WASHINGTON -- America's foremost black intellectual has published a slender book about the most interesting presidential candidacy since 1980. Shelby Steele's characteristically subtle argument is ultimately unconvincing because he fundamentally misreads Barack Obama. Nevertheless, so fecund is Steele's mind, he illuminates the racial landscape that Obama might transform.
Ronald Reagan's 1980 candidacy fascinated because, as a conviction politician, he sharpened partisanships as a prelude to implementing discontinuities in domestic and foreign policies. Obama's candidacy fascinates because he represents radical autonomy: He has chosen his racial identity, but chosen not to make it matter much.
In "A Bound Man: Why We Are Excited About Obama and Why He Can't Win," Steele, of Stanford's Hoover Institution, argues that Obama "embodies" -- an apposite word -- the idea that race can be "a negligible human difference." His candidacy asks America to complete its maturation as a society free from all "collective chauvinisms" about race. And his flair for the presentational side of politics makes him, Steele concludes, immune to affirmative action's stigma -- the suspicion that he is a mediocrity lifted up by lowered standards.
Steele, like Obama, is a child of racially mixed parentage. But Steele, 61, unlike Obama, 46, grew up when "race was a hard determinism." For Obama, his race and how closely he will be tethered to it have been, Steele surmises, choices that have made him a "bound man."
Son of an absent black father, Obama lived overseas, and in Hawaii, remote from any large black community, and received an elite education -- all this, Steele believes, created an "identity vacuum" that caused Obama to want to "resolve the ambiguity he was born into."
Since the 1960s, the prevailing dogma of black identity has, Steele believes, required blacks to adopt a morally stunting stance of accusation against white society. Whites eagerly embraced a transaction: Blacks insist that their progress depends on whites' acknowledging through uplifting actions their obligations of guilt to blacks; in exchange, whites get absolution as their guilt is expunged.
Obama, however, is a product of America's mainstream, in which he enjoys unlimited opportunities. He is a model of blacks' possibilities when they are emancipated from ideologies of blackness, particularly those that, Steele says, "focus on self-respect apart from achievement."