When Michael Steele ran for chair of the Republican National Committee, he was careful to signal to Republicans that not only would he help immunize them against accusations of racism but that he'd be willing to use race as a cudgel against the Democrats. He said that Barack Obama "played the race card beautifully" during the election, and added that that the GOP shouldn't go easy on Obama "just because the President of the United States happens to be a black man." The point was that Steele, being black, would be able to help the GOP go at Obama while deflecting accusations that their criticisms were motivated by racial animus.
Since then, Steele has appeared more willing to utilize race as a cudgel against Republicans. On ABC this morning, Steele told George Stephanopoulos that he and the president have a "slimmer margin of error" because they're black:
Barack Obama has a slimmer margin. A lot of folks do. It's a different role for me to play and others to play and that's just the reality of it. But you just take that as a part of the nature of it.
Steele said that the problem might be that "I tend to, you know, come at it a little bit stronger, a little bit more street-wise." Right.
The phenomenon is actually a lot more complicated. I think Steele's right that black people in important positions often have a smaller margin for error because people assume that they're only there because of their race. The problem is that Steele is in the opposite situation -- as head of a party that struggles to reach out to people of color, they can't really afford to dump their first black chair -- even though he hasn't been doing a spectacular job. There's enough legitimate stuff to criticize about Steele's tenure that it's absurd to watch him dismiss all of his critics out of hand this way. Despite the bad press, though, the RNC seems to be doing its job -- raising money and winning elections -- just fine, so I tend to agree that some of the recent criticism is a bit overblown.
This is another example of why Republicans continue to fail at minority outreach: Their understanding of how racism works is completely politicized. Steele thinks he's a victim of racism whenever he's in trouble, but also thinks that Obama only got elected because he's black, except when he's trying to draw parallels between himself and the president. Abortion is a plot to commit genocide against black people -- but the idea that being black might make it harder for you to get a job is ludicrous. Republicans generally seem to see racism as a political weapon rather than something that actually affects people's lives and livelihoods, and Steele's presence at the RNC isn't doing anything to disabuse them of that notion.
-- A. Serwer
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