Caught Between Black and White

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Shelby Steele, senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and the author of A Bound Man: Why We Are Excited About Obama and Why He Can't Win (Free Press, 2007), argues that Barack Obama can't win the support of one race without losing the support of the othr.

A Bound Man is available for purchase at


Shelby Steele

Comments [52]

Jay from Brooklyn, N.Y.

Shelby Steele, himself biracial, with an obvious obsession with race, sounds to me filled with professional jealousy over the political success of Obama, and is sabotaging Obama's campaign with this kind of pseudo-intellectual rhetoric.

1. It's this kind of exaggerated analysis of racial identity politics that perpetuates racial identity politics. Obama can transcend racial politics if the Shelby Steeles of the world would just LEAVE HIM ALONE.

2. Yes, America is still a racialized society, and we should not pretend it isn't. But America 2008, is not America 1968, and what shaped Obama's sense of self, is not the black defensiveness that seems to have shaped Shelby Steele's analysis of racial polarization. I think many people are tired of all kinds of divisions in this country, including racial divisiveness, and Obama represents a healing that Steele cannot fathom.

Please don't invite him back on your program.

Jan. 15 2008 03:26 PM
Jenny from NYC

part 3: the Clintons

Steele is not being honest about the Clintons.

Whether we should trust Obama more than Clinton or not may be a gamble, but Clinton has shown that she definitely cannot be trusted. Witness her long speech that sounded as if she would vote againt giving Bush the power to go to war in Iraq, and then her cynical vote for it.

Everyone forgets how the "Clintons" cynically used "welfare"--code for race--in elections and then revamped things so that it hurt a whole generation of single mothers and children, black, white, hispanic, etc. (Isn't Hillary supposed to be for women and children?)

The Clintons also carried on many of the economic policies that Reagan started, and it hurt, and divided, this country deeply.

Further, they never rallied and worked with the public the way he promised during his campaign. Bill Clinton had the oratory power to do it, but didn't even try when he was president (except to get forgiveness for his errors and to get support to go to Kosovo). Indeed, they practiced the opposite of the dream public participation he offered. Just one example: Hillary Clinton held secrete meetings with the health industry.

Jan. 15 2008 01:33 PM
Jenny from NYC

part 2:
From the "white" perspective (mine), the "hope" that Sen. Obama offers may indeed include redemption.
But it's very important to voters that Sen. Obama
* spoke out against the war.
* has shown that he can rally people and get them involved in politics.
* shown that he can reach across the aisle--to the GOP. Yes, that may be scary for some, but his ability and way of working looks to be much more potentially successful at rallying the public (giving him power as leverage in the inevitable compromises) and forming legislative coalitions than Sens. Clinton and Edwards'.

Finally, he is such an exceptional orator, and instiller of hope, that he, along with the people he rallies, could turn the cynical tide in American politics and dreams. Imagine a rpesidential leadership that calls on the cynical media to discuss the real possibilities of what the American community of peoples can do!

He clearly represents the new versus Clinton, and even Edwards.

Jan. 15 2008 01:33 PM
Jenny from NYC

multiple-part comment:
Below I outline reasons other than those Shelby Steele talks about for supporting Obama (and how the Clintons hurt the African-American community, among others). Unfortunately, he is driving a wedge instead of helping everyone step up and have a real dialogue.

I don't doubt much of Shelby Steele's observations and analysis of the conflicts inherent in Sen. Obama and the black community, but he's leaving out A LOT that's important and he's only challenging Obama (vs. the community) to do something about it.

Further, he's oversimplifying and leaving out a lot of the "white" perspective, which makes me suspect he's leaving out black perspective too. And he's grossly misrepresenting Sen. Clinton--she is the biggest, if not best, bargainer of them all! (And it's not as if Sen. Clinton is waiving the feminist flag.)

I wish someone would step up and get on national media to counter, or flesh out the complexities, of what Steele is saying--because there's more to it.

Jan. 15 2008 01:32 PM
AGarzon from ny

where can one find real economic and political power in the usa?. yes those elderly folkk in government, politics and finance are the source of power. many of the writer here are just simply naive, unsofisticated. in the real world you have to bargain. the foundation of this country was based on bargainning!. obama is in a dilema. because in order to be electable he has to bargain with all levels of socio/economic classes in the white community and not only with the "tea and cookie" crowd. Obama has to appear as just a "candidate". The fear is that he will be the manchurian candidate of black americans.

Jan. 15 2008 11:54 AM
Alison Wu

It's hard for one to take Shelby Steele seriously intellectually since his 'theory' on Obama revealed a veiled tribalism, reminiscent of the root causes of what's causing the sufferings in Kenya today.

