March 14, 2009

Steele: The RNC's Inarticulate, Angry Black Man

I read Michael Steele's GQ interview finally. It pretty much left me with my jaw on the floor. I have a hard time believing that Steele will remain RNC chair after reading it and wondering very seriously if Steele should have this job at all. Right off the top, I was very disappointed with his tone :

I was kinda expecting hip-hop to be playing in here today. Aw, sh—. It’s on my, uh, computer there. I haven’t pulled it up yet, but I’ll get a little bit goin’ in a second or two.

Answering a question about other artists he liked to listen to: Love Dean Martin. He was one of these guys who just didn’t give an F.

How do you deal with the criticism?
I just pray on it.

You do?
Oh yeah. And I ask God, “Hey, let me show just a little bit of love, so I absolutely don’t go out and kick this person’s ass.”

First off, the slang references, the profanity and the really casual language were all turn offs. If I compare this performance along with his other media forays to prominent black republicans like Condi Rice or Colin Powell or J.C. Watts, this is below that standard. This is a guy who is supposed to be articulate and a communicator, but you would not know it from the quality of his conversation in this interview. I also thought he managed a series of silly questions ineffectively. If you’re trying to expand the tent, all of those questions need to be turned to getting the GOP view across to the people you want to entice in. I thought it was a very ineffective interview on that score. When the subject turned to abortion, it got worse.

The choice issue cuts two ways. You can choose life, or you can choose abortion. You know, my mother chose life. So, you know, I think the power of the argument of choice boils down to stating a case for one or the other.

Are you saying you think women have the right to choose abortion?
Yeah. I mean, again, I think that’s an individual choice. You do? Yeah. Absolutely.
Are you saying you don’t want to overturn Roe v. Wade?
I think Roe v. Wade—as a legal matter, Roe v. Wade was a wrongly decided matter.
Okay, but if you overturn Roe v. Wade, how do women have the choice you just said they should have?
The states should make that choice. That’s what the choice is. The individual choice rests in the states. Let them decide.

This answer was incoherent mush delivered on a garbage can lid. Not to mention the fact that at the time he was born, abortion was illegal, so his mother’s choice would have been an illegal procedure in the shadows, something he ought to have an awareness of before somebody hands it to him in a rhetorical knuckle sandwich. He sounded like he was dodging giving a straight answer and in the process gave what sounded like a dishonest answer. A pro life stance means you would make it illegal to have an abortion. It would no longer be a legal choice women are permitted to make. Don't try to BS that. It makes you sound sinister. Really poor articulation of the issues and as an aside, too much about his position, not enough about the GOP's position.

The other thing going on here that is really blowing my mind is the HUGE racial chip Steele has on his shoulder. He is ticked off about the way the GOP handles black voters as a constituency and his anger is patently apparent in his comments.

Well, would you have this job if you were white?
Would I have this job? Now, that’s the reverse of the question I typically get. I usually get, would I have this job if the president were white? And my answer to that is yes. But would I have this job if I were white? [long pause] The answer to that is I don’t know. I don’t know. That’s a very good question. And it says a lot about, I think, where the party is right now that I can’t answer it.

Whoa, Whoa, WHOA!!! Let me get this straight. In the first example, if the president were white, you would have been elected to this job on your merits. But if the question, asked in the reverse is did you get this job not because you were the best, but because you were black, your answer is I don't know?!! This response was horrible, just really poorly delivered by a guy who has the job of RNC chair. I am the first to argue that the GOP has a problem with blacks. Its a fundamental problem that goes right to the issue of what the identity of the GOP is going to be. Steele clearly believes that too, but as the chairman of the GOP, he ought to articulate the concern and issue much better than this. Because if you want to address that, you are going to have to raise the issue in a way that is accessible within the party and the way he did it was not, at all.

You mean your Starbucks hasn’t closed yet?
No, my Starbucks has not closed. And it better not! You cannot close a Starbucks in a black community. We’ll riot!

I found this comment about Starbucks in a black neighborhood to be tasteless and inappropriate to the moment and its one of a string of comments he’s made now where he routinely throws into the public's face the self evident fact that he’s black. It is so unnecessary. Obama spent a campaign trying desperately to run away from race and Steele goes out of his way to remind us he's black and for the life of me I cannot understand why the guy is doing that, which began with his Kool Mo Dee stylings upon election, continued with his if we rap it, they will come strategy and now this interview. Its beginning to feel like his way of shoving his blackness down the throat of the party. I’m not sure why he feels that it is necessary to do that. But he keeps doing it, and the reason seems clear. He is angry at the party on the subject of blacks.

Give Steele credit for not just dealing with this issue in a passive aggressive mode however. He unflinchingly and candidly excoriates the GOP’s dismal relationship management with blacks as a constituency.

