Sen. Obama could become a Rorschach test for white voters who seek to project their collective guilt onto him without looking beneath the surface of an attraction that might be only skin deep. "There is a tendency to see Obama as a kind of 'new man,' someone spared the intractable fates of being simply black or white in America," writes Steele, who knows about being a black man in America. "Out of an understandable race fatigue, many Americans want to believe that there are people on whom race sits very lightly, people whose very hybridism suggests the possibility of transcending race." Barack Obama, he insists, is not that man.
His book is less valuable for what it says about Sen. Obama than for what it says about us. In our eagerness to be seen as holding the correct views on race, we can't separate who he is from our expectations of who we want him to be. We give him the benefit of the doubts about ourselves.
We want to love him as we love Louis Armstrong, although we've never heard him play anything real on his trumpet. We admire him as we admire Martin Luther King, although he has not yet lived the example of King. Sen. Obama is, in the words of Shelby Steele, an "iconic Negro," who shares our values, our worldview and our democratic goals.
John McCain remains the familiar codger we confront with the same old tough questions. His divided constituency honors him for his bravery as a prisoner of war, but when he doesn't agree with all of us on everything, some of us focus on his flaws, his temper and his lack of complete fealty to every conservative view. He's the warrior we trust most to defend our security, but he'll have to fight hard against the stereotypes of gender and race that give momentum to the Democratic candidates. He can say, like Popeye the Sailor Man that "I Yam What I Yam," but he's another white man in a long line of white men who have wanted to be president, and white men are not fashionable this season. Nobody's perfect, but fine distinctions are important. Voter, know thyself.