I am an Asian immigrant and support Obama exactly because he cannot be pigeonholed as black, white or otherwise. His vision of positive change and ability to transcend the 60s politics is what I believe will lead the U.S. pass the current morass of partisan politics.

Jan. 15 2008 11:51 AM
Prof Reiss from NY

This discussion is so very NY centric. If everyone from Chicago were saying this I might believe it. We know Hilary and I dare say Rudy because of local media. Obama has not really started spending money in NY. National democrats rarely do because NY is seen as an easy win; no need to spend money on adds here!

Jan. 15 2008 11:45 AM
Pat Zumhagen from New York

Johnson was out of line. And, his refusal to be honest about what he has done was unfortunate. However, I would like to point out that Obama was the first to bring up the idea that he did coke (in his book. That is fair game and not a racist move on anyone's part.

Also, Obama was the first to emulate the style and cadence, parallel constructions and repetitions that was made famous by Martin Luther King and is clearly signifying the oratory of black religious figures. Isn't that telegraphing race? And, didn't he do that first?

I am disappointed that so many media people seem to be suggesting that Hillary and Bill, who have only been incredibly supportive of the black community and of civil rights, are racist and/or criticizing Obama on the basis of race.

When invoking MLK, as I have said before, she was merely saying that she, the candidate running on being a doer, had something to offer beyond good oratory skills. And, that as inspiring as King was, he needed a doer to push his ideas forward.

We must admit, Obama has presented himself as a speaker, and has yet to be really clear on how all of that rhetoric will translate into action. It is ok for Hillary to critize him on that basis, and I think that was what she was doing. Maybe it is the press for whom race is most interesting.

Jan. 15 2008 11:45 AM
Stephen from Manhattan

The woman who spoke last about Shelby Steele got it right: he's not contributing a relevant argument. Indeed, to claim that Barack Obama is "masking" his "true identity" but that Hillary Clinton is not "masking" hers is specious reasoning. Steele claims to know who Hillary Clinton and John Edwards are; well, they're both politicians, as is Obama, and they'll let us know pretty much only what they want us to know. Steele's analysis is superficial in the extreme, and simply promotes his longstanding agenda as a black conservative.

Jan. 15 2008 11:41 AM
carolita johnson from manhattan

To further my point about mixed race people, I'd also like to say that more and more of America is mixed race -- and speaking for many of us, we don't give a rat's ass about whether Obama is black or white, or blackish or whitish, or whatever. As a person of mixed race, I don't align with anyone based on either side of my bloodlines. And I think that is why people like Shelby Steele are rapidly becoming a thing of the past. To someone like me, he might as well be a white supremacist or a white racist. We do not relate.

Jan. 15 2008 11:41 AM
alistair from london

with all do respect to mr steele, his theories of black acceptance by whites might be spot on but his opinions / theories come up short when you turn the same matrix against anglo candidates.

is mitt romney a bargainer running away and from his religion. is mccain a challenger because he embraces the radical religious right?

politicians are bargainers by definition.

Jan. 15 2008 11:41 AM
M. Banks from Brooklyn, NY

As a (yes, white) supporter of Barack, I find the notion that I support him because he's a "bargainer" personally insulting.

If him "reaches out" and having a diverse base makes him an Uncle Tom, how does Hillary doing the same thing on the opposite side not make her an Al Jolson?

Jan. 15 2008 11:39 AM
Carl from East Village

OMG, This guy is absolutely horrifying!

I'm half African American myself, and have been deeply involved in civil rights (never liked Steele). I've never heard such a blatant self-serving cannibalization since the character assassination of Malcom X by the Nation of Islam.

Disgusting, that guy must have used half of the charged epithet in the african-american-civil-rights lexicon.

Jan. 15 2008 11:37 AM
carolita johnson from manhattan

Granted I'm not running for office, but I am, like Obama, of mixed race origins. My mother is hispanic (ecuadorian) and my father is northern european. To whites I look hispanic, and to hispanics I look white. My choice as to what language I speak, and what crowds I frequent has always seemed to me to be a choice based on my individual preferences. Why does Obama have to prove one way or another? He's a mix. He has a right to explore and cultivate both sides of his family roots. I think it's ridiculous that the fact that he goes to a church that "his own mother wouldn't go to, nor would she be welcome in" is a non-sequitur. It means nothing to me.

It's time for blacks AND whites to recognize that we mixed race 'folks' don't feel obliged to commit to one side or another of our heritage, but can be loyal to both, and even simply be humanitarian in our outlooks, rather than base our commitments on racial lines.

