BILL MOYERS: The subtitle of your book, why we are excited about Obama. Are you excited about Obama?
SHELBY STEELE: Yes. Yeah. Actually, I am. Yes.
BILL MOYERS: Are you rooting for him?
SHELBY STEELE: I can't say that. You know, our politics are probably different. But I'm proud of him. And I'm happy to see him out there. He's already made an important contribution to American politics.
BILL MOYERS: But you go on to say why he can't win. Now, that would seem to suggest you don't think he can become President.
SHELBY STEELE: My gut feeling is that he's going to have a difficulty-- a difficult time doing that. The reason I think that we don't yet know him. We don't yet quite know. What his deep abiding convictions are. And he seems to have, you know, almost in a sense kept them concealed. And a part of the I think infatuation with Obama is because he's something of an invisible man. He's a kind of a projection screen. And you sort of see more your — the better side of yourself when you look at Obama than you see actually Barack Obama.
BILL MOYERS: You say in here that his supporters want him not to do something, but to be something.
SHELBY STEELE: Yes.
BILL MOYERS: To represent something. What do you think they want him to be?
SHELBY STEELE: I think to be very blunt about it, in a lot of that support is a desire for convergence of a black skin with the United States Presidency, with power on that level — the idea is that to have a black in that office leading a largely white country would be redemptive for America.
BILL MOYERS: Redemptive?
SHELBY STEELE: Redemptive. Would take us a long way. Would indicate that we truly have moved away from that shameful racist past that we had.
BILL MOYERS: That's perfectly logical isn't it?
SHELBY STEELE: Yes, it is.
BILL MOYERS: And desirable. You seem to--
SHELBY STEELE: I want it.
SHELBY STEELE: They have to. I think that the black community in general has been very conflicted about Barack Obama. Precisely because he's been so successful among whites. And that makes black people nervous.
BILL MOYERS: Yeah. You say in here, white people like Barack Obama a little too much for the comfort of many blacks.
SHELBY STEELE: Yes. Yes.
BILL MOYERS: Why?
SHELBY STEELE: Well, the black American identity, certainly black American politics are grounded in what I call challenging. It's basically, they look at white America and say we're going to presume that you're a racist until you prove otherwise. The whole concept is you keep whites on the hook. You keep the leverage. You keep the pressure. Here's a guy who's what I call a bargainer who's giving whites the benefit of the doubt.
BILL MOYERS: Give me a simple definition of what you call a bargainer. And a simple definition of what you call a challenger.
SHELBY STEELE: A bargainer is a black who enters the American, the white American mainstream by saying to whites in effect, in some code form, I'm going to give you the benefit of the doubt. I'm not going to rub the shame of American history in your face if you will not hold my race against me. Whites then respond with enormous gratitude. And bargainers are usually extremely popular people. Oprah Winfrey, Bill Cosby, Sidney Poitier back in the Sixties and so forth. Because they give whites this benefit of the doubt. That you can be with these people and not feel that you're going to be charged with racism at any instant. And so they tend to be very successful, very popular.
Challengers on the other hand say, I presume that you, this institution, this society, is racist until it proves otherwise by giving me some concrete form of racial preference.
BILL MOYERS: Affirmative action.
SHELBY STEELE: Affirmative action. Diversity programs. Opportunities of one kind or another. And so, there is a much more concrete bargaining on the case of challengers. And you go into any American institution today and they're all used to dealing with challengers. They all have a whole system of things that they can give to challengers, who then will offer absolution.
BILL MOYERS: And what are the--
SHELBY STEELE: Then we'll say this institution is vetted now. It's not racist anymore.
BILL MOYERS: One of the worst things that can happen to you in this country is to be charged with being racially biased.
SHELBY STEELE: Yes.
BILL MOYERS: Racial stigma.
SHELBY STEELE: You never get over it. On your obituary, it'll be the first line. And there's almost no redemption. The good side of that is it makes the point of how intense this society is in its desire to overcome racism and its past.
BILL MOYERS: Yes.
SHELBY STEELE: So it's a good thing on the other hand. On the other hand, the bad side of it is that it has become a form of cruelty. And all you're doing is terrifying whites. I wrote in the last book, WHITE GUILT. Whites live under now, we've underestimated the power of this. Whites live under now this threat of being stigmatized as race. Our institutions live under this threat of being stigmatized as racist and they're almost panicked over it. What makes me sad there is then whites look at what happened to Don Imus. And now, they're never going to tell me what they really feel.
Whites know never tell blacks what you really think and what you really feel because you risk being seen as a racist. And the result of that is that to a degree, we as blacks live in a bubble. Nobody tells us the truth. Nobody tells us what they would do if they were in our situation. Nobody really helps us. They use us. They buy their own innocence with us. But they never tell us the truth. And we need to be told the truth very often.
You know, America is a great society, a great country. Has all sorts-- the values have gotten us to this place where we are the world's greatest society in many ways. Well, those values, yes, we had a history of terrible racism. But those same values will work for blacks. They will help us join the mainstream, become a part of it. But whites can't say that because then they seem to be judgmental. They're seen as racist. And so, no one says it to us.
Sunday, November 09, 2008
More Shelby Steele: Obama Racial Redemption; Bargainers and Challengers; White Self-Defense
Shelby Steele, from Jan 2008: