Obama and Our Post-Modern Race Problem

The president always knew that his greatest appeal was not as a leader but as a cultural symbol.

by Shelby Steele
The Wall Street Journal
December 30, 2009

America still has a race problem, though not the one that conventional wisdom would suggest: the racism of whites toward blacks. Old fashioned white racism has lost its legitimacy in the world and become an almost universal disgrace.

The essence of our new “post-modern” race problem can be seen in the parable of the emperor’s new clothes. The emperor was told by his swindling tailors that people who could not see his new clothes were stupid and incompetent. So when his new clothes arrived and he could not see them, he put them on anyway so that no one would think him stupid and incompetent. And when he appeared before his people in these new clothes, they too—not wanting to appear stupid and incompetent—exclaimed the beauty of his wardrobe. It was finally a mere child who said, “The emperor has no clothes.”

The lie of seeing clothes where there were none amounted to a sophistication—joining oneself to an obvious falsehood in order to achieve social acceptance. In such a sophistication there is an unspoken agreement not to see what one clearly sees—in this case the emperor’s flagrant nakedness.

America’s primary race problem today is our new “sophistication” around racial matters. Political correctness is a compendium of sophistications in which we join ourselves to obvious falsehoods (“diversity”) and refuse to see obvious realities (the irrelevance of diversity to minority development). I would argue further that Barack Obama’s election to the presidency of the United States was essentially an American sophistication, a national exercise in seeing what was not there and a refusal to see what was there—all to escape the stigma not of stupidity but of racism.

Barack Obama, elegant and professorially articulate, was an invitation to sophistication that America simply could not bring itself to turn down. If “hope and change” was an empty political slogan, it was also beautiful clothing that people could passionately describe without ever having seen.

Mr. Obama won the presidency by achieving a symbiotic bond with the American people: He would labor not to show himself, and Americans would labor not to see him. As providence would have it, this was a very effective symbiosis politically. And yet, without self-disclosure on the one hand or cross-examination on the other, Mr. Obama became arguably the least known man ever to step into the American presidency.

Our new race problem—the sophistication of seeing what isn’t there rather than what is—has surprised us with a president who hides his lack of economic understanding behind a drama of scale. Hundreds of billions moving into trillions. Dramatic, history-making numbers. But where is the economic logic behind a stimulus package that doesn’t fully click in for a number of years? How is every stimulus dollar spent actually going to stimulate? Why bailouts to institutions that only hoard the money? How is vast government spending simultaneously a kind of prudence that will not “add to the deficit?” How can such spending not trigger smothering levels of taxation?

The article continues at WSJ.

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