Guys, it's really hard to be Shelby Steele. First you write a book about how Barack Obama can't win the 2008 election because he's constrained by the traditional roles of black people in American politics. After he wins you're stuck writing harried op-eds about how he only won because white people felt really guilty and wanted to vote for a black guy, a thesis belied by the available demographic information. Conversely, you praise then-candidate for RNC Chair Michael Steele as someone with "integrity" who "really stands for something," which was already embarrassing enough at the time.
Then, when the political winds seem to be blowing misfortune Obama's way, you eagerly rub your hands together and write about how Obama is ineffectual as a president because he never had the chops to get the job done after all, because he was only elected because he's black. Then, of course, Obama pushes historic health-care legislation through Congress that puts him on the same playing field as the most prominent Democratic presidents in American history.
So now that Obama has repeatedly proved his public assessments about race wrong, Steele writes about how these accomplishments were only achieved because Obama, as a black man, needs to prove that he's just as good as all the other white presidents:
Mr. Obama's success has always been ephemeral because it was based on an illusion: that if we Americans could transcend race enough to elect a black president, we could transcend all manner of human banalities and be on our way to human perfectibility. A black president would put us in a higher human territory. And yet the poor man we elected to play out this fantasy is now torturing us with his need to reflect our grandiosity back to us.
A president with an inflated sense of ego and concern over his ultimate historical legacy? How black of him.
Being proved wrong by actual events over and over has got to be maddening. Steele keeps reassuring his conservative audience that this fop Obama is a pushover whose only advantage is being black. And those who believe him do so because they want to be reassured that Obama isn't exceptional. And because Steele himself is black, his followers assume he must know about these things. Then they lose, and they scratch their heads and start muttering angrily about teleprompters. Steele's work helps conservatives cling to myths about liberal black folks being the products of white charity, and they don't contradict him because they don't actually know enough black people to know better.
If you're Shelby Steele, though, you can't actually abandon your thesis, no matter how much harm you're doing the cause of conservatism or your party, because you offer a specific product -- reassurance to whites that anti-black racism is a thing of the past and that they've fulfilled their ethical obligations to blacks. Therefore, any substantive expansion of the social safety net isn't about social responsibility but exploitation. So to respond to Ezra Klein, Steele is bound to a vision of a world where black people's existence is defined by exploiting white guilt for personal advantage. So it doesn't occur to Steele that extending health-care coverage to 32 million people is a good in and of itself worth fighting for, because he likely sees it as merely a crude redistribution of resources from one race to another under terms he sees as unfair.
If conservatives figure out Steele's product is useless -- nay harmful -- then he doesn't get paid for it, and his irrelevance as an intellectual becomes apparent. Steele accuses Obama of being a "bound man," but he finds himself bound to propping up a thesis that one tsunami after another leaves in ruins.
This is what is truly sad. Not only is Steele offering the same kind of reassurance to white conservatives that he accuses Obama of offering to whites in general, he doesn't even have the freedom to admit that he's wrong.
-- A. Serwer