise in black self-esteem where Obama is adopting “harmful” policies to fit in with the rest of us Negroes.

What does Shelby think of Obama? Considering he wrote a book about the man, he has a plenty more to say.

Steele argues that Obama doesn’t assert black responsibility when Obama has been talking self-accountability on the stump since forever.

Also from article:

Steele raps the Illinois senator for offering “no thinking on how to build incentives to responsibility into actual social policy.”

“He needs to go a lot farther than the bromide about turning off the TV,” Steele told ABC News. “He has to actually try to instill a larger concept of personal responsibility in black people, and others as well, who at this point in our history, lack that concept and are suffering because they lack that concept.”

Asked about the criticism, Obama’s campaign rejected Steele’s view that pushing for school reform undermines the candidate’s call for parental responsibility.

“Obama believes that both school reform and increased parental involvement are critical,” an Obama policy adviser told “He rejects either-or formulations. That’s why in his comprehensive pre-K to 12 education plan, he features a separate and independent section on parental involvement and offers concrete suggestions [such as districts adopting ‘school-family contracts’] to encourage parents to get more involved.”

The Illinois senator’s campaign also maintained that Steele’s book overlooks Obama’s support for a “Responsible Fatherhood” bill that pursues a “carrot and stick” approach. It funds support services while removing some of the government penalties on married families and cracking down on men who avoid child support payments.

The Obama campaign also points to transitional job programs, prison-to-work programs and a nurse-partnership program to educate young mothers as evidence that Obama, contrary to Steele’s claim, has proposed “incentives to responsibility.”

But Steele is having none of that. Obama is doomed, doomed he says, to failure based on his appeasement of the black welfare state.

Not all Steele statements are faulty though. He points out that Obama is tip-toeing down a delicate line to win over blacks and whites by being all things to all people. By equivocating and taking ambiguous stances on crucial issues. Steele points to statements Obama has made regarding Affirmative Action and welfare reform where it’s difficult to tell where stands because he dances around the issue.

Without addressing these issues Steele feels Obama is in for a world of trouble from both blacks and whites who have dramatically different view points on welfare and Affirmative Action, as well as a host of other social programs set up to support impoverished blacks or counteract discrimination.

The refusal to take a stand on the bill signed by Clinton was panned by Steele.

“That’s cowardice. That’s just cowardice,” said Steele. “There’s no excuse for not saying that. He knows better. He’s just, once again, equivocating.”

“I’m sure he was opposed to it at the time,” Steele added. “I hope he’s not now. I hope at this point he would at least recognize the profound service that was to black Americans.”

This racial dance is what really hurts Obama in Steele opinion, hampering his chances at being the next president of the United States. Basically, Barack can’t win because Barack can’t commit to anything controversial.

Steele, any many interviews, alludes to Obama’s statements about blacks not having the “luxury of being selective.” Of insinuating that blacks have to accept all of blackness (both Colin Powell and Jesse Jackson) out of necessity.

In an interview with he admits that he “regrets” the title to his book on Obama. He was tells the interviewer he was trying to drive home the point that unless Obama takes a stand he will forever be bound by his race.

Well, this is interesting, and I think it relates to my Obama book where I talk about “bargaining” and “challenging” and how we, as blacks, entering this great American mainstream wearing a mask because, when you’re a minority, you don’t have the same power as the majority. That’s something that has just been a part of our survival mechanism. Well, I tried not to wear those masks, not to give whites the benefit of the doubt or to hold them on the hook, but to simply speak as an individual. I knew that if you’re going to do that in a society that has this history, this past, and this way of relating through masks and so forth, that you’re going to get some blowback. So, I was not surprised, and I fully accept that you can’t write the way I’ve written and not get blowback. You will. And in fact, you learn from it. It sharpens me and I hope it makes me a better writer.

What do I think? I think Shelby is intelligent and well-thought out and although I don’t always agree with him, I do find him more interesting and palatable than other black conservatives. He isn’t full of self-loathing and apathy towards blackness. He can even be inspiring at times.

