BARACK OBAMA, seemingly destined to be the democratic candidate for president, has taken the country by storm and everyone wants to know why. How can this one-term senator with almost no legislative accomplishments or clear plan for the future be prepared for the presidency, and why do tens of thousands of people turn out for his rallies, chanting his name like he was the Messiah?
Because they think he is.
Here is why: As Shelby Steele points out in his book A Bound Man, Obama, the son of a white mother and an absentee black father and essentially raised by prosperous, white mid-westerners, faces the dilemma all blacks in America face: How to deal with the majority that wields power over the minority?
Steele calls the usual racial response, "masking," wherein blacks reinvent themselves through their strategic relations with whites. Masking generally demonstrates itself in one of two ways. The first is the bargaining mask, where blacks say to whites, "I will not use America's horrible history of white racism against you, if you will promise not to use my race against me." In other words, Steele says, bargainers grant whites the innocence and moral authority they need in return for their goodwill and generosity. Bargainers give before they ask, and they trust that reciprocity will prevail -- that goodwill will elicit good will. Bargaining is effective because it begins with magnanimity. Examples of successful bargainers are Tiger Woods, Michael Jordan, Oprah Winfrey, and Barack Obama.
The challenging mask, on the other hand, says, "Whites are incorrigibly racist until they do something to prove otherwise." This high ground as the historic victim of racism gives the challenger great moral power in the white community. In a society where the greatest shame has been white racism, the challenger has the power over the guilt and innocence of whites. This is why Don Imus, in penance for a racial aside on his show, did not seek absolution from Oprah Winfrey; instead, he went to one of the premiere challengers of the day: Al Sharpton. Imus did not go to see Colin Powell because Powell does not wield the racist stigma as his main source of power in American life; Sharpton does. And only a challenger can remove that stigma from whites whith finality, and then only when the challenger gets something in return: a public confession of racism, affirmative action, promises of diversity in hiring, etc.
But while challengers remain forever mired in racial conflict, bargainers can transcend those conflicts when the synergy of innocence given and gratitude received elevates them to an iconic status in the culture. Steele calls this the Iconic Negro, someone who embodies the highest and best longings of both races. Oprah Winfrey has achieved this status, as has Sidney Poitier. In dealing with them, whites can experience themselves shorn of racism, as people capable of complete human identification with a black person.
The drawback for both blacks and whites is that Oprah has obtained her iconic status through masking: she was a bargainer first. This is a tough position to be in: The Iconic Negro lives in that territory between the doubt they feel over the self-suppression they engage in in order to make things happen and the charge from their own group that their success proves them to be sellouts. But while they do not solve the country's race problem, they do nudge the culture in the right direction.
Barack Obama has become an Iconic Negro, which is why white women are swooning at his rallies. He offers racial absolution to a white populace weary of being accused of being racist. The problem for Obama, however, is in his own self-identification as black, rather than white. His bi-racialness makes him suspect to those wearing the challenger mask. Which is why Obama goes out of his way to downplay his privileged, white upbringing. After law school, instead of opting for Wall Street, he worked in the south Chicago projects and joined a black-themed church that essentially excludes whites. Even Obama was paying respects to the challenger mask.
But the real problem for Obama is not his race; it is the fact that he wears a mask at all. Both masks assume a fact not in existence: that no amount of black responsibility will lift the black race into parity with whites. Both masks are designed to deal with the white majority. So only transcendence from mask-wearing will raise the race, as it did a young Obama himself. But if black poverty and suffering are no longer automatically tied to white racism, then black uplift is dependent upon what blacks do. And if blacks are responsible for their fate, then whites no longer need to trade for their innocence with blacks, and mask-wearing blacks no longer have power to bestow racial absolution upon whites. Instead, they must be judged as individuals.
Can Obama achieve this worthy goal? Not so long as he wears a mask. Steele calls black responsibility the third rail of American race relations. If whites mention it, the stigma of racism falls upon them. If blacks mention it, they are Uncle Toms betraying their race by letting whites off the hook.
The only famous black who seems to have transcended race is Bill Cosby, who has recently become a great criticizer of the self-destructive aspects of black culture. He stages "call outs," where he challenges inner-city blacks to take charge of their families and raise their children with values and purpose. He brings on stage mothers of teenagers killed in gang violence, people who lost themselves to drugs, girls who all but destroyed their lives with teenage pregnancies. And, in a moment of great theater, he removed his Iconic Negro mask in public, when he said at the NAACP convention, "I don't care what white people think."
But it cost him. Bill Cosby is now something of a liability even to whites who privately admire his efforts. By refusing to wear any mask whatsoever, he is now a risk to white innocence, rather than a source of it. He no longer sells Jell-O, or anything else, on national television. But he has trancended race.
Cosby knows, and I believe, that only by seeking Martin Luther King's vision of America, where "a man will be judged, not by the color of his skin, but by the content of his character," can we truly heal the racial divide. And yet, to listen to an Obama speech, for the subtle racial nods in the interstices (the incessant calls for "unification"), or to hear Michelle Obama lament that only with Barack's ascendency has she "been really proud to be an American," one can see that they both continue to wear masks, albeit different ones. Obama is an Iconic Negro, his public face that of the bargainer; Michelle seems to have donned the challenger mask.
But so long as they wear masks at all, the voters will suspect something is amiss. Before reading Steele's book, I, too, suspected something wrong in the candidacy of Barack Obama. I suspected he was not who he said he was. And Steele's book has given definition to my unease. I don't support Obama because he is a nutty liberal, not because he's black. And I can't support him because he wears a mask that hides his true identiy, the one he was raised with: the truthfulness and awkwardness of individuality not tied to race. To get my vote, he would have to promise to defend the country, not parley with the madmen who wish to kill us. And beyond that, he would have to dispense with the expectation that white racism has anything to do with black responsiblity. He would have to take off his mask and cease offering me racial absolution, which I don't want or need and which he cannot truly give.
But can Barack Obama remove his mask? If so, he runs the risk of becoming an individual like Bill Cosby, and will probably lose political and racial capital, both with whites and blacks. He may survive such a move, but the messianic specialness will evaporate. White Americans will no longer see the possibility of their own racial innocence in him.
And white women will stop fainting at his rallies.