As we move into the celebration of February as Black history month, there is much to celebrate. But thanks to the fact that this country really has not had the conversation on "race" that many of us have argued should have happened long ago and whose need is not eliminated with the election of Barack Obama, we are not able to celebrate the elimination of what I term the "race card default strategy" from the options available to all sides in any social and political event in our country.
But still there is much to celebrate. Within the space of just ten days, an African-American has taken the oath of office as the next President of the United States, in a city where just fifty years ago he would have been denied service in some restaurants just blocks away from the Capitol. And an African-American has been elected as Chairman of the Republican National Committee by an assemblage of overwhelmingly white electors in the Party where the "southern strategy" makes its home and where its elected representatives have made careers out of opposing every major economic and social justice legislative proposal put forth in the last twenty five years.
And so in America, where despite all independent efforts to the contrary a two party system rules our political system, we now enter the celebration of black history month with the new historical fact that both of those ruling parties are now headed by African-American males, and one of them, in addition to heading his party, also has a day job as President of the United States. Yes, there is much to celebrate, and America has sent a message that it can, when properly motivated (economic crisis), live up to the words and ideals of the founding fathers who, in their words, were setting the tone not just for their flawed generation (slavery), but also for the potential of all future American generations to do better. And we have done so. We celebrate that!
And now that we have addressed the required pleasantries and complimentary remarks that were so appropriate to open this essay, we can now get down to business, as you and I both know exactly why the Republican Party chose an African-American to head their Party for the next two years.
In the presidential primary campaign, we all learned just how important the issue of "race" was in the election as we saw it used by both sides just on the Democratic side even though only one side (Hillary Clinton) got blamed for it. In fact, what we saw is that precisely because we haven't had the conversation on race that we need, it was possible to campaign hard back and forth in the traditional sense, and then, when the criticism of the African-American candidate becomes or, more importantly, is perceived to be getting too intense, one could then accuse the attacking side of "using the race card."
It was done in New Hampshire, in South Carolina, and later in the general election, even as venerable an American Hero as Congressman John Lewis from Georgia sent the "race card" message out to the McCain campaign to silence a line of criticism coming from the McCain campaign that would have been routine and considered part of the normal political discussion if the candidate receiving the criticism were white. And with a media so acquiescent and compliant as their own institutional agenda lined them up with their "favorite" candidate as well, the strategy worked. Bill Clinton is still having to repair an image damaged by this - and for what - a man who spent 35 years of public service fighting to make life in America better specifically for African-Americans - and whatever else you want to label him or his actions, HE is not a racist.
But why did this happen - because America has not had the conversation on race it needed, and the Obama candidacy flew over the radar while this topic was still being tracked right in the middle of all the radar screens.
The Republicans saw this, and they learned from it. Right after the election, I said that white America had to learn that the Obama election did not mean that the issue of race in America was solved or that affirmative action, Head Start, and extra computers in urban schools were no longer needed. But I also said that black America had to learn that the Obama election did not mean that a new attitude of "we rule" would be acceptable, and most importantly, the African-American community had to learn that every time someone animatedly and even harshly attacked Barack Obama, it did not mean that the person criticizing President Obama was a racist.
But the primary campaign showed us that there is a sort of "default race card insurance" that can be utilized at times to aid President Obama in situations where a white president would have to continue to withstand the onslaught of criticism. This is a most critical aspect of how all of America must work harder to deal with race over the next 4 years, and if we don't succeed, we may just be talking about four years rather than eight.
Sometimes this "default race card insurance" will be subtle, when more soft spoken black leaders raise it, or sometimes it will be defiant, when perhaps Al Sharpton or others will be the spokespersons. Either way, it is there lying in wait and I, for one, do not celebrate that.
And so the Republicans, needing to be able to "go after the President" without being silenced by charges of unfair racism in their attacks, chose to buy full life insurance protection rather than just term insurance as they chose to make the chief spokesperson for their side another African-American who they hope will be able to cash in the present value of that "default race card insurance" policy by neutralizing the race card charge if it comes up.
And of course, the chairman of both the RNC and the DNC are not only expected but traditionally required to be among the most vocal in their intense and partisan attacks on the president or leader of the opposite Party. Consequently, selecting Michael Steele as the new RNC Chairman is designed to help position the Republicans more advantageously in their effort to fight off charges of "using the race card" when their attacks on the president become really harsh and tough.
Again, quoting from the Godfather, "it's a smart move, and the Republicans have as a rule always been smarter." But this time, they might outsmart themselves. Michael Steele, in providing some "default race card insurance", may also allow the Democrats and liberals to be able to focus exclusively on the policies of the Republican Party and argue how out of touch they are with America today. As part of his acceptance speech, Michael Steele made a reference suggesting that if people don't come over to our side or get out of the way, "we will run you over." Mr. Steele should be very careful as he may find that that the people the Republicans run over may very well be themselves.
Carl Jeffers is a Los Angeles-and Seattle based columnist, TV political analyst, radio talk show host and lecturer. E-mail: email@example.com