Pearson, Steele & Obama

In December last year I posted here in reference to a review of Shelby Steele’s book, A Bound Man

Noel Pearson’s essay in the Monthly offers an intriguing analysis of Steele’s insight into contemporary race relations in America.  There are several compelling paragraphs that refer to responsibility, opportunity, and how uplift occurs in dominant-minority populations.  After reading the essay I was disappointed at what I saw as deficiencies in Pearson’s core argument.

Pearson argues that Obama has not pursued strongly enough the radical centre that integrates core notions (or a contemporary understanding) of responsibility.  Pearson contends that Obama should ‘radically revise’ his account of such issues at the Democratic National Convention in August.   

Obama is being misrepresented.  My observations are that he has pursued the radical centre by offering a style of politics that is untested at the national level in the United States.  This necessarily involves merging notions of opportunity (that inevitably give rise to questions of race and equality) and responsibility.  Promoting notions of ‘black responsibility’ (as Pearson refers) is why Obama has been able to attract such strong support amongst the African-American Democratic base, many independents and a number of Republicans (this strategy is more difficult to pursuit for a non-African-American candidate). 

Pearson holds that ‘the main shortcoming of Obama’s philosophy is that he does not recognise, as Steele has, that the nature of black Americans struggle changed fundamentally after the civil rights victories of the ‘60s’.  A reading of a number of Obama’s work, whether it is his original Dreams of my Father or The Audacity of Hope, or a number of speeches would reveal that he does.   

Pearson goes on to say:

Shelby Steele writes in A Bound Man: ‘despite the fact that Obama clearly seems to accept the importance of individual responsibility in social reform…he offers no thinking on how to build incentives to responsibility into actual social policy.’  There is time enough for Obama to correct his analysis and to move beyond the critical shortcomings of his Philadelphia speech. 

Obama’s work contradicts this assertion.  In The Audacity of Hope, Obama explains that affirmative action policies post 1960s have not displaced the primacy of responsibility amongst the uplifting black middle class.  He notes the true feelings of resentment felt by those excluded from affirmative action.  Obama argues that because it is the responsibility-uplifting paradigm (combined with the removal of institutional racism) that has served to enlarge the black middle class it is the failed complimentary policy, affirmative action, which has compounded the dilemma. 

Continued over the fold.

Contrary to Steele’s assertion (supported by Pearson) that ‘he offers no thinking on how to build incentives to responsibility into actual social policy’, Obama argues for a reduction of affirmative action and a focus on policies across the board.  An example is early intervention and early learning programs for all groups in low socio-economic circumstances, a policy that would produce clear dividends for all.  (Interestingly, an articulation of these policies has not displaced the public perception that Obama is part of the liberal romanticised elite, though it would no doubt play a part in the democratic movement).

Pearson holds that:

…like Steele, I firmly believe that ‘black responsibility is the greatest – if not the only – transformative power available to blacks’.  And the same goes for the white underclass.  The conservative emphasis on personal responsibility and the liberal emphasis on individual choice and self-interest are as important as – nay, more important than – opening up opportunities for social progress.  Access and opportunity are necessary but not sufficient for uplift, while personal responsibility and self-interest are indespinsible.

This statement is entirely consistent with the work of Obama.  Pearson’s essay is filled with similar analysis that gives the appearance of differentiating Obama’s philosophy without offering an account of how it does. 

Pearson states that ‘Obama’s Philadelphia speech failed to speak to black responsibility’, but then in a later sentence goes on to say ‘when he did speak of it in Philadelphia, he did so in a paragraph which the audience would likely interpret as a discussion of class and gender injustices’.  This paragraph is cited:

For the African-American community, that path means embracing the burdens of our past without becoming victims of our past.  It means continuing to insist on a full measure of justice in every aspect of American life.  But it also means binding our particular grievances – for better health care, and better schools, and better jobs – to the larger aspirations of all Americans: the white woman struggling to break the glass ceiling, the white man who’s been laid off, the immigrant trying to feed his family.  And it means taking full responsibility for our lives – by demanding more from our fathers, and spending more time with our children, and reading to them, and teaching them that while they may face challenges and discrimination in their own lives, they must never succumb to despair or cynicism; they must always believe that they can write their own destiny.

While it is subjective to argue that Obama should emphasise more the notions of ‘black responsibility’ (as Pearson’s essay appears to rest), the paragraph cited is surely not confined to an interpretation of class and gender injustice.  On the contrary, the reference to ‘white’ individuals from an African-American nominee infers that those African-Americans who abdicate their responsibilities on the sole basis of racial injustices are wrong in their prejudices, and deficient in the ‘black responsibilities’ that Pearson contends.

Early in the piece, Pearson states that:

Steele’s mistake is to assume that the potential tension within Obama’s support base is necessarily a fatal contradiction, a dilemma.  All electoral support bases are coalitions of constituencies.  It is normal to have fundamental tensions between the policies necessary to build a majority; political winners manage, transcend or resolve such tensions.  Steele does not show why Barack Obama would be unable to do that. 

Pearson concludes that Obama must ‘radically revise’ his account at the Democratic National Convention if he is to redress the shortfall of his analysis.  My view is that if Obama were to continue the strategy adopted so far then this could fulfil the radical centre point incorporating notions of responsibility advocated by Steele, Pearson and Obama. 

Returning to my December post, I noted that ‘the persona of our indigenous leaders can be compared to Steele’s analysis, at least to a degree’.  Pearson’s philosophical and political outlook in the last eight years has challenged the orthodoxy of Aboriginal affairs and in this context I suspect that he exhibits those qualities of a ‘challenger’, but mostly in the context of challenging policy foundations and the distinct body politik that he belongs.  

(note – a US blogger commenting on a post about Pearson’s article referred to this article in the New York Times for insight into Obama’s success).   


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