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A Bound Man: Why We Are Excited About Obama and Why He Can't Win

A Bound Man: Why We Are Excited About Obama and Why He Can't Win

2.7 10
by Shelby Steele

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In Shelby Steele's beautifully wrought and thoughtprovoking 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


In Shelby Steele's beautifully wrought and thoughtprovoking 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.

Steele maintains that Senator Obama is too constrained by these elaborate politics to find his own true political voice. Obama has the temperament, intelligence, and background -- an interracial family, a sterling education -- to guide America beyond the exhausted racial politics that now prevail. And yet he is a Promethean figure, a bound man.

Says Steele, Americans are constrained by a racial correctness so totalitarian that we are afraid even to privately ask ourselves what we think about racial matters. Like Obama, most of us find it easier to program ourselves for correctness rather than risk knowing and expressing what we truly feel. Obama emerges as a kind of Everyman in whom we can see our own struggle to accept and honor what we honestly feel about race. In A Bound Man, Steele makes clear the precise constellation of forces that bind Senator Obama, and proposes a way for him to break these bonds and find his own voice.The courage to trust in one's own careful judgment is the new racial progress, the "way out" from the forces that now bind us all.

Editorial Reviews

Jill Nelson
Underneath his dissection of Barack Obama's identity is a Shelby Steele far more fascinating than anything he has to say about Obama.
—The New York Times
From the Publisher
"Full of fresh insights into the cultural politics of race" ---Publishers Weekly

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Free Press
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The High Possibility

The first thing I ever heard about Barack Obama was that he had a white mother and a black father. Interestingly, the person who informed me of this spoke only matter-of-factly, with no hint of the gossip's wicked delight. Yet this piece of information was presented as vital, as one of those all-important facts about a person that, like the first cause of a complex truth, plays a role in everything that follows. Apparently, it is Barack Obama's fate to have notice of his racial pedigree precede even the mention of his politics -- as if the pedigree inevitably explains the politics. And I suspect that some people would feel a bit defrauded were they to hear his political ideas and only later learn that he was racially mixed.

Of course, I am rather sensitive to all this because I, too, was born to a white mother and a black father, though I did not fully absorb this fact, which would have been so obvious to the outside world, until I was old enough to notice the world's fascination -- if not obsession -- with it. To this day it is all but impossible for me to actually stop and think of my parents as white and black or to think of myself, therefore, as half and half. This is the dumb mathematics of thinking by race -- dumb because race is used here as a kind of bullying truth that pushes aside actual human experience. So I never know what people really want to know when they ask me what it is like to be -- and here come the math words -- "biracial" or "multiracial" or "multicultural." The self as the answer to an addition problem.

But, as best as I can surmise, what people really want to know is what it is like to have no race to go home to at night. We commonly think of race as a kind of home, a place where they have to take you in; and it seems the very stuff of alienation to live without solid footing in such a home. If this alienation is not nearly as dramatic as the old "tragic mulatto" stories would suggest, it nevertheless does exist. How could it not in a society like America where race once meant the difference between slavery and freedom? Racist societies enforce the idea of race as home by making race an inescapable fate. So, still today, this fundamentally odd -- even primitive -- idea remains embedded in our democratic national culture, the legacy of our past. People who are the progeny of two races have a more ambiguous racial fate and, therefore, at least some feeling of homelessness. They stand just outside the reach of that automatic racial solidarity that those born of one race can take for granted.

So, people like Barack Obama and me are always under a degree of suspicion. The "one drop" rule formulated in the days of slavery -- one drop of black blood makes you black -- consigns us to the black race (happily so for me and, I would imagine, for Obama as well), but the fact of an immediate white parent differentiates us and interrupts solidarity with blacks. And all this is worsened by the fact that whites are historically the "oppressor" race. Thus, by the dumb logic of racial thinking, our very mother's milk comes through a collaboration with the enemy. More literally, this "collaboration" may mean that we enjoy more exposure to the dominant culture, more advantages in a color-conscious society. Mistrust and even resentment from other blacks often ensues. And from whites come the sneers one commonly hears in reference to Obama -- "he's not even really black."

