Thursday, March 06, 2008

Opinions: 'Healing postponed' by Trevor Phillips | Prospect Magazine March 2008 issue 144

Opinions: 'Healing postponed' by Trevor Phillips | Prospect Magazine March 2008 issue 144: "For all his lofty talk of national unity, Obama may actually put back the arrival of a post-racial America"

"British whites don't carry the stain of transatlantic slavery in the personal way that US whites do, and as a result race—specifically anti-black racism—does not play the same part in our story. Black Britons can't bring centuries of white guilt to bear with the devastating impact that African-Americans have done for two generations. For the most part, we have been here for less than 60 years. British whites distanced themselves from the historic crime that still torments America long before we arrived. Few Britons ever owned slaves here; the blood remained on hands thousands of miles away.

the black conservative writer Shelby Steele suggests in his new book on Obama, A Bound Man, that is just what makes him so successful. Steele's subtitle—Why We Are Excited About Obama and Why He Can't Win

two kinds of influential black figures in US public life. The "challengers"—Garvey, Malcolm X, Jackson—wield power by making whites feel guilty about the old crime and only allowing the guilt to be relieved in return for concessions of one kind or another: They can only wield power as long as they remain victims—downtrodden and excluded. The moment they succeed, they lose the power of moral suasion.

Steele identifies another, more successful group, which he calls "bargainers." These are black leadership figures who strike quite a different deal by saying to white America: Starting with Louis Armstrong, a series of black icons have sustained a brilliant crossover bargain: Poitier, King, Bill Cosby and, quintessentially, Oprah Winfrey. Both they and America have prospered from it.

While winning in still-segregated South Carolina, he lost in states where blacks and whites are more likely to share offices and public transport—New York, California.

Both challengers and bargainers offer a strategy that needs the racial divide to stay at the centre of US life. In truth, Obama may be helping to postpone the arrival of a post-racial America, and I think he knows it.

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