A week ago, as is well enough known, Omar Thornton shot and killed eight of his coworkers while being escorted out of the building after having been terminated by his employer, a Connecticut beer distributor.
As I write this, President Barack Obama has yet to address this subject in any public way. He is not alone in his restraint. The media have soft-pedaled the motive -- the whole shooting, for that matter. Four days after the fact, my wife, who watches CNN and listens to NPR, had not heard about it. Unlike, say, Oklahoma City or even Columbine, the tragedy served no useful political purpose. Just the opposite.
"You probably want to know the reason why I shot this place up," Thornton told the dispatcher in his final 9-11 call. "This place is a racist place. They're treating me bad over here. And treat all other black employees bad over here, too. So I took it to my own hands and handled the problem. I wish I could have got more of the people." For a media desperately seeking a whiff of Tea Party violence, this was not welcome news.
To the degree that the media have covered the subject, they have largely taken Thornton at his word. "Beer warehouse shooter long complained of racism," read the headline of a typically sympathetic Associated Press article. The AP shies from concluding what it should have: The complaints may have been real, but the inspiration for those complaints ranged from the trivial to the imaginary.
During Thornton's well-paid tenure at Hartford Distributors, there had been no claims of "racial insensitivity" made by him or anyone else through the company's anti-harassment policy, the union grievance process, or state and federal agencies. The company asked Thornton to resign only after he had been caught stealing beer.
Given the higher threshold of proof HR managers require for protected classes, especially blacks -- "If you're white, male, and under 40," one HR exec joked to me, "we just kick your butt out" -- Hartford did not terminate Thornton until Thornton was caught on video stealing. It was not his first offense.
For Obama, this should have been a teachable moment. He could have shown black Americans the extraordinary safeguards the corporate world has put into place to protect their rights. He could have explored the historic roots of the deep-seated paranoia that undermines black self-confidence and explained the burden that paranoia puts on black ambition, but he has done no such thing. In that void, many blacks, and not a few whites, will insist on seeing Thornton as more of a martyr than a madman.
Author Shelby Steele, who is biracial himself, has seen these kind of scenarios played out around him from the time he was a boy in a still-segregated world. In his underappreciated 2008 book, The Bound Man: Why We Are Excited About Obama and Why He Can't Win, Steele dissected Obama's soul with more precision than anyone before or since, and he did so before Obama had won a primary. The book's subtitle, by the way, only seems to suggest a miscalculation on Steele's part. The "win" does not refer to the election.
Obama's dilemma, as Steele sees it, is that in his lifelong quest to seem an "authentic" black man, Obama feels compelled to exaggerate the state of black victimization. Rather than fixing problems, many of which are generated within the black community, the newly authentic Obama fixes blame.
When Obama has attempted to address moral issues, some more authentic black leader can be counted on to slap him down, as Jesse Jackson did in July 2008 when he threatened "to cut his nuts off." This posture does not make for a useful governing strategy. Instead, says Steele, it "commits [Obama] to a manipulation of the very society he seeks to lead."
Unfortunately, Obama did not look to Shelby Steele as a potential mentor. For guidance, he looked to people like Bill Ayers and Jeremiah Wright. The good Reverend relentlessly instructed his congregants, says Steele, "to think and act as if the exaggerated poetic truth of white racism is the literal truth." Writing well before anyone had seen those telltale videos, Steele asks a fundamental question: How could Obama "sit every week in a church preaching blackness and not object"?
Ayers, the man who in Dreams From My Father lent Obama his voice on the subject of blackness, gives all appearances of being white. Skin color aside, Ayers and Obama had much in common. Both grew up in comfortable white households, attended idyllic, largely white prep schools, and have struggled to find an identity as righteous black men ever since.
Although Ayers rages at "structural racism" in all of his books, that rage reaches a primal scream stage in Race Course: Against White Supremacy, a book he co-wrote with wife Bernardine Dohrn after Obama's election. One would think that victory would have eased the pain, but it has done no such thing for Ayers and any number of other radicals, black and white.
Among the eternally irritated tenured radicals is Tim Wise, author of Between Barack and a Hard Place: Racism and White Denial in the Age of Obama. Self-described as an "Angry White Male" in the title of one of his earlier works, Wise penned his jeremiad post-election precisely to deny whites even a moment of self-congratulation.
In his book, Wise quickly reassures his audience that the "deep-seated cultural malady" of racism has been "neither eradicated nor even substantially diminished by Obama's victory." To support his arguments, he marshals the most outlandish set of statistics I have seen in a book that was not self-published.
Wise, like all believers in institutional racism, sees remediation only through "productive anti-racism and social justice work." In a similar spirit, Ayers rejects any easy "end-of-white-supremacy narrative." He fears that Obama's victory may actually set back the cause of social justice by taking black concerns off the table to preserve the illusion of racial harmony.
For Ayers, social justice means nothing less than communism, albeit with a small "c." In 1993, a year before Dreams was finally written, Ayers would concede in an interview for the book Sixties Radicals, Then and Now, "Maybe I'm the last communist who is willing to admit it."
Listening to these radical voices, Steele believes, has kept Obama a "bound man." He is not allowed to extrapolate from his own experience and preach the value of education, marriage, family, hard work, and success. At exactly the wrong moment, Ayers and Wright crawled into Obama's head and shielded their charge from his better angels.
The duo had the chance to help Obama establish himself as his own man, but instead, they insisted that, to be authentic, a black man must rage at the machine -- which is what Omar Thornton did to the very end, violently. If Obama argued for redemption through self-help, his core supporters, black and white, would deny him his authenticity. For someone who has struggled so long and hard to establish an identity as a black man, that denial is scarier than defeat. This is why, implies Steele, "He Can't Win."