And I don’t blame him for concluding that Obama’s need to appeal to many will hamper him, but Steele is wrong when assesses that Obama has a “choice” in this matter. While it’s true that he could commit to a viewpoint like Steele or Jesse Jackson that is rooted on polar ends of the black political discourse, it’s also true that Obama wants to get elected. He is balancing the same tight rope all politicians do. It’s why McCain is trying to prove his conservative credentials without frightening off the middle. It’s why Hillary Clinton often has to position herself in a hawkish manner and is ridiculed if she shows any cracks in her patrician façade.

No black can
didate running for president who wants to be seen as the president of all Americans, rather than solely the president of black Americans, can make a solid call for those polar sides. Not if they want to get elected.

That is the real truth in Steele’s world. He can make a hardline stance. As a Democrat running for president trying to woo the waffling middle, he cannot. Neither can McCain. Neither can Clinton. Neither could most presidential candidates before them. Being president of the United States means being the governor of all people. Or at least that’s what it was supposed to mean. Hopefully this election will bring a return of that view.

But what are Steele’s chances of ditching his criticism and biting the ballot for Obama?

Chances of endorsing Obama: Steele in his interview with EURweb is a little less harsh on Obama than the ABC interview. While I don’t think he will endorse Obama publicly, I can’t completely rule it out. If Obama does address Affirmative Action and education reform with a centrist stance Steele might come around.

Chances of voting for Obama: This is also a toss up, but I’m going to say no. I think Steele is a true conservative. I believe that he truly thinks Liberal ideas for black America are dangerous. And I truly think he cares for black people. I don’t think his conscious would allow him to vote for someone he thinks would cause further harm.

Check back to The Black Snob all this week, concluding on April 14th.

Sunday: Amy Holmes
Monday: Condoleezza Rice
Tuesday: Ward Connerly
Wednesday: Shelby Steele
Thursday: Alan Keyes
Friday: JC Watts
Saturday: Colin Powell
Sunday: Armstrong Williams
Monday: Michael Steele
Tuesday: John McWhorter
Wednesday: LaShawn Barber and Herman Cain
Thursday: Star Parker and Eric Wallace
Friday: A final analysis, “Who Would Clarence Thomas Vote For?”

11 thoughts on “Shelby Steele Thinks Barack Obama’s Campaign Is A Gamble That’s Coming Up Craps

  1. My familiarity w/Mr. Steele is limited to the book “Bound Man.” I came across it one day at Borders and was so disgusted I had to write a blog about it. In it, he asserts that all black people fall into one of two categories: bargainers and challengers. A bargainer is someone who says “I won’t hold America’s racist past against you if you don’t hold my race against me.” A challenger believes that every white person is racist unless they prove otherwise by supporting affirmative action and other programs that help black people (never mind that black people were not the biggest beneficiaries of AA). Noted bargainers include Tiger Woods, Michael Jordan and Oprah. Noted challengers he named were Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson.Would that it were so easy to divide an entire and extremely diverse racial group into compartmentally organized subgroups. Oprah is a bargainer simply because she’s been able to transcend race in television media? Nevermind that she has produced films that very sharply confront race (The Wedding, THe Great Debaters) and America’s shameful past of Slavery (Beloved-although that adaptation was shameful in itself. LOL).Sharpton? Jackson? Challengers when all they do is going around looking for the next photo op and speaking in sound bytes? The only thing they challenge is the patience of black people who see through their empty rhetoric.Not to mention, that as you said, I disagree w/him implying that Obama supports certain policies because he wants to be accepted by black people, rather than because he actually believes in them. I wonder if that’s why he believes Barack chose Michelle to be his wife. She is a chocolatey sister. What better way to be “down”? *insert eye roll hereI also kind of felt that his assertion that because he too is of mixed race heritage gives him the right to tell us what Barack’s motives are was ridiculous. I can’t speak for Michelle just because I am a black woman from a lower middle class background reared in a south side, predominately black community. If anything, I think his so called expertise kind of exposed him for what he really his: a projector. Focusing all his insecurities and racial struggles onto Barack.