Jan. 15 2008 11:36 AM

The real sad part is the death of the black intellectual.

Jan. 15 2008 11:35 AM
M from Brooklyn, NY

Hey, just go to his campaign site and you'll be easily informed on Obama's positions:

Shelby Steele is obviously a Clinton hitman.

Jan. 15 2008 11:32 AM
???? from new york city

We know Clinton and Edwards better than Obama? That is the most absurd thing I've heard. This argument is bogus. "Let us see you?" Tell me please which politician has done this.

Jan. 15 2008 11:31 AM
RCT from New York City

I totally agree with the caller who is accusing Steele of sabotaging Obama's campaign. He doesn't want Obama to win.

On what basis does he claim that we don't know who Obama is? Because he is not who Steele wants him to be?

I think that Steele's comments are racist. He is stereotyping black men and accusing Obama of not conforming to the stereotype.

Jan. 15 2008 11:31 AM
AGarzon from ny

To all the white hypocrites there!. The reason why Obama can not win is because those well offwhites who want to "redeem themselves" arein fact racists in supporting Obama. It is a condescending thing. I believe that eventually a black candidate could be elected but he/she would have to be supported by those "elderly and wall mart crowd' that are so lookd down by these starsbuck whites. When you watch Obama's wifew speak, the "us vs. them" comes out. A black candidate has to speak to the vast middle class values that really determine elections without getting aeay from the race issue. many of us just do not trust obama as being sincere in his universal candidacy but do see him as a "manchurian candidate"
the worst enemy of all races today is the upper middle class whites who looked condescendingly on everyone who is notof their social circle.
Dr Steele is totally correct, may be he should be running instead of obama

Jan. 15 2008 11:31 AM
Leona from Millington, NJ

Shelby Steele's assertion that he doesn't know what Obama stands for doesn't compute with my assessment that Obama bases his political philosophy and policies on empathy - a stance that can and should be a prerequisite for leadership. I would also like to know on what facts Steele's statement that white people are looking for a black candidate are based. I'm a white woman who supports Obama because of his political philosophy - not because of his race.

Jan. 15 2008 11:30 AM
Josh from Jamaica, NY

The time of Shelby Steele, Al Sharpton and "Clay Davis" has passed, they had their chance. I'm was Biden supporter, but I guess I am a now a any body but Hillary or a Republican person now.

Jan. 15 2008 11:28 AM
Barbara from Weschester, New York

Shelby Steele sounds like a relic of times past. The media needs to move forward, like those who support Barack Obama, and stop focusing on race and gender. Much of the electorate is ready to move beyond race and gender issues and to vote for the best candidate. They are not focused on Obama being black or Hillary being a woman. I'm not sure why you decided to have Shelby Steele on, but it seems like a further disservice to the campaign and to the country.

Jan. 15 2008 11:28 AM
slowereastside from manhattan

That's great: 'Hillary is BLACKER than Obama.'

Oh really?

Now who is the Uncle Tom?

Keep diggin' that hole Mr. Steele...

Jan. 15 2008 11:26 AM
Susan from Kingston, New York

Obama speaks in broad strokes, but never in specifics. He needs to get beyond the "hopeful" speeches and talk about issues.

Jan. 15 2008 11:25 AM
Babs from Brooklyn

I find it funny that Shelby Steele says cocaine use is associated with the black community when the first thing I think when I hear "cocaine user" is George W. Bush and other upper-class white fratboys.

Jan. 15 2008 11:25 AM
Liz Hynes from Brooklyn

I am waiting for some media outlet to acknowledge that Barack Obama is half black and half white. The only person in the popular media that has acknowledged this is Barack Obama himself. While in broader American culture he is understood as a black man, Mr. Obama's most likely personally identifies (and feels) with both identities. This may speak to his ability to communicate with both white and black Americans. Does being half and half necessarily make you a bargainer, or just someone who understands both sides of the coin?

Jan. 15 2008 11:24 AM
Paulo from Paterson, New Jersey

But what bothers me about this person is that he says that African-Americans are suspicious of him because he has too many white supporters and that's made to be a fault of HIS part... not that maybe the community needs to take a look at their own prejudices and latent racism.

And Johnson has no right to talk about anything.. he's done more to degenerate black culture than any other person in the last thirty years.

Jan. 15 2008 11:24 AM
ismael ramirez from nyc

Would Mr. Steele concede or even concieve that white Americans want the best person for the job, and that Mr. Obama is that best person, someone who can help the country, benefit the country, and that Americans (black, white, biege) see him as the person will benefit them, make their lives better from a particularly selfish point of view, not because he is a black man, and a bargainer as he puts it.

