Tuesday, March 17, 2009
Chauncey DeVega says: He Loves Him Some White Folks or Is Shelby Steele a Coon, an Uncle Tom, or a Respectable Negro?
I have such mixed feelings about Shelby Steele. Listen for his observation that "freedom is a revolutionary idea for black America." Goodness. And yes, I will leave it at that.
Steele is so smart and has the potential to speak so much truth to power, but more often than not his politics appear to be grounded in a deep self-loathing. Moreover, in his working for such think tanks as the Hoover Institute, Steele has clearly signed away his soul to be one of the very well compensated black poster children, aka slave catchers, for the Right.
His latest piece in the Wall Street Journal, where he laments the inability of conservative ideology to compete with the grievance based culture of "liberalism" and how it has monopolized narratives of truth and justice, is another such example. In short, Steele argues that black and brown folk (and their liberal masters) have held America's conscience hostage, and virtuous White people (code for conservatives) have not been acknowledged for how they are in fact the true defenders of human dignity, worth, and equality in America. For Steele's reimagining of history, it was those who argued in favor of the broader Civil Rights agenda that were immoral, and not the conservative, racial reactionaries--many in Steele's own Republican Party--who held firm against racial progress and social justice.
In short, as Mathew Yglesias pithily observed on his Atlantic Monthly blog, "Shelby Steele Hearts White People."
The three faces of Shelby Steele (my playful name for the trio of videos in this post) made me think about my own politics--as well as those of Gordon and Zora. Are we in fact conservatives? We rail against white liberal guilt, liberal racism, as well as conservative bigotry and myopia. Our wrath and disgust knows no bounds of party or ideology, so where do we fit on the ideological spectrum? What makes us respectable negroes so different from Shelby Steele?
I know the terrain of my own personal politics (even as I struggle to articulate my beliefs in the form of a coherent ideology) and for now, I will leave them unstated.
Thus I ask, is Shelby Steele a Tom, a coon, or a respectable negro? And why?
My vote: Shelby Steele is a Tom, because he has no love for himself or for his people. Steele cannot be a "coon," because while a coon may not understand how he or she is embarrassing black folk (or more generally, how a deficit of race pride informs their behavior), coons at least have some love for themselves as "black" people. Respectable negro? Impossible, because one cannot simultaneously be a lap dog for the Right and also a respectable negro--like matter and anti-matter, the two states exist in perpetual and permanent contradiction (and explosive hostility) to one another.