  2. Shelby Steele is going insane.I don’t mean figuratively.I mean literally. Why else would a man turn his back on his previous 15 years’ worths of writings…to write what he has about Barack Obama? One has to wonder. Steele has been grasping for White adulation and approval, well, for forever. That Barack Obama has achieved it..By…And this is the key, folks…DOING THE OPPOSITE OF WHAT STEELE DID…is what’s driving Steele insane. Barack Obama:1. CHOSE to work with poor Black folk.2. CHOSE to marry a Black woman, and a VISIBLY Black woman at that.3. CHOSE to join a Black activist church.4. CHOSE to anchor himself in the Black communityAnd, is on the cusp of winning the Democratic Nomination for President of the United States. Do you understand that Shelby Steele has been trying to turn in his ‘ Black Card’ for the last 20 years…yet, he wouldn’t get paid by his White overlords without it (the Black Card)…thus another reason why he’s going insane.

  3. Shelby is just projecting all his issues with race onto Barack. He keeps reading the tea leaves wanting to find the answers to why he struggles with the “black identity” and derides why Barack chose his path as if Obama’s existence were a refutation, an indictment, of Steele’s own choices.I imagine Shelby’s read it, but if he hasn’t he should check out James Wheldon Johnson’s “Autobiography of An Ex-Coloured Man.” In it the protagonist, also biracial, struggles to deal with his undetermined race, then looks back with conflicting emotion about the final decision he makes regarding his racial identity.Barack didn’t “choose” blackness to fit in. Anyone who sets foot in this country knows that the worst thing you could ever be is “black.” So to “choose” blackness is a daunting task and to take it in as your identity, your culture, your people is a huge dedication for someone who wasn’t raised in it. Just because Shelby decided to do something counter to the norm that made him an outsider within the black community and Barack chose different doesn’t mean Barack is thumbing his nose at Shelby for being a “sell-out.”Honestly, I want to tell him, sometimes it’s not about you.

  4. Snob,You know that I always try to be objective about these things, but I can’t staaaaaaand Shelby Steele!1. Yes, publicizing your anti-Obama book while the man’s running for president is an extremely good business decision. This doesn’t mean it’s not disgusting.2. Shelby acts as if everyone’s either employable and/or entrepreneurial when there are lots and lots of people who aren’t either one of these things. What are we supposed to do with these people? Throw them out?3. He wants Obama to take A Big Huge Stand on blackness and black issues, but is completely against black public figures publicly “liking” all blacks. Whaaaa? What about you Shelby? Has Obama cow-towed to YOU? No. He’s publicly defended himself against all of your rhetoric. But he doesn’t publicly “dislike” you, Shelby? He respects your right to have your own opinion, and you still say he can’t win??? ~Really Snob, I can’t stand the man. I can’t wait for his riding-Obama-coat-tail ass to be proven wrong.

  5. moody: If I didn’t have my journalist cap on when I write these all my blogs entries on black conservatives would be lengthy screeds about boot-strap lifting fantasies and self-racial-hatred. So I feel your pain. Shelby Steele can be a sanctimonious asshole.

  6. The very fact that Barack Obama can do what he does and have a statistically significant number of white republicans vote for him makes Shelby Steele ABSOLUTELY crazy.A BO presidency could render Shelby Steele useless. And we cannot have that.

  7. I was sickened by Shelby Steele’s question and answer session on C-Span and subsequent interview on a PBS show about his book.I agree with an earlier comment that Steele has diminished blacks to two distinct groups. He has further identified blacks as a group wallowing in their own ignorance, laziness and dependence on social programs while ignoring contributing systemic factors that hamper the success of a portion of the black community that are widespread and still existent and exaserbated by attitudes such as Steele’s and the community of which he desires acceptance. The attitude that says I made it on my own in spite of difficult times and everyone else should as well. Steele, like many, may not have the answer to resolve what is wrong, and he may actually agonize about it, but his attack on Senator Obama for being the enabler of black dependence by ensuring that government works for all of its people is incredibly ridiculous. I don’t know much about Steele, but I believe the profound difference in the two of them may be their upbringing. Obama speaks of the inheritence from his father in his book which I undertood to be to help his people; this was also the goal of his father who took his education home to Africa to build his nation and help his people. Obama sought after his identity and came to understand the inescapable part of his heritage that called for him to be true to it and uplift it not as a separate group with special interests but rather as an inclusive group with the same interest as others. He was also taught AA history and empathy by his mother who herself strived to contribute to those in need who are not specifically African American rater those who society squeezes out.His religion also commands that he fight for the lesser.I don’t believe that those who need help in this country can be quantified as black which appears to be Steele’s position – not Obama’s – this has been attributed to him because of his blackness and the presumption that all that is wrong with the black community is the fault of black community.