You made the comment at the convention about the sea of white faces. And you got a little bit of heat for that.
I sure did. And I looked at the people who gave me the heat and said, “What’s your problem? You tell me I’m wrong. Look at the room. Thirty-six black folks in the room? What, are you kidding me? Out of 4,000 people? Come on!”

Why do you think so few nonwhite Americans support the Republican Party right now?
’Cause we have offered them nothing! And the impression we’ve created is that we don’t give a damn about them or we just outright don’t like them. And that’s not a healthy thing for a political party. I think the way we’ve talked about immigration, the way we’ve talked about some of the issues that are important to African-Americans, like affirmative action… I mean, you know, having an absolute holier-than-thou attitude about something that’s important to a particular community doesn’t engender confidence in your leadership by that community—or consideration of you for office or other things—because you’ve already given off the vibe that you don’t care. What I’m trying to do now is to say we do give a damn.

His sentiments are probably shared by the majority of blacks and that includes black republicans. I completely agree with him here. Steele is speaking directly to the cognitive dissonance between the GOP's talk on race and the GOP's walk. The GOP is fundamentally disinterested in black voters as a constituency. That's not an accusation of racism. Its just the bald facts. The GOP does not believe that the black voter bloc is necessary or essential to their aspirations for governance. That is a sentiment held by both its leadership and by the rank and file.

While we're on the subject of cognitive dissonance, Steele has a bit of his own to grapple with as well. Talking to fellow blogger Sophia Nelson of Political Intersection in Essence magazine:

NELSON: What is your first priority with regard to changing the image of the RNC?

STEELE: Yes, we do have an image problem and the first thing I am going to do is take the GOP’s message to Black community. We are going to show up, spend time, and spend money. And most importantly, if we want our message to be heard, we have to talk to the Black media.

Its not an image problem that the GOP has with black voters. The GOP has made conscious decisions to use wedge tactics and divisive rhetoric that positions its base in opposition to blacks. Those decisions make it clear that the calculus of the GOP has been that they do not require the support of the black community to win governance. In an America of changing demographics, a political practice that seeks to overpower and ignore minority political constituencies is not a winning formula. The GOP will have to squarely confront the issues of concern to black voters in an effective way (Latinos as well) to harness their political power. Conservative ideology is more than equal to the task, but what passes for GOP/conservative political practice is not. The remedy for that is much more than a PR overhaul.

Steele's comments make me think one of two futures is possible. Future 1: Steele gets bounced from the chairman job, which I consider more likely if the fund raising numbers are not looking good. Future 2: Steele manages to stay on, but becomes marginalized and a token figure at the top of the party, and the real juice simply flows around him as the party avoids the funky atmospherics of dumping him. Because on the issue of race and the GOP’s relationship with blacks, Steele and the party's powerful right wing are worlds apart.

When Barack Obama gave the speech on race, did you agree with what he said?
I did. I mean, some of it. But my concern throughout this campaign was, people were treating him like he was going to be the Second Coming on the question of race. And because you have a black man as president doesn’t mean that tomorrow morning a black business is not gonna get redlined or a black family’s gonna be able to get their house. Those issues still exist. So the reality of it is, electing Barack does not necessarily change the underlying concerns and issues related to race. On one level it does, but I’m still a black man; when I walk in a room, you have attitudes about black folks. I can’t change that. And I’ve gotta deal with that reality regardless of my title. There are people in this country right now who would look at Barack Obama and still refer to him as “boy.” Period. That’s the reality of America [emphasis mine]. So my point is, just recognize that while the election is historic, while it is important, while it is transformative, it does not absolve us of having to deal day in and day out, in my life and your life, with the question of race.

Racism is the reality of America? He alludes to the idea that racism is institutionally embedded in our society. Agree or disagree, but I can hardly believe I'm listening to an RNC chairman. The consistent manner in which Steele reminds us of race both directly and with his cultural shorthand buzz words and slang, says to me that his party's stance relative to blacks really sticks in his craw and has done so for some time. Heck, look at his public statements about the issue of blacks and the GOP, its not like he is hiding it. The GOP remains in the grip of the sort of low brow conservatism represented by the Rush end of the spectrum and that sector of the party’s thinking on race and Steele’s views are like anti-matter to each other. Attorney General Holder caught flak for calling us a nation of cowards about race (from me included), but the GOP is looking cowardly right now, because everyone is savaging Steele for his abortion comments, but I have not seen anyone in the GOP say boo about his comments on race which are every bit as egregious. At Hot Air, look in the comments section on Steele related posts and you see repeated several times the idea that dumping the first black man to be RNC chair would make the GOP look bad.

He could finesse the issue by simply leaving it alone, but Steele is NOT doing that. He’s pushing it, but not in a smart way, and I’m not sure that will serve him well. He’s carrying his race on his shoulder and thats almost always not a good look.