Jan. 15 2008 11:24 AM
RCT from New York City

Shelby Steele is thinking in the past. Black Americans have hesitated to support Obama because they were afraid that whites would not vote for him and he would lose. They were thinking like Steele. The votes in Iowa and New Hampshire proved them wrong, and they are switching to Obama.

Clinton tried to knock the wind out of Obama's sails by playing the race card. She succeeded in slowing him down but, yesterday, Obama deflected her. He now needs to regain momentum with a victory in either Nevada or SC.

Obama is winning white votes based on integrity and intelligence. People are betting that someone that smart will "come up the curve" quickly.

Why does Shelby want Barack to lose? Why does he resent his success? What is going on among the older generation of African-Americans? Is it envy?

Jan. 15 2008 11:24 AM
pam from NY

Isn't Obama's abiding principle INCLUSION AND FAIRNESS FOR ALL?

Jan. 15 2008 11:23 AM
Dmitry from New Jersey

It sounds like Mr. Steele wants to have it both way. Either Obama will win because whites want to prove they are not racist or he will lose because whites are, in fact, racist. Can't he win or lose because of his qualities and his message like any other candidate? It sounds like Mr. Steele is the one who is race-obsessed.

Jan. 15 2008 11:23 AM
Moise Phanor from Belleville, NJ

I think black leader and black intellectuals are very afraid of an Obama Presidency because they realize that their traditional role as champions for the black community would be obsolete. I can understand why they are on the attack, but it is shameful. The book that these black intellectuals write regarding race would be irrelevant, as result of that possibility; they are making the case that America is not ready for a black president. They also agree that if America is ready for a black president, it’s not ready an Obama type.

Jan. 15 2008 11:22 AM
Paulo from Paterson, New Jersey

Some people look at him and say "He's a bargainer" and interpret that as meaning he's an empty suit. I guess I'm one of those who look at that as meaning he's flexible. Flexible seems to be something we need more of these days.

If Obama's been vague it's because he has to be. If he lands firmly one one side or the other, he's going to be hammered for being black or not being black enough.

Jan. 15 2008 11:21 AM
margot Walker from brooklyn

Obama's other base is young people. If you are under 35 - you either are or know at least 2 people (if not 10) who are bi-racial! Especially in urban areas like NYC. He rises above race because people relate to him as a person not to his race which is muddled as everyone else's!

Jan. 15 2008 11:21 AM
chestine from NY

I think it is interesting that we have both a woman and a person of color are running for president. I do think Barack is transcendent but that doesn't mean he should be president. I think he's, as someone said above, an empty suit - I think also he's someone who is a lightning rod for the aspirations of so many people. I like him a lot, like to hera him talk, like the tone he wants to set, value his presence in the process - but I don't think he's ready for the presidency yet.

Jan. 15 2008 11:21 AM

Obama is a person that can change your emotional state when you hear him talk. He is similar in that regard to Reagan and Bill Clinton.

I agree that I have not heard a tremendous amount of substance from him. But, when I hear him communicate, I get a positive and happy feeling about the future of the country.

Because of that I can't help but trust him on education, immigration (he is the son of an immigrant) and maybe the war (which he has provided no plan). I happen to be a son of an immigrant from Indian parents and have the same outlook on race that one of the early callers had.

Jan. 15 2008 11:20 AM
nelson from New Jersey

I am a recently naturalised American originally from Nigeria in Africa and i think the older generation of African Americans carry a burden about how they define and see themselves based on what others think of them. I think Obama has traanscended this because he sees himself as a person just like any other on the planet not a "BLACKMAN" as defined by people with Racist views.

Jan. 15 2008 11:20 AM
Deborah Boudreau

Shelby mentioned Oprah as a bargainer- and a bargainer as one who ultimately is unable to articulate his/her onw beliefs without relinqushing their very stability in the eyes of others/ here "white america". But to think to Oprah, I actually feel that she has in fact transcended this stage of the bargainer- she may even be particularly important historically for doing so- what we see, what her power has gotten to make possible- is the indivisibility of her beliefs and ideas.

So I wonder if Shelby can detect this philsophical transition in Oprah. I think it is important.

Jan. 15 2008 11:20 AM
Dustin from Astoria

Why is it Barack Obama is so popular with Republicans and Independents? I doubt it's simply an anti-Hillary sentiment.