  8. I saw that interview on C-Span with Shelby Steele; I felt sorry for him.I think that he is conflicted about his own racial identity. I wonder what “mask ” he really wears?I’m sorry no one in that audience thought to ask him that.

  9. Deedledee:During the PBS interview, he said that he no longer wears a mask; that he refused and that’s why the African American community doesn’t accept him; because he chooses not to be seen as part of a group of black, but as an individual.Which is completely fine with me, I understand individualism; however, I don’t understand why he needs to belittle the entire community to attain an individual identity.

  10. First and foremost, Great blog Black Snob, I truly enjoy your thoughts on things! I just came across Shelby Steele’s writing and was shocked by some of his comments. Especially the ones in the A Bound Man: Why We’re Excited About Barack Obama and Why He Can’t Win. Now I do want to mention that I am a Hispanic male and could only speak from the other side of the pond. The entire notion that black people who are in the public eye are broken up in 2 groups, Bargainers and Challengers is just ridicules. “Bargainers make a specific deal with whites. The bargainer does not hold the history of white racism against whites if they do not use race against blacks. By taking this approach bargainers give goodwill and receive goodwill. They give before they ask. Bill Crosby and Oprah Winfrey are bargainers. Basically, bargainers give racial innocence (remove the stigmata of racism) to whites; hence, the whites are both relieved and grateful. Their gratitude is such that many talented, black bargainers receive not only white recognition but riches as well.”This definition just doesn’t make any sense. I know we have to see it from a black person’s point of view but this works for just about every man and woman on this planet. Everyone tries to be nice to each other in hopes of that other person returning the favor in some way. Think about all the suck ups at many jobs. They kiss their boss’s ass just so they could one day return the favor with a raise. How about when you kiss the ass of your mate in hopes that one day they would return the favor in either an emotional or sexual way. As far as his examples of “Bill Crosby and Oprah Winfrey” being Bargainers. Just because these public figures didn’t fight the establishment doesn’t mean they in some way made a deal with whites. And now on to Barack Obama, from his writings and interviews, Mr. Steele defines individualism by standing for something no matter what others might think, in other words a person who takes a stand. Barack Obama knock according to Mr. Steele is “My gut feeling is that he’s going to have a difficulty– a difficult time doing that. The reason I think that we don’t yet know him. We don’t yet quite know. What his deep abiding convictions are. And he seems to have, you know, almost in a sense kept them concealed. And a part of the I think infatuation with Obama is because he’s something of an invisible man. He’s a kind of a projection screen. And you sort of see more your — the better side of yourself when you look at Obama than you see actually Barack Obama.”Every public figure, for the most part, holds back ideas because they don’t want to be involved in something that might jeopardize their celebrity. Look at Mel Gibson, no one ever thought he had such strong feeling towards Jewish people. His feelings didn’t come out until he did his song and dance and racked up all his millions. How about Bill Gates, does anyone really know what his stands are on many issues? The bottom line is when you are a public figure (no matter if you are White, Black, Hispanic or Asian) you try to keep as neutral as possible so you could hold on to your celebrity which in essence is your money. In conclusion public figures are horrible examples of his theory since they live and act to please a diverse public where the slightest controversy could destroy their image. “Challengers confront whites. Challengers put all whites in the position of having to prove their racial innocence (not racist). Challengers assume all whites are racist and whites need to do something to prove otherwise. Among blacks, challengers usually have no power; however, once they interact with whites they gain great power. The black skin gives them moral authority in a society where being labeled a “racist” is one of the worst sins imaginable. Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson are challengers. Affirmative action and other special actions are demanded of whites. Prominent challengers even function as racial priests. Witness Don Imus’s appeal to Al Sharpton after Imus was pilloried for racist remarks.”If there is a clear case of racism going on, how could you not draw attention to it? Yes some Black people at times question the motives of some “whites”! Why wouldn’t you “challenge” someone’s motives with case such as the “Jenna Six”, “Rodney King”, & “Katrina” still going on in today’s world? “Rodney King” happened in the 90s and “Jenna Six” and Katrina” in the 00s which are more than 20 and 30 years after the Civil Right movements. Things have changed but we are no where near where we should be. And then Mr. Steele uses public figures once again. What a horrible example. Was King a Challenger? How about Malcolm X? Finally at the end of my long rant. Dividing Black people into 2 groups is just dumb. You have Bargainers & Challengers in every walk of life regardless of your skin color. And to use Public Figures as examples is just awful. Public Figures are a different kind of being, who need the public to make their living. While I do agree with some of his thoughts on Race in today’s world I completely disagree with his views in this book.

