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Life Arts

A Review of Shelby Steele's: A Bound Man

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Introduction

This short, very readable, beautifully crafted book is a deeply thoughtful, meaningful and moving analysis of, among other things, Black racism, Mulatto survival strategies, and Barack Obama’s rise to prominence in American politics. The book should be renamed: The Games that People in Racist Societies play on themselves.

Shelby Steele, author and Research Fellow at the Hoover Institution, uses his own, and Obama’s complex and often conflicted Mulatto backgrounds, and Obama’s book, “Dreams from my Father,” as resource materials to tell his own story about the impact of race in America on Mulatto life, and on black community life, more generally. The grand crescendo of his analysis is his prediction that Obama cannot win his quest for the U.S. presidency because the survival games he has been forced to learn as strategies for life have set a trap from which he cannot escape.

A great deal of the author’s analysis, such as that black uplift must depend only on blacks, at times borders on the psychoanalytic. Yet it is so clear, so well crafted, and so honest that it seems virtually above critique.  His chapters on the self-destructive tribal games blacks play on themselves, and try to play on their more powerful white counterparts are priceless; and sadly, and painfully, all too true. Yet, his theory has an important and an improbable missing part: a context. The stage upon which the drama is actually being played out is missing in action.

The Games Blacks play on themselves: Self-Annihilation and Cultural Self-destruction 101

Everything Professor Steele says about blackness and the nihilistic, self-destructive, empty worshipping of the victimized black condition is correct: the way we blacks wear our race-based masks to “con” whites and each other; the way we pray in the empty temple of race-based orthodoxy, to the empty tribal God of fake black solidarity; the way we posture and otherwise use racism as a cover for our inadequacies, our lack of accomplishments, and a cover for our collective fear of actually having to go out into the world and perform on an equal footing with other peoples. All of this is painful, but is also self-evidently true: The standards of accomplishment within the single-parent dominated inner city black community, in one generation, have eroded so badly, that to the extent they exist at all, are barely recognizable. Steele’s conclusion that Blacks are responsible for black uplift is inescapable and correct.

Yet, other aspects of the book, suggest that Steele is again just galloping along at full-throttle on his old familiar “anti-Affirmative Action hobby horse.” It seems to matter little to the author that so far the evidence shows that white women, and not blacks or any other non-white minorities, have been the greatest beneficiaries of AA, and oddly that white women suffer no stigma as a result of taking full advantage of it benefits. Thus, even when Steele gets the facts wrong, or otherwise drops down into his familiar “ultra-conservative polemical crouch,” as he does repeatedly in this book, his ideas are not to be dismissed out of hand. He is such a clear (if sometimes misguided) thinker and writer that everything he writes tends to put the reader on guard and “at attention:” When Shelby Steele picks up the pen, we know that something big and inspiring is about to happen.  It is certainly no less true in this book.

The games Mulattoes Play on themselves

Steele goes to great pains to share the hauntingly alienating experience of the Mulatto. The experience of being forever in search of an identity onto which one can securely anchor his “being.” In an always “race conscious” America, this quest proved to be an exasperating one for both he and Obama. The most tiring and fearful aspect for most Mulattoes is that they are suspected from either side of being race traitors.

As a result, both Steele and Obama’s personalities were shaped by the contours of tactics such as “playing along to get along” and then by knowing how to “bob-and-weave” to avoid being unmasked as the weakly committed frauds they were. Steele eventually abandoned the pretense of being committed to blackness as the sole means of his self-definition. Obama, apparently went in the opposite direction, fully embracing an identity that had offered him little more than a temporary emotional haven. In their respective analyses of how Mulattoes see the world, one has to give Steele and Obama a wide berth, and the benefit of all doubt. It is a good bet that the Mulatto world is exactly as scary, and as lonely as he and Obama have described it. However it must be said, if only in passing, that negotiating a secure identity in American social life for anyone, whatever their race or color, is a difficult proposition. We all arrive at adulthood with societal battle scars. That simply, is the nature of life in our culture.

A Background Independent Theory of Race in America

Where I take strong issue with Steele is with the theory of race transparently embedded in this, and most of his writings. It is what can only be called “a background independent theory of race in America;” namely, that (1) there is no racism (except perhaps the residue remaining around the margins); and (2) nothing of racial consequence has happened in America before today: That is, that there are no present consequences for past racial injuries. If Steele is allowed to get away with these two foundational premises, then of course he is free to prove anything he wishes about the cause of the racism of blacks, and the social meltdown in black America.

Even though one cannot take lightly the most important implication of the author’s writings -- that even if there is some residue of racism remaining in our society, it pales in comparison to what we blacks are consciously doing to ourselves. Black uplift, no matter the level of racism is a black, not a white problem, period. At the same time one cannot be so naïve as to believe that it is just coincidental that most of Steele’s views, attitudes and untested theories on race in America are also shared by racist whites.  And while this does not disqualify him from writing profound truths about race, as he has done in this book, it does raise ones “crap-detection antenna” to the alert status.

According to the author’s embedded theoretical model, the social meltdown of blacks in America can be fully and completely accounted for by their own nihilistic tendencies towards empty self-destructive tribalistic posturing (of which we are all guilty of, including Steele himself. We both imbibed them heavily during the 60s, and did so in and around East St. Louis Illinois, one of the worse black holes still to remain in inner city America.). According to Steele, Blacks seek to promote themselves only through empty race-based taunting and sloganeering neither of which ever quite rises to the level of doing the serious work required to strive and accomplish. As a result, we repeatedly choose the easier route of “blaming the white man” and “racism” for all of our apparently “self-generated” and “self-inflicted” troubles and shortcomings. Rather than blaming our own self-destructive, mal-adaptive and often survival-destroying, behaviors, “the man” remains our escape hatch of both first and last resort.

The Missing Link: White Racism

But the world of race in America is, and has never been, quite so simple and “pat” as Steele makes it out to be. What is equally self-evident and true is unaccountably missing entirely from Professor Steele’s theoretical analysis. What is missing is, as radio commentator “Paul Harvey” used to say: “the rest of the story.” Where is the other half of the picture?  Is there no background to this picture of black racism? Is it just free-standing, arising from the ether unforced, completely devoid of a context? Put simply, where is the social canvas upon which Steele’s theory of black racism is painted?

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Retired Foreign Service Officer and past Manager of Political and Military Affairs at the US Department of State. For a brief time an Assistant Professor of International Relations at the University of Denver and the University of Washington at (more...)
 
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