Saturday, May 29, 2010

John S. Wilson OP-ED: Steele’s Not Playing the Race Card, Just the Hand He’s Been Dealt

By John S. Wilson

Kathleen Parker, writing in the Washington Post about Michael Steele’s recent comment that blacks have “slimmer margins” of error when in high profile roles, said: “Actually, racism would mean expecting less from an African American than from a white counterpart.” Not exactly. If the Republican National Committee expected Steele to work harder, longer, or produce better results than a non-black candidate — solely because Steele is black— in order to maintain his employment, that would be discriminatory at best, and racist at worst. Now I’m not saying that is the case. But if it were then let’s be prepared to call it what it is. How Parker misses that, I’m not quite sure.

Later, Parker speaks to a black Republican from South Carolina named Jean Howard-Hill who “reminds congregants that blacks were first elected to Congress as Republicans during Reconstruction and that their birthright was stolen by the Dixiecrats.” Howard-Hill says: “I would say [blacks are] treated differently within the party. But in terms of integrity, the standard is the same. Michael needs to own up because it’s not race. From day one, he has messed up. . . . If he wants to play the race card, play it with us.” Parker doesn’t explain what Howard-Hill means when she says “blacks are treated different within the party.” But I find it odd that she would quote Ms. Howard-Hill to rebut Steele’s contention if Howard-Hill seemingly agrees with Steele. Sure sounds as though she does, at least to a certain extent.

Let us acknowledge the elephant in the room before the weight of our silence forces the floor to give out: the modern-day GOP has a horrid relationship with the black community. Regardless of how the relationship got that way or how it’s been unfairly further strained by accusations, however wild or just unsubstantiated, it plays a large role in how black candidates and affiliates of the GOP are perceived by others. To act as though this isn’t the case is thoughtless.

And when the GOP acknowledges its challenges with race and decides to tackle one of them (for once) head on, they should get a little credit for it. Steele’s opportunity to lead the RNC indeed had to do with his race. But it wasn’t the only reason. After all Ken Blackwell, an African-American and former secretary of state of Ohio, was on the ballot and lasted through four rounds. Moreover, Steele brought a combination of experience — having been elected liuetenant governor of Maryland and serving as chairman of GOPAC, a Republican candidate training organization — in addition to his charisma and affinity with the media.

Few people would say Steele didn’t have a successful year during an unprecedented wave of optimism for Democrats. He led the party to victories in Virginia (Gov. Bob McDonell), New Jersey (Gov. Chris Christie), and Massachusetts (Sen. Scott Brown). Not only did all three states go for Obama in 2008, but Brown was the first Republican elected to the Senate in Massachusetts in 38 years. That has to account for something even when you “approve $1900 for a strip club” fundraiser and throw shots at Rush Limbaugh.

At the end of the day maybe it’s Steele himself who isn’t convinced that the GOP is willing to truly nurture their wounded relationship with the African-American community — or worse that it is just far too late. Earlier this year Democrats introduced legislation that would end the crack and powder cocaine 100-1 disparity that “allows a person convicted of crack cocaine possession [to get] the same mandatory jail time as someone with 100 times the same quantity of powder cocaine.” Democrats sought to decrease the ratio to 1-1. Senate Republicans on the Judiciary Committee, however, would only agree to a 20-1 ratio deal. Sadly enough, in 2000, African-Americans and Hispanics made up 93.7 percent of those convicted for federal crack offenses.

Lastly, there is something to be learned from Ms. Howard-Hill’s earlier comment to congregants about Reconstruction era African-Americans running for election as Republicans. While Republicans then were shedding blood to rid the land of injustices by passing the thirteenth, fourteenth, and fifteenth amendments, modern-day Republicans at times watch the bloodletting hoping injustice will be cured on its own. And that certainly isn’t any way to run a party.

John S. Wilson attends Virginia Commonwealth University with a triple major in economics, sociology, and women’s studies. He blogs at Policy Diary, contributes to Hip-Hop, and serves as a regular contributor to PolicyNet, where he writes about domestic and foreign affairs. He recently served as a legislative fellow in the office of the Honorable David Englin (D) of the Virginia House of Delegates.

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