By John N. Mitchell
Special to the NNPA from The Philadelphia Tribune
Many in the African American community have wondered why Michael Steele remained a member of the Republican Party after he was unceremoniously dismissed as the party chair after leading a historic rout of the Democrats in 2010.
Recently, before a group of African-American journalists, he answered that question.
“My job was to stir the pot from within; to be a reflection of America to them; to be a reflection of unity to them,” Steele said. “You’re going to have to deal with me now that I run the entire show as national chair. Defeats, yeah. Push backs, maybe. No matter if it’s me, Herman Cain or whoever it may be, you are going to have to look Black America in the eye at some point and deal with us. Otherwise, remember the Whig Party? Well, there you go. That is the reality right now that this party faces. I’m just a moment in time; there are a hell of a lot more moments to come.”
Steele made the statement on a panel at the National Association of Black Journalists convention in Philadelphia, addressing the upcoming 2012 elections. The panel was moderated by Roland Martin. Steele, the first African American to head up the Republican Party, was joined by author and scholar Cornel West, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed and journalist and author Sophia Nelson. The Rev. Al Sharpton, president of the National Action Network, was scheduled to appear, but did not.
Steele was elected Republican National Committee chairman in January 2009, just two months after Barack Obama became the country’s first African- American president. His election was viewed by many as a reflexive move by a party that has, since the days of the southern strategy, become less and less welcoming to African Americans.
Steele led his party to a 64- seat gain in the House in the 2010 elections, the biggest gain since the Republicans picked up a whopping 81 in 1939.
However, he clumsily navigated the racial terrain in that capacity, and was as unable to increase African American participation in the party. While many African Americans wanted him to acquit himself with dignity in that role, most lost faith in him when he suggested to a blogger that he would bring “fried chicken and potato salad” if it would help bring African Americans to the party.
The reinforcement of this racist stereotype only served to distance Steele further from the African American community. He later sidestepped the racist legacies of Republicans such as Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott, who once praised the work of segregationist Senator Strom Thurmond.
Much of the fiery and flavorful debate centered on whether or not it was acceptable by African Americans to critique Obama, who faces a tough re-election challenge in 2012. West has been very critical of Obama, but he has also been supportive of the president.
However, he said that Obama must address the plight of poor people, most of whom are Black and brown.
“We are trying to humbly keep alive the legacy of Martin Luther King, who was shot down and killed like a dog organizing poor people, not just in Memphis, but also in Washington, D.C.,” West said. “Both parties are guilty of rendering poor people invisible. We will continue to confront the president and anyone else who is not paying attention to those needs.”
Reed said that Obama simply is not in a position to be able to talk about issues that directly impact African Americans alone.
“If Barack Obama were to go into a press conference and begin to go item by item about what this country needs to do for Black America, let’s be honest about this, he would be out of office faster than you can bat an eye,” Reed said.
Countered Martin: “You have to wonder why the debate can’t be public. He speaks directly to the gay and lesbian community with ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell.’ He speaks directly to the Latino community on issues of immigration. He speaks to all of these groups. Doesn’t he have an obligation to have this conversation with the Black community?”
Unfortunately, the panel did not get to the issue of jobs, which might be the most pressing issue on the Black community during this recession. According to the most recent numbers of the National Bureau of Labor Statistics, the June national average unemployment rate is 9.2.
Philadelphia’s overall average was 10.7 percent. However, the numbers for African Americans are significantly worse. Last year the country’s overall average unemployment number was 9.6 percent. However, for African Americans it was a depression era-like 16.0 percent. Philadelphia’s overall African American unemployment rate in 2010 averaged out to 15.1 percent. However, during that same time period, the unemployment rate for African American men was just under 20 percent.