By Elwood Watson
Several weeks ago, the Republican National Committee elected Michael Steele as its first Black party chairman. What was seen at the time as an excellent move on the part of the GOP by some (even some Black columnists such as Earl Ofari Hutchinson and USA Today columnist DeWayne Wickham) has devolved into feelings of disillusionment, panic and, in some cases, outright anger as Steele has made several comments that have outraged some members of his party’s more conservative base. Many Republicans are beginning to have second thoughts and doubts about the former lieutenant governor of Maryland.
From inadvertently picking a fight with mega radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh on the soon-to-be-cancelled CNN program “D.L. Hughley Breaks the News” and later apologizing, to slashing more than 100 positions at the RNC, to voicing statements on abortion and homosexuality in a recent issue of GQ magazine that are clearly at odds with the GOP’s conservative base, he has caused many of his red state constituents to unleash a fury of anger toward him. Comments ranging from “he is a loose cannon” to “he is not a true Republican” have become common responses among many Republicans.
Outraged by Steele’s remarks that Limbaugh was not the leader of the Republican Party but rather an entertainer, and at times an incendiary one, Limbaugh admonished Steele for spending too much time doing a poor job meandering on the talk show circuit and urged him to get to work doing the job that he was hired to do – rebuilding and raising money for the party. It was not only Limbaugh and White Republicans who were voicing their disgust with Steele. Fellow Black Republicans – North Carolina national committeewoman Dr. Ada Fisher and former Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell, a runner up for the GOP chairman position – have made their displeasure with their current party boss known. Fisher called for his resignation.
While Steele has made a number of mea culpas and promises to revive the current beleaguered state of the GOP, his goal to reach out to make the party more inclusive to Blacks, especially younger Black Americans, has been noteworthy, yet questionable. In a party that has more than its share of bigots (there are a number in the Democratic Party as well, however in the GOP they are more at center stage) and has voted against the interests of Blacks since the mid 1960s, when the far right snatched power from the more moderate Rockefeller wing, promising to make the party more racially inclusive is going to be difficult for chairman Steele. Too many people of age can remember the infamous 1992 Republican convention where Republicans like Pat Buchanan and Pat Robertson voiced vehemently bigoted, sexist, homophobic and anti-semitic rhetoric.
Other examples are the 2000 and 2004 presidential election voting shenanigans in Florida and Ohio some GOP officials were associated with. Many people watched in disgust and horror at the Bush administration’s callous and indifferent attitude toward the largely disenfranchised and oppressed Black population of New Orleans during the Hurricane Katrina fiasco in 2005. Then there was the absence of many 2008 Republican presidential candidates from several forums that were sponsored by Tavis Smiley on issues facing the Black community. Such behavior cannot be easily forgotten. Indeed, more than a few of the party’s critics have memories like “elephants” – the party symbol.
Interestingly, there are a number of issues that the Republican Party espouses that would appeal to Black upscale voters. Today’s Black professional class, largely religious, devotedly committed to education, yet progressive on many social issues, would seem to have a lot in common with moderate Republicans. However, in order to accomplish this, Steele will have to clean house or marginalize the bigoted, regressive-minded individuals that have dominated the party since 1964 and restore the party to the more racially inclusive entity that it was during the Eisenhower era. No doubt the current chairman is well aware of this fact. Perhaps Michael Steele (if he survives as chairman) will be able to rectify a party that is currently in shambles politically, racially, socially and in almost every other way imaginable and bring such diverse elements together. It is doubtful but one should never say never.
Dr. Elwood Watson is a full professor of history and African American studies at East Tennessee State University. He is the author of several award-winning academic articles, several anthologies and is the author of the book Outsiders Within: Black Women in the Legal Academy After Brown v. Board (Rowman and Littlefield Publishers Spring 2008)