The Black Individual

by Chris Bodenner
In response to my post on Steele's op-ed, Coates wrote:

In Aspen, I watched Steele claim that white guilt was the reason we were losing the Iraq War. ... Steele subscribes to the theory of Black Automatons in which black people don't exist as actual people, but as robots whose whole lives are ordered around the machinations of white people.

This is why it's laughable to see Steele attacking Jackson and Sharpton's--they are branches of the same deterministic tree--there are no actual black people making individual determinations in the world of Steele or Jackson. ... I actually agree with Steele on one thing---the end of the Civil Rights Industrial Complex is great thing for black people everywhere. But Steele is tied to that complex, and his ideas are just as bereft.

As indicated in my post, I agree with Coates that Steele completely jumps the shark when it comes to foreign policy.  And while I can't speak to Steele's performance in Aspen, I did cringe when I once saw him approvingly-sharing the stage with Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson (who once wrote that the suffering of African Americans during Katrina was a result of their "moral poverty.")  Steele can be acerbic at times, much like his peer Bill Cosby.  Their styles often taint the substance of their message.  I'd prefer to see the public messengers of personal responsibility be writers like John McWhorter and leaders like Obama, who are from a younger generation that absorbed the best of both sides of the race debate.  Thus, I agree with Coates that Steele is often stuck in a baby-boom paradigm.

But as far as his charge that "there are no actual black people making individual determinations in the world of Steele," I think that's unfair.  When you become an academic like Steele who writes about theory all day, broad characterizations of people are inevitable.  But I've read a lot of his work, and the core theme I take from his writing is a plea for black individualism (which he argues is ignored by white liberals and even discouraged by black liberals).  In fact, my introduction to Steele was his Harper's essay,  "The Age of White Guilt: And the Disappearance of the Black Individual."  He wrote:

[The black individual] lives in a society that needs his race for the good it wants to do more than it needs his individual self. His race makes him popular with white institutions and unifies him with blacks. But he is unsupported everywhere as an individual. Nothing in his society asks for or even allows his flowering as a full, free, and responsible person. As is always the case when "the good" becomes ascendant over freedom, and coercion itself becomes a good thing, the individual finds himself in a gulag.

The essay touches upon a tricky paradox of the civil rights movement: African Americans had to come together as one people to defeat institutional racism, but once it was defeated, they had to individuate and assimilate -- which is different than conforming -- in order to fully achieve Dr. King's dream that his children "not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character."

Unfortunately, Steele is constantly judged by the color of his skin.  But most of that judgment comes from Democrats, not Republicans -- the usual suspects when it comes to racial attacks.  For example, notice the number of Matt's readers who spit the slur "Uncle Tom" at Steele.  (That term should be as stigmatized as the word "nigger").  If Steele were white, his conservative political views would simply be dismissed as the grumpy rumblings of a "typical white Republican."  But since he is black, those same views are considered treasonous and self-hating, and an individual is made invisible.  It's that kind of mindset that led me to write how "I wish his provocative views on race weren't so immediately dismissed."  When it comes to Steele's theories on race, there's plenty to disagree with (as I do).  But writing him off is a real detriment to the race dialogue.

(That last paragraph doesn't apply to Coates' criticism, of course.  By the way, if you haven't read it yet, he recently wrote a great Atlantic piece on the "audacity of Bill Cosby's black conservatism.")