Steele seems slow to grasp issues of race
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Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele has never been a profile in courage. The RNC's first black chairman and the highest-ranking negro in the GOP has always been quick to trade on racial stereotypes if he thought they could bring him even a scintilla of political or cultural cachet.
Meanwhile, Mr. Steele can always be counted on to scrupulously look the other way when black folks are insulted by powerful white conservatives like Rush Limbaugh. Remember his stinging rebuke of Dr. Laura? No? Exactly.
So much for the RNC chairman's promise to recast the GOP as more "off the hook" and "hip hop" in a doomed appeal to urban voters and young people. Instead of a principled outreach campaign designed to broaden the Republican tent, all we ever get from Mr. Steele is more condescension and buck-dancing in high places.
Fresh from fundraisers in Guam and other places in the South Pacific where Republicans aren't plentiful or relevant, here's how Mr. Steele weakly handled questions from CNN's John King about former House Speaker Newt Gingrich's latest putdown connected to the race of President Barack Obama.
King: Former Speaker of the House, the man who is moving around as if he might run for president, said that the president of the United States has a "Kenyan, anti-colonial" view of the world.
Steele: Who said that?
King: Newt Gingrich.
King: Is that an appropriate way to have this conversation, as a Republican leader and as a black man? Is that how you want to have this conversation?
Steele: I don't see what being black has to do with it, but ...
King: You don't think saying the president has a "Kenyan, anti-colonial" worldview is perhaps trying to play to the lowest common denominator in politics?
Steele: No, I don't think so, no. How do you make that stretch? Where's his dad from?
King: What does that have to do with ...
Steele: He's of Kenyan, African descent. He has an African, continental descent. So I don't know where you're going with that. But let me just say ...
King: So, you don't think it's race-baiting or playing to the birther crowd?
Steele: No, I don't. I don't see that stretch. I know some folks out there want to, but I don't see that. I know Newt. I know that's not his mindset on that. He's talking about a worldview that comes from a different part, whether it's Europe, the African continent.
Even Mr. King, arguably the least afrocentric journalist on cable, was aghast at Mr. Steele's willed obliviousness. There was nowhere for the interview to go after an exchange like that except straight to YouTube, where it could be endlessly viewed by the millions who've already written Mr. Steele off as a shameless political hack.
While even mainstream pundits use terms like "unhinged" to describe the discredited "Kenyan worldview" theory Newt cribbed from Dinesh D'Souza, the right wing's resident race man, Mr. Steele doesn't seem to have gotten the memo.
The RNC chairman's knee-jerk defense of Mr. Gingrich is so bizarre and off-putting that even a normally unflappable CNN anchor has to wonder whether he's being punked. How is such intellectual laziness and obsequiousness by a black politician even possible in the post-1865 world?
Last weekend, the National Federation of Republican Women's board of directors threw a shindig in Charleston, S.C., that would have warmed the cockles of Mr. Steele's heart. Photos of the gala called "The Southern Experience" have begun circulating.
The photos feature South Carolina's state Senate president, Glenn McConnell, dressed in Civil War clothing. In one photo, Mr. McConnell is flanked by two African-American Civil War re-enactors, a black man and woman dressed in antebellum slavery garb. All three are smiling.
Everyone at the party is pictured playing a role appropriate to the era. The black man has a floppy hat and wears a washboard strung across his torso. The woman is wearing a a head scarf. Both are showing their teeth. Neither can expect to be nominated for an NAACP Image Award this year.
Usually, when black folks see photos like these, there is a lot of soul searching. We wonder aloud what it takes to make someone drop every vestige of dignity to embody the myth of the happy-go-lucky slave? What kind of paychecks are we talking about?
In a way, the photos of the "happy slaves" at the Southern Experience party shine a perverse light on Mr. Steele's tenure at the RNC. He's playing the role expected of him. It's just another example of the pro-colonial, know-your-place, anti-insurrection attitude Newt Gingrich considers deeply American.
First Published September 17, 2010 6:21 am