Our vulnerability is that both blacks and whites can use our impossible racial authenticity against us. Both races can throw up our mixed background to challenge our authority to speak. And both races can squeeze us in a blueslike double bind where the absurdity is as comic as it is tragic: we dismiss you for not being authentically black, yet we will never accept you as authentically black. Ha ha. When people can call you inauthentic and undermine your moral authority, they have a degree of power in relation to you. And where they have power, you have vulnerability.

This would have to be an old and tiresome vulnerability in Barack Obama's life (as it is in mine), and all the more so because he has chosen a public life. One senses that his first book, Dreams from My Father, was meant in part to diffuse some of this vulnerability. In it he does not merely "own up" to his interracial background as if to a past indiscretion; he candidly explores it. He practices that brave and aggressive self-disclosure that disarms by taking away the gossip's ability to surprise. It is harder to deploy a man's vulnerability against him when he publishes it in a book.

Still, I glimpsed some of the weariness he must feel at having this vulnerability regularly probed in a 60 Minutes interview that aired near the launching of his presidential campaign. It was the usual 60 Minutes setup, the camera in close enough for a dermatological exam. And there sat Obama, perfectly composed and seemingly ready for anything, the now famous ears framing his good looks in eternal boyishness. The correspondent, Steve Kroft, asked a series of predictable political questions and then, hunching forward a bit, entered the territory of identity. There was an allusion to the mixed-race background, and a question about how Obama saw himself. And here -- probably because I knew so well what to look for -- I saw the very faintest exasperation come into his eyes and then instantly vanish. Barack Obama has no doubt had a lifetime of rehearsals for this moment, and he must have had a hundred answers immediately at hand, all rehearsed to the point of glibness. Yet the answer he finally gave had real pathos precisely because it was so glib.

He was "rooted," he said, in the African-American community, but he was also "more than that." To be sure, this is the formulation of a man with a very complex identity trying, understandably, to make himself simpler and more recognizable to a society not used to pondering his like. Yet, this is also a formulation that reduces Obama's identity to a banality. What could "rooted" or "more than that" mean? How would the two be simultaneously possible? And, for that matter, what could "African-American community" really mean? A culture? A politics? To become recognizable, he processes himself through the same dumb racial math -- he is one thing plus something else -- that has been the very source of his vulnerability. He collaborates with the same tired racial conventions that made him an odd man out to begin with.

And yet a great part of Obama's appeal in broader America -- especially his political appeal -- can be chalked up to his complex identity. He is interesting for not fitting into old racial conventions. Not only does he stand in stark contrast to a black leadership with which Americans of all races have grown exhausted -- the likes of Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson, and Julian Bond -- he embodies something that no other presidential candidate possibly can: the idealism that race is but a negligible human difference. Here is the radicalism, innate to his pedigree, that automatically casts him as the perfect antidote to America's corrosive racial politics. After all, this is the radicalism by which Martin Luther King put Americans in touch -- if only briefly -- with their human universality. Barack Obama is the progeny of this idealism. And, as such, he is a living rebuke to both racism and racialism, to both segregation and identity politics -- to any form of collective chauvinism. For all his misfittedness, he also embodies a great and noble human aspiration: to smother racial power in a democracy of individuals. To stand in the glow of so high an aspiration is to seem a bit enchanted or, at the very least, charismatic.

It doesn't matter that he sometimes goes along with race-based policies, or that he made his own Faustian bargain with affirmative action (no college-bound black of his generation could avoid this self-compromise). No one is excited because Obama nods to identity politics; people are excited because he represents an idealism that opposes such politics. Any black who takes on the near-absolute visibility that goes with seeking such high office will function as both a man and a symbol, and sometimes the two will be at odds. So it is not surprising that Obama the man may vary a bit from Obama the symbol.

And, as a symbol, he raises several remarkable possibilities. Is America now the kind of society that can allow a black -- of whatever pedigree -- to become the most powerful human being on earth, the commander of the greatest military in history? Have our democratic principles at last moved us beyond even the tribalism of race? And will the black American identity, still so reflexively focused on victimization, be nullified if a black wins the presidency of this largely white nation?

