Shelby Steele, author of the award-winning The Content of Our Character (1991) and last year's White Guilt, feels a kinship toward Barack Obama. They both were born to white mothers and black fathers. But he doesn't think Obama can win the White House.
In his latest book, A Bound Man: Why We Are Excited About Obama and Why He Can't Win (Free Press, 134 pages, $22), Steele asserts that perhaps Obama's mixed race will work against him in his run for the highest political office in the land.
Obama is the charismatic, non-agressive voice-of-reason black man that whites feel comfortable with, Steele claims. In short, whites can more easily get on board with an amiable African American who doesn't use his race as a campaign tool. But where does that leave the black community?
This is where the book's title comes into play: Obama is a "bound man"; any time he makes a move to gain the support of the white vote he betrays, in a sense, the black community, and vice versa, which in the end will hurt him.
"The cultural and historical implications of Obama's candidacy are clearly greater than its public policy implications," Steele writes. "While Obama the man labors in the same political vineyard as his competitors, mapping out policy positions on everything from war to health care, his candidacy itself asks the American democracy to virtually complete itself, to achieve that almost perfect transparency where color is indeed no veil over character — where a black, like a white, can put himself forward as the individual he truly is."
No doubt Obama's campaign is historically significant. Whether he can snag the Democratic nomination remains to be seen. He's certainly off to a good start, but as time passes, voters will get tougher and Steele's arguments will become more valid, because as likable as he is, Obama will always be caught in the middle, and it's unlikely that he'll be able to please both sides. Obama's dream may be to transcend the racial divide, but he may just have to settle for the title of Trailblazer at this point. Lucky for him, he's young enough to blaze the trail and possibly ride it to the top in another election.