Jan. 15 2008 11:20 AM
Meg from New City, NY

Mr. Steele,
How can you say that as a bargainer he does not stand for anything?
He stood in front of Automakers in Detroit and told them they had to up the Cafe standards, he stood in front of Wall Street and told them they needed to be responsible for workers and not just profits, most importantly, he stood against the Iraq war in an astute and almost prophetic way told America just how and why it was the wrong war. All of these things could have been political suicide, but because he stood for what was right, he has come as far as he has and that is why he should be the next president of the United State.

Jan. 15 2008 11:19 AM
sarah from Williamsburg

Did this man just tell me I'm a racist because I'm white? I have put SO much time, money, energy into getting Obama elected because I believe in what he is saying, it's not a white black thing. One thing that has amazed me the most is how many African American people I have spoken to in New York city who say that a black man will never be elected. What is all this hate. Why is Shelby hating on this amazing man who can give this entire country a new outlook. Someone who has the charisma and ideas to change people's minds.

This kind of talk only ENFORCES the wall between races in this country. Try being positive, try being a leader in what we should be, not what we have been.

Jan. 15 2008 11:19 AM
M from Brooklyn, NY

Nonsense for you, Steele. Were Obama white he would have gone even further - his dynamism would have been carried on wings of sparkle and glitter. His transcendence shows incredible potency and far-reaching appeal. Steele should steal away with his wooden analysis.

Jan. 15 2008 11:18 AM
Meg from Brooklyn

I agree with Steele that Obama is a viable candidate because he is Black -- a white candidate with the same history and positions would not be a front runner. BUT, I dont think we should discount that. The president is a largely ceremonial position and the fact that America is ready to see it self represented by a Black man is not a minor thing. Remembering that race is the issue of our times, his candidacy, whether or not he wins, is very very big news.

The issue of women's rights is not really on the national/global agenda ... (i.e., we continue to partner with countries that treat their women as slaves, dont educate their women etc.)

PS - I'm for Hillary.

Jan. 15 2008 11:18 AM
madeleine from chatham, new york

I believe that Shelby Steele is missing something and truly underestimating the charisma and powerful individual talent of Obama. To even suggest that he has gotten where he is BECAUSE of his race is absurd, and sad.

Moreover, to write that Obama cannot win in his title shows that he is coming from a truly defeatest attitude. "He's liked by too many whites."

This is not the attitude that will bring us forward.

Jan. 15 2008 11:18 AM
Mark from Brooklyn

I take great exception to the notion that Obama is more a symbol than a candidate. All presidential candidates -- black and white -- are symbols, "empty suits" for the desires and dissatisfactions of the electorate.

Jan. 15 2008 11:17 AM
Henry from Chester, CT

OK, he says Obama can't win. Can Hillary? Most give her less of chance.

Most Obama supporters are about Obama not race. Isn't he the best candidate dems have had in decades?

Jan. 15 2008 11:17 AM
Carl from East Village

Shelby Steele, is putting on a very sad display. To keep focusing on how race is an issue, makes it an issue. I am voting for Barack because he is the best candidate, race is a distraction.

* Hillary is clearly being the one pulling the race card. No one has traced any of the media clips to him, but she keeps bringing it up.

Jan. 15 2008 11:17 AM
chris from brooklyn

this guy is unbelievably cynical. does it occur to him that this is the real Obama? remember that his mother is white and he doesn't come from a legacy of slaves- thus he cannot be a real bargainer.

also, every president tells voters what he really believes? really? what does bill clinton believe? what did JFK believe? it was all rhetoric and style.

steele is so angry (understandably so) that he can't believe a half black guy could be president. you'd think that he would lose his press when Iowa went far and away for obama- and almost NH.

maybe if Obama doesn't get the nomination, it ain't about him being black. another problem with Obama's thesis.

Jan. 15 2008 11:16 AM
slowereastside from manhattan

I can't wait until all of these '60's era pseudo-intellectuals fall off the radar and take their lame identity politics with them.

Jan. 15 2008 11:15 AM

Yep, got that right. Obama's a bargainer, which means he doesn't stand for anything. Bingo.

Jan. 15 2008 11:11 AM

Barack Obama is an empty suit. I've never heard him say anything of substance. And I'm half-way through his "hope" book, and still of the same opinion. Hope is such ridiculous rhetoric with nothing behind it.

Jan. 15 2008 11:09 AM
Dan from Queens, NY

Brian: I can't belief you chose Steele to talk about Obama and Black voters, when he himself is all about putting race on the side and blaming African Americans for their problems, denying the importance of structural conditions. For him, Black people's problems are just inside each of them, and that unfair assessment is far from what is useful to discuss right now.

Jan. 15 2008 10:07 AM

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