The cultural and historical implications of Obama's candidacy are clearly greater than its public policy implications. While Obama the man labors in the same political vineyard as his competitors, mapping out policy positions on everything from war to health care, his candidacy itself asks the American democracy to virtually complete itself, to achieve that almost perfect transparency where color is indeed no veil over character -- where a black, like a white, can put himself forward as the individual he truly is. This is the aspirational significance of Obama's campaign, the high possibility that it points to quite apart from its policy goals.

Copyright © 2008 by Shelby Steele

Meet the Author

Shelby Steele is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University. He is the author of the New York Times bestseller The Content of Our Character: A New Vision of Race in America, which won the National Book Critics' Circle Award. Steele's most recent book is White Guilt: How Blacks and Whites Together Destroyed the Promise of the Civil Rights Era. He is a contributing editor at Harper's Magazine, and his work has also appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The New Republic, Newsweek, and The Washington Post. For his work on the PBS television documentary Seven Days in Bensonhurst, he was recognized with both an Emmy Award and a Writers Guild Award. In 2004, President George W. Bush, citing Steele's "learned examinations of race relations and cultural issues, "honored him with the National Humanities Medal. He lives in California.

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Bound Man: Why We Are Excited About Obama and Why He Can't Win 2.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 15 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The challenges Obama faced as outlined by the author, while indeed are true (we've all heard "oh he's not really black" or "he's not like the other ones" or worse yet "he's not black enough") are clearly able to be overcome as evidenced by Obama's landslide victory. Not to mention the success of balck people everywhere. Those very challenges need to be acknowledged, but can never be used by black people as a reason NOT to strive and achieve the previoulsy "un-achievable" in mainstream society.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
well obviously he won the election so......................your book is about what again?...
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Yes we can ! Yes he did! We can't change what happened...it was terrible. Stop looking back...look and move forward with a know ledge of the past. Seems to me that you are BOUND by the past.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Having just seen/heard the author describe his thinking in this book on NPR, and answer a variety of questions from Cody's Book Store in Berkley, I was somewhat amused by a reviewer who does not understand what the author is saying and somehow confuses psychoanalysis with sociological analysis. Clearly, the title's use of the word 'bound' reflects the authors concept of the two 'masks' heretofore required (either one or the other) for African Americans to succeed in this society. This is a sociological construct reminiscent of Goffman's book 'Asylums.' The reader who cavalierly dismisses this book or reads it through his or her own perceptual mask, misses the point of the book and an opportunity to engage in an intellectual diaglogue on the politics of substantive change.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Very convoluted, more on the guilt put upon the white race rather on the whys and wherefores of Obama getting elected as the title indicates. Nothing new, not worth the price.
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Guest More than 1 year ago
This book reminds me of my favorite Chinese proverb: 'The person who says it cannot be done should not interrupt the person doing it.' The mere fact that so many people are trying to stop him, lends credence to the notion that he can and will win. He is on his way as we speak!
Guest More than 1 year ago
I won't even buy the book based on the title alone. This author is the exact type of person the world needs less of. Dream Killers I call them. He tries to justify it with some weak psychoanalysis. If he truly believes his own words then he should just keep it to himself. Speaking words of defeat doesn't help anyone. Black, white, red or brown. What good does it do? So he can say 'I told you so' after the elections. Like I said all words aren't helpful to society and this is a perfect example.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Steele is a school trained English teacher attempting to apply the bad psychoanalysis he concocted in his first two books. Steele does not break new ground.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Obama CAN win this election. I've had enough of people saying he can't win because he's black. Call me an optimist, but I believe we have come a long way in this country and people will rise up behind Obama and push him to the top. There are still problems, of course, with the divison of the races and the imbalance between rich and poor. But his success is already happening! To say he 'can't win' is ridiculous and I don't believe it for a second. OBAMA '08! YES WE CAN!
Guest More than 1 year ago
Shelby Steele's interesting book about Obama being 'bound' seems to overlook the fact that people of goodwill typically see several sides 'or both sides' to an issue. I have no problem if Obama can see the innocence 'as Steele calls it' of whites without racial prejudice at the same time he can see the burden of history of white supremacy. Both are at work in American society. I will have no problem if Obama addresses the issue of race in America in both ways. I think many of all races see both sides to this issue.