  11. Shelby Steele is not unusual in the circle of black conservatives; narrow-minded, branders of blacks in power and blacks at the bottom. Regardless of their shared mulatto heritage, regardless of their African American status, Steele is as different from Obama as Hilary, Palin. First of all, Obama benefited from the struggles of the ex-slave African American, crossed the bridge built by African Americans and abolitionists of all generations, walked on the beam of the vision of those who said, we shall overcome but Obama’s genetics in no way shared that walk. No. Obama got to the mountain top and acknowledges standing on the shoulders of giants but he has no slave blood. White American blood courses through his veins and free African blood his heart. He thus is not boxed in by the social constructs within the black race that plague those who wish to be free from the results of those constructs. One of the most destructive of these being harsh judgement from other blacks. Oprah cannot simply be a woman who rose to her position because of her curious nature, gracious nature and giving nature. Oprah is not Oprah because she loves all people. No. According to Steele and those of his ilk, Oprah is a negro what-ever to white what-evers. This is problematic. Blacks get pigeonholed by racists who treat them as an dimorphic mass and blacks who view them as psychotic if they attract a white constituency as well as a black one. I am here to say that in order to be free, you must view yourself as human first, rely on your relationship between yourself and your own soul and your own mind, stand on the strength of your accomplishments, your relationships whether familial or friendship, and forget the conservative and democratic, the black, white, Hispanic or Asian pigeonholes and live as free in your own mind. People look through rose colored glasses, through their own limitations of understanding, through their stymied levels of growth and interpret others’ journeys in the darkness of such narrow-mindedness. That is the crux of this book. A man with the blood of slavery coursing through his veins, fitting Obama into the modern construct of the so-called conservative, judges a man who is free in his thoughts, his spirit and his mind. The result, a book that says no you can’t instead of yes we can. A book that fosters and buoys up division instead of a book that engenders hope. Obama is more than his gender, his race and his family. Like MLK was born to dream, Obama was born to lead, to take his position and to ignite in people of all ages,races, political affiliations the fulfilment of the dream and work for a better America and the elation of being more than the physical. Steele has to embrace a spiritual growth not found in books, statistics or judgement. To say that Obama is black is to ignore the phenomenal gifts and powers God has graced this man with. To say that he couldn’t have won is to judge all whites as too weak to see beyond the physical and to tell blacks to avoid dreams beyond the history of what their skin color has meant. Well Oprah, good thing you never listened. Well Obama, congratulations for having a vision beyond Shelby Steele. What if Oprah, Jordan, Obama and me myself actually are simply human beings who have accomplished and thrive because of the content of our charactersr and achievements and God given talents? What if people, black or white, recognize those factors and make hiring decisions, friendship decisions based on those factors? What is Shelby, a bargainer or challenger? Holy smoke. As one poster wrote, he is stunted.

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