Thursday, March 20, 2008

Obama the Challenger

John Hinderaker at Powerline's got an excellent post up on Obama's speech:

In A Bound Man, Shelby Steele’s insightful book about Barack Obama, Steele distinguishes between two types of successful African-American public figures: bargainers and challengers. Bargainers state, in effect, “I will presume that you're not a racist and by loving me you'll show that my presumption is correct.” Blacks who offer this bargain are betting on white decency. Naturally, whites respond well.

Challengers take a different approach. They say, in effect, that whites are racist until they prove otherwise by conferring tangible benefits on them. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton are paradigm challengers. In fact, Steele finds that black politicians tend to prefer this approach because not adopting it leads to suspicion among black leaders and their constituents who fear that if whites are let off the hook too easily, black power will be diminished.

Barack Obama made his political breakthrough as a bargainer. By constantly referring to the national yearning (including, he said, by many Republicans) to "come together" as blacks and whites, Obama presumed we are not racists. His reward was an almost magical appeal to broad portions of the electorate.

Obama, of course, would like to remain a bargainer. But Steele predicted this would be difficult given the scrutiny presidential candidates receive because bargainers must wear a mask. Once we learn who they really are and what they really think about race, the magic is lost. They can no longer offer us the required assurances that they know we’re not racists, and hence they can no longer receive our unconditional love.

Obama, it is now clear, has been wearing a mask. No one who listened to his post-racial happy talk would have guessed that he regularly attends a church run by a pastor who preaches hatred of “White America,” much less that Obama is close to that pastor.

Once the offensive tapes of Wright surfaced, Obama quickly recognized that his candidacy had entered a new phase (call it post-post-racial). Now he would have to remove and/or replace his mask. Now he would have to tell us, at least to some extent, who he really is and what he really thinks about race.

This week Obama did this, and with more candor than might have been expected. Although Obama did not reveal what I take to be his full ambivalence about America as a force in the world, he talked seriously and sincerely about race. He admitted that his election alone will not satisfy our yearning for a post-racial America. To the contrary, Obama disarmingly declared, “I have never been so naïve as to believe that we can get beyond our racial divisions in a single election cycle, or with a single candidacy – particularly a candidacy as imperfect as my own.”

Obama also confessed that, despite his disagreement with Wright’s most extreme statements, “I can no more disown him than I can disown the black community; I can no more disown him than I can my white grandmother.” And this is not just the result of personal loyalty. It’s also because Obama considers Wright’s extreme views an understandable, though mistaken, reaction to the evils of the America Wright experienced growing up. In fact, Obama was clear that without understanding Wright’s views and taking seriously the “complexity” they reflect, America cannot get on with “solving” its other problems – health care, education, etc.

To some extent, then, Obama became a “challenger.” Whites no longer will be let off the hook easily. They now must confront the “complexity” of race relations that Wright, however imperfectly, raises. And this must be done over an extended period, not just in a single election cycle.

Obama still wants to make a deal with white America, but the deal no longer seems like a great bargain.
Obama's a challenger, and that's a huge disappointment.