Bargainers and challengers

Time magazine has included an excerpt from Shelby Steele’s book ‘A Bound Man’. 

Steele explains the politics of bargaining and challenging:

[Barack Obama] is a man bound by forces outside himself and by a practice that is central to the minority experience in America: masking. As the word itself makes clear, the mask is not an authentic representation of one’s true self; rather it is a presentation of the self that angles for advantage. Today we blacks have two great masks that we wear for advantage in the American mainstream: bargaining and challenging.

Bargainers make a deal with white Americans that gives whites the benefit of the doubt: I will not rub America’s history of racism in your face, if you will not hold my race against me. Especially in our era of political correctness, whites are inevitably grateful for this bargain that spares them the shame of America’s racist past. They respond to bargainers with gratitude, warmth, and even affection. This “gratitude factor” can bring the black bargainer great popularity. Oprah Winfrey is the most visible bargainer in America today.

Continued over the fold.

Challengers never give whites the benefit of the doubt. They assume whites are racist until they prove otherwise. And whites are never taken off the hook until they (institutions more than individuals) give some form of racial preference to the challenger. Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson are today’s best known challengers. Of course, most blacks can and do go both ways, but generally we tend to lean one way or another.

Barack Obama is a plausible presidential candidate today because he is a natural born bargainer. Obama–like Oprah–is an opportunity for whites to think well of themselves, to give themselves one of the most self-flattering feelings a modern white can have: that they are not racist. He is the first to apply the bargainer’s charms to presidential politics. Sharpton and Jackson were implausible presidential candidates because they suffered the charmlessness of challengers. Even given white guilt, no one wants to elect a scold.

But the great problem for Obama is that today’s black identity is grounded in challenging. This is the circumstance that makes him a bound man. If he tries to win the black vote by taking on a posture of challenging, he risks losing the vote of whites who like him precisely because he does not challenge. And if his natural bargaining wins white votes, he risks losing black votes to Hillary Clinton. Why? Because Hillary Clinton always identifies with black challengers like Al Sharpton. This makes her “blacker” than Barack Obama.

There is only one way out of this bind for this still young politician. He has to drop all masks, all obsessions with identity, all his fears of being called a sell-out, and very carefully come to reveal what he truly believes as an individual. This is what America really expects from Barack Obama. 

My view of American politics is at a distance.  A sound-byte I heard from Obama in response to some of the issues raised above was that people don’t question his blackness when he can’t pull over a cab in New York city. 

Taking a different view, I’m interested in the bargainer/challenger analysis in our own country.  Australia’s history is markedly different than America, so it is not useful comparing our indigenous history with that of black America.  Having said that, the persona of our indigenous leaders can be compared to Steele’s analysis, at least to a degree.

More importantly though, I suspect the depthness of politics and the many potential policy paths that can be laid diffuses the simplicity of Steele’s analysis.  For example, reading Obama’s The Audacity of Hope it appears he is making a pitch to the radical centre when it comes to affirmative action and equal opportunity (as an example).  By appealing to this sentiment as a black American he is more capable of implementing such a shift.  

In broad terms, the radical centre is a difficult political position to implement.  History is litted with the conditions ripe for such a change but it is how change is ochestrated that is so important.   


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