In his autobiography, Obama recounts how, when he was living in Indonesia, his mother rose at 4:30 a.m. to work with him on a curriculum more rigorous than the one at his local school so that he would keep pace with American children. To Steele, Obama's upbringing illustrates the primacy of parenting and self-reliance in black progress. Obama's success refutes the theory of social determinism popular with many black leaders. It is the idea that blacks are comprehensively and systematically held back by an oppression that is prevalent even -- perhaps especially -- when not apparent.
Since the 1960s, to "be black" has, Steele says, required blacks to embrace "a deterministic explanation of black difficulty," a determinism that "automatically blames and obligates white power for black problems." It is, Steele charges, condescending of Obama not to use himself, and especially "his exposure from infancy on to mainstream culture," as "a measure of black possibility."
This, says Steele, could be Obama's "Promethean fire, his special gift to his times." But "thus far, Obama is the very opposite of a Reaganlike conviction politician." This is because Obama has chosen to resolve his ambiguous racial identity by embracing the social determinism and identity politics of post-'60s black dogmas. Hence he is a "bound man." He is "bound against himself" because he "has fit himself into the world by often taking his experience out of account."
Steele has brilliantly dissected the intellectual perversities that present blacks as dependent victims, reduced to trading on their moral blackmail of whites who are eager to be blackmailed in exchange for absolution. But Steele radically misreads Obama, missing his emancipation from those perversities. Obama seems to understand America's race fatigue, the unbearable boredom occasioned by today's stale politics generally, and especially by the perfunctory theatrics of race.
So far, Obama is the Fred Astaire of politics -- graceful and elegant, with a surface so pleasing to the eye that it seems mistaken, even greedy, to demand depth. No one, however, would have given Astaire control of nuclear weapons, so attention must be paid to Obama's political as well as aesthetic qualities.
Steele notes that Obama "seems to have little talent for anger." But that is because Obama has opted out of the transaction Steele vigorously deplores. The political implications of this transcendence of confining categories are many, profound and encouraging.