Today’s Wall Street Journal ran a sharp op-ed piece by Shelby Steele. Without doubt, Steele has been one of the clearest and most forceful analysts of the tortured reality of race relations in the post-civil rights era. He has written with devastating persuasiveness about the the way in which white liberal guilt insists on making racism the primary source for black identity in public life, creating roles for black men and women to playthose of the challenger and bargainer.
By my reading, today’s op-ed pushes Steele’s usually perceptive psychological analysis too far. It is true, as Steele observes, that black men often succeed by making themselves blank slates. This allows whites to write their fantasies onto the careers of black professionals.
Fair enough. Obama is undoubtedly a shrewd operator, and I don’t doubt that he has played that game.
But does race explain enough? I’m inclined to agree with Steele that our president seems strangely remote, someone whose core convictions are really meta-convictions about understanding, balancing, and managing convictions rather than actually having them. However, I credit this to his postmodern education, as well as his insular existence as a favored son of an elite liberal culture that rewards irony and critique rather than conviction.