Washington Barack Obama's rise in the top tier of the Democratic presidential race has been fueled by the voters' belief that he is a candid, forthright politician. "'Hard truths' could be the slogan for the restarted Obama campaign," says the current New Yorker magazine, in a laudatory article. In The Washington Post's poll last week of Iowa caucus voters, Obama's biggest lead over Hillary Clinton, John Edwards and Bill Richardson came when voters were rating candidates as honest and trustworthy.
And now comes Shelby Steele, the Hoover Institution scholar and author of "The Content of Our Character," with a book-length essay arguing that Obama's public stance is essentially synthetic.
In "A Bound Man," Steele makes the case that Obama has adopted "a mask" familiar to many other African-Americans, designed to appease white America's fear of being thought racist by offering them the opportunity to embrace a nonthreatening black.
Steele writes that "the Sixties stigmatized white Americans with the racial sins of the past - with the bigotry and hypocrisy that countenanced slavery, segregation and white supremacy. Now, to win back moral authority, whites - and especially American institutions - must prove the negative: that they are not racist. In other words, white America has become a keen market for racial innocence."
Steele likens Obama's success to the fame and fortune won by Oprah Winfrey, Bill Cosby, Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods. But the earliest of the crossover heroes he calls "Iconic Negroes" was Sidney Poitier.
And it reminded me that in his political biography of Obama, author David Mendell reported the reaction of a focus group of liberal, North Shore (Chicago area) female voters, middle-aged and elderly, when shown a videotape of Obama speaking in his 2004 Senate campaign. Asked who Obama reminded them of, the answer was "Sidney Poitier." No wonder Hillary Clinton's pollster, Mark Penn, is worried by the Post's report that Obama has tied Clinton among female voters in Iowa.
But while all of the others mentioned by Steele were entertainers of one kind or another, Obama is the first to carry the "masking" technique of the "Iconic Negro" into the realm of politics.
Steele contrasts Obama with "challenger" types such as Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson, whose appeal was strictly within the black community, and who were seen as threats to the Democratic establishment.
Steele, who shares with Obama the lineage of having a white mother and a black father, writes sympathetically of the cross-pressures that drove both sons to choose to live their lives as blacks while operating in largely white institutions.
"The problem here for Barack, of course, is that his racial identity commits him to a manipulation of the society he seeks to lead," Steele writes. "To 'be black,' he has to exaggerate black victimization in America. ... Worse, his identity will pressure him to see black difficulties - achievement gaps, high illegitimacy rates, high crime rates, family collapse, and so on - in the old framework of racial oppression."
It strikes me as odd that Steele, who is famously outspoken as a critic of affirmative action and a proponent of "responsibility" for black men and black families, should argue that Obama will be silenced on these and other issues by his heritage and his ties to the South Side Chicago black community. Obama, he says, dare not deviate from the liberal Democratic line lest black voters turn on him.
As a white reporter, I am not sure I can judge this argument. But I consulted an old and close friend of Obama's and this was her response:
It is true, as Steele says, that Obama approaches whites with the expectation of a "core of decency" that will give him a warm response. But he is not exploiting any racial guilt feelings. Indeed, he and his wife Michelle have both said they want people to see them whole, and not just the color of their skin.
Second, she noted that Obama has said repeatedly that while blacks face real issues of discrimination, they also have responsibility for their own lives. Parents must turn off the TV, he says, and read to their children. Fathers must take responsibility for the children they bring into the world. That is definitely part of his message.
As to whether that message will separate Obama from the black voters he needs, his friend made a point supported by the latest Pew research: The black community is really two societies now, with a middle class whose values are far closer to those of middle-class whites than to those of the black underclass.
Obama, whose constituency is skewed to the middle class, may reflect those values better than Shelby Steele thinks.