Quick takes: A Bound Man by Shelby Steele

For a variety of reasons I never got around to reviewing a number of books I read last year.  As a way to catch up I thought I would post “Quick Takes” that give a brief description and some comments.  The first is below.

aboundmanThere are two things about A Bound Man by Shelby Steele that are worth mentioning.  One, its core isn’t really about Barack Obama the politician so much as his cultural significance and the lens it provides for race relations in this country.

If you have read Steele’s previous work his analysis won’t be new to you.  But I found it absolutely fascinating and incredibly insightful.

Steele outlines how African-American leaders fall into two rough categories: bargainer and challenger.  Bargainers “grant whites the innocence and moral authority they need in return for their goodwill and generosity.”  While challengers “presume whites to be guilty of racism in the same way that bargainers presume them innocent-as a strategic manipulation” and put whites “in the position of having to chase after their racial innocence.”

Bill Cosby, Collin Powell, and Oprah Winfrey are classic bargainers and Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson are  challengers.  And Steele argues Obama is a bargainer; in fact, the Oprah of politics if you will.  And it is this fact that explains in large part his incredible success while shedding light on the state of race relations today.

The second point worth noting, is the now problematic subtitle “Why We Are Excited About Obama and Why He Can’t Win”.  Steele says he didn’t come up with the subtitle and didn’t believe the claim.  Nonetheless, that aspect of the book outlines an interesting dynamic between Obama and the African-American community that is worth thinking about even if it seems outdated today.  I have a theory about what happened to change the dynamic but that is a “whole ‘nother ball of wax” as they say.

Regardless of whether you are an Obama supporter, agree with Steele’s thesis, I think this slim book is well worth a read.  It presents a fascinating way to look at the issue of race in our country and how it became tied up with presidential politics.

About the author

Kevin Holtsberry

I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season - oh, and watching golf too).

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