Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Steele's Race Card

Appearing in ABC's "Good Morning America, embattled Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele suggested that his margin of error as chairman is smaller than others because of his race. In so doing, Mr. Steele argued that he and President Obama found themselves in the same position: handicapped because of their race.

As soon as I heard the comment, two questions popped into my head. Can anybody seriously doubt that such a double-standard exists? And yet, why in the world would Steele say that?

The first reaction takes me back to a post from a few months back about the way race shapes perceptions of reality. The same applies here: ask a person of color about this comment, and she will nod her head in agreement, barely having to think about it at all. Of course he is being judged differently. What's new about that? Ask a white person, however, and you are likely to get a different answer. We are divided by color indeed.

But that's precisely the point. What does Mr. Steele have to gain by linking his struggles as chairman of the Republican National Committee to his race? The immediate reactions were unsurprising. Ask the White House, and its spokesperson will tell you that Steele's comment is "silly." Ask a Democrat, and he will tell you that Steele's "case of foot-in-mouth disease is getting very tiresome," and he "is the price the Republicans are paying for tokenism." Ask a Republican, and he will take issue with the tokenism charge and will blame liberals for their intolerance. Ask a black person, and she will tell you that "Steele is absolutely right to acknowledge that he has a lower margin of error than perhaps a white counterpart."

These responses were as predictable today as they would have been a week ago. Why, then, did Steele feel the need to go on national television to defend himself in this way? The only audience that makes any sense to me is fellow black and Latino voters. Could this be the latest effort on his part to court voters of color to the Republican party? Crazy as it may seem, this is the only way his interview makes any sense.