The black neo-conservative Shelby Steele is well-known in The Content of Our Character for anchoring his analysis of race relations in a perception of racial manipulation by black people. Steele starts out the book with a story about a dinner party in which a black professor employed comments on race to make the white guests feel uncomfortable and guilty. Steele's starting point for his thinking about the racial system was not the persistent racism, disproportionately high poverty levels, or the pervasiveness of racial stereotyping. What fascinated him instead was the way that blacks "gamed" whites into feeling uncomfortable or guilty. Largely sympathetic with white people like myself, Steele wasn't interested in the ways that whites "game" race when we evaluate African-Americans in our jobs, tell jokes or stories about black people, or talk about black people when they're not around.
Now Steele has a book out on Barack Obama and it isn't surprising that Steele focuses on the "mask" that Obama adapts as a black man appealing to white voters. According to David Broder's largely sympathetic review:
In "A Bound Man," Steele makes the case that Obama has adopted "a mask" familiar to many other African-Americans, designed to appease white America's fear of being thought racist by offering them the opportunity to embrace a nonthreatening black . . . Steele likens Obama's success to the fame and fortune won by Oprah Winfrey, Bill Cosby, Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods. But the earliest of the crossover heroes he calls "Iconic Negroes" was Sidney Poitier. And it reminded me that in his political biography of Obama, author David Mendell reported the reaction of a focus group of liberal, North Shore (Chicago area) female voters, middle-aged and elderly, when shown a videotape of Obama speaking in his 2004 Senate campaign. Asked who Obama reminded them of, the answer was "Sidney Poitier."Steele doesn't seem to ask himself about the "masks" adapted by white politicians like Rudy Giuliani, Fred Thompson, or Hillary Clinton. He also doesn't inquire about the extent to which the persona that anybody presents to the public isn't a "mask" that hides at least as much as it reveals. According to Erving Goffman, "the presentation of self in everyday life" involves the creation of a "front" through which "information about the actor is given off through a variety of communicative sources, all of which must be controlled to effectively convince the audience of the appropriateness of behavior and consonance with the role assumed." If Steele were going to discuss the "masks" of politicians in any kind of objective way, he would ask how political figures use self-presentation to "convince" their audiences concerning their personal appeal and their fitness for office and then investigate the extent to which Barack Obama's being black leads him to create a different kind of "mask" from other politicians.
Instead, Steele focuses on Obama in a way that creates an impression that Obama is uniquely manipulative of his public presentation and unlike the more racially honest white politicians who dont' seem to put on such a front.
"The problem here for Barack, of course, is that his racial identity commits him to a manipulation of the society he seeks to lead," Steele writes. "To 'be black,' he has to exaggerate black victimization in America. ... Worse, his identity will pressure him to see black difficulties -- achievement gaps, high illegitimacy rates, high crime rates, family collapse, and so on -- in the old framework of racial oppression."
In other words, "racial identity" or being black in the way that other black people are black makes Obama fundamentally dishonest about race. For Steele, black people are such a problem that he wonders if a black guy like Obama can be honest enough to be president.
I don't have a window into Shelby Steele's soul, but I'd call that hating black people until proved differently.