Barack Obama’s inauguration has overshadowed another political milestone for 2009. Michael Steele became the first African American to serve as Republican Party chairman in early February, and only the second to lead a major political party (Ron Brown was elected DNC chair in 1989). A native of Maryland, Steele attended Johns Hopkins University, and after considering the priesthood instead chose Georgetown Law School. His political career includes positions as state party chairman and Lt. Governor. He lost his bid for Maryland’s open Senate seat in 2006, but returned to the political scene as a Fox News commentator, and now as GOP chairman. Steele’s ascendancy forces us to consider the moment, the man, and the effect. Did RNC members select Steele to counter Obama fanfare? Will putting a black man atop the party hierarchy increase blacks’ participation in Republican politics? And, just a few months into his job, how is Steele doing? Whether or not race played a factor in selecting him, this was a difficult contest among six qualified Republicans, including another African American that took five hours and six ballots. After most opponents withdrew, Steele defeated South Carolina Chairman Katon Dawson, by a vote of 91 to 77. “What impressed me,” Steele said to Essence Magazine, “was that the party did not vote for me because I am black,” and he touted that he never brought up race.
Ever since his election, however, Steele has taken backdoor opportunities to appear hip, or in-touch, ostensibly to appeal to the black community, but in reality perpetuating stereotypes and offended some. His one-liners, an asset in today’s sound-bite media, cause one to question his genuineness. After receiving the chairmanship, Steele asked, “How you like me now?” and since then has referred to stimulus money as “bling,” Republican leaders as “friggin’ awesome,” and the future of the GOP as “off the hook.” If this is common parlance for Steele, we can only appreciate his less-than-stately demeanor. But he has raised the ire of black leaders and caused several to question the Steele approach. Ada Fisher, a black RNC member from North Carolina, claimed in an email to committee members that Steele’s comments “makes us frankly appear to many blacks as quite foolish” and has asked him to step down. Conservative columnist Armstrong Williams claims Steele is pushing for a cultural change in the party “in the image and likeness of Tupak Shakur,” and calls the chairman the “self-appointed godfather of suburban hip-hop.” Steele’s simplistic strategy won’t woo African Americans or other minorities into the ranks of the GOP and, if anything, reinforces the GOP’s stereotypical image as a white, angry, out-of-touch, non-urban party. Many will believe—true or not—the party is showcasing a token black as a tool to prove otherwise. Any influx of non-white voters into the GOP will take more time than Michael Steele will have as chairman.