Is there a sadder soul in America than Shelby Steele? Whatever interesting observations the man was once capable of making are now so banal that they're the stuff of freshman seminars, and so every few months he appears, carrying water for the conservative cause.
There was the time he said "Obama can't win," based on a binary understanding of black identity, a petty analysis he is still cribbing from even as the first black president is rounding out his first six months in office. There was the day-after election analysis that claimed white people flocked to Obama out of white guilt or the promise of a racial utopia--a fortune cookie argument that ignored any concrete demographic analysis of what happened to the electorate in 2008. Then there was the time he tried to convince conservatives that their problems with race had nothing to do with the Republican Party's shameful history of opposing black rights. But the coup de grace, the saddest moment of Shelby Steele's career, had to be the time George Will damned him with what must have sounded to him like the faintest of praise, by calling him America's "foremost black intellectual." After years of condemning affirmative action, Steele found himself trapped in a checked box of his own divising: Even those who think he is great think so only in relation to his peers as defined by skin color.
So Steele has become worse than predictable. He has become boring. Everything he has to say about Sonia Sotomayor and Obama in The Wall Street Journal today you've heard before, Steele just says it louder, with all the authority of the Republican Party's foremost black intellectual. Steele writes that Sotomayor is not just a "racist," she is possessing of "a Hispanic chauvinism so extreme that it sometimes crosses into outright claims of racial supremacy," before taking that now infamous quote from Sotomayor's 2001 speech out of context--again. What in Sotomayor's judicial record--which Steele hasn't looked at--justifies such a description? Why the infamous Frank Ricci case, in which Sotomayor upheld the law based on precedent, except conservatives didn't like the precedent. Never mind that several Hispanic firefighters were also denied promotion in that case--Steele deals in racial tarot card reading, not facts. The trick is understanding what Steele means when he says "minority intellectuals, especially, have been rewarded for theories that justify grievance"--this is true, something Steele knows as fact, since no one has ever held a bigger grudge for longer than Shelby Steele, or spent more time justifying the Nixonian grievances of the Republican Party base.
Sotomayor, a nominee with more time on the federal bench than anyone else currently on the Supreme Court at the time they were nominated, is elevated "more for the political currency of [her] gender and ethnicity than for [her] individual merit." Never mind how this concept speaks to Steele's entire career, It should be noted at this moment that Shelby Steele was terribly impressed with Michael Steele who we know was chosen as head of the RNC only because of his record of success in Maryland. Steele concludes that Sotomayor is as doomed as Michelle Obama was after saying she was proud of her country for the first time, which is the kind of cruel fate any public figure would beg for.
The man is like Sisyphus, doomed to roll each conservative talking point up a hill, bullet point by bullet point, for the rest of eternity. Steele has been repeating himself as a farce for years now, and it's simply tragic to watch. The grand unifying theory of his career, that (liberal) black people are too busy being "black" to succeed, was shattered on November 4, 2008, and Steele has spent every day since trying to pick up the shards and put them back together.
-- A. Serwer
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