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Keli Goff

Keli Goff

Posted: April 14, 2010 08:45 AM

Why Michael Steele Still Matters (Even If You Wish That He Didn't)

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At this point Michael Steele's tenure as RNC Chair has become such a joke, that it's hard not to wonder if he's intentionally writing the punch lines himself.

As everyone who doesn't live under a rock now knows, a recent report revealed that on Steele's watch the RNC billed thousands of dollars on luxury hotels and travel, and most embarrassingly, a bondage themed nightclub. (Try to read that sentence without giggling. It's virtually impossible.) Despite his early run-ins with (and subsequent retreat from) Rush Limbaugh, his multiple verbal gaffes, (including musing on the record that the GOP was not likely to reclaim the House this year) it is Bondage-gate that appears to have finally turned Steele from laughingstock to the political equivalent of Dead Man Walking.

GOP Consultant Alex Castellanos, a former Steele confidante, was recently joined by North Carolina's GOP Chair in calling for Steele's resignation. Anyone seeking further proof that Steele's tenure as Chair is on the political equivalent of life support, need look no further than the recent "letter of support" signed by thirty other state GOP chairs. That seems like the political equivalent of a Hollywood couple issuing a press release to announce how happily married they are.

Steele recently admitted that he believes that Blacks in high profile positions -- from himself to the President -- are judged more harshly than their White counterparts. This statement is one of the few things that he (someone I have interviewed in the past and on a personal level happen to like) has said in recent months that I actually agree with. But since he ceased being taken seriously a while ago, now everything he says is either dismissed altogether or greeted with outright ridicule, even when it actually makes some sense. The irony of course, is that if he believes this axiom to be true, that he would be held to a higher standard, shouldn't he have tried harder all along to avoid so many unnecessary yet costly mistakes?

I thought things couldn't get worse for him when someone created a video mocking Steele's financial scandal by depicting him as a blinged-out rapper, complete with gyrating video vixens and all. Then The Root.com included him on a list that could have been called "Fellow Blacks we Wish we Could Give Back." (I know Steele hasn't had the greatest year but to put him on a list with O.J. Simpson still seems pretty harsh.)

But as funny as taking potshots at Steele may seem at the moment, the possible failure of his tenure is ultimately no laughing matter for Black Americans of all political stripes.

When Steele acknowledged that he believes he has a slimmer margin of error as a Black man, he hinted at a largely unspoken, yet widely perceived racial reality in the eyes of many minorities: that when a minority trailblazer fails they make it that much harder for those who come after them.

A friend of mine once shared that there were young women working in entertainment who privately shed tears when Jamie Tarses, the first female head of ABC's entertainment division, resigned, after her gift for picking hits like Friends for NBC did not translate into success as an executive. Their tears could have been for a variety of reasons, but it's likely that some of them knew that fairly or not, she was carrying their own hopes and futures on her shoulders, and that her failure had just made their own climbs up the ladder a little tougher.

The same goes for President Obama. I often get criticized, particularly among some older Americans, for being too "Pollyanna-ish" (read: naïve) about my perspective on race relations, so it came as a surprise to some when I said at one speaking engagement that President Obama has zero room for outright failure, simply because he's the first. And if he fails -- and I'm talking impeachment level embarrassment -- it will make it that much harder for another Black person to be granted the same opportunity anytime in the near future.

Which brings me back to Michael Steele. Some of you may be thinking that nothing would make you happier that to see Steele fail, because you see him as a token, or political turncoat or simply don't like him.

But let's not forget that former Secretary of State Colin Powell, a Black conservative, arguably did just as much to make some white conservatives and swing voters comfortable with the idea of seeing a Black man serve in a leadership capacity at the highest levels of government as any Black Democrat has. My point is that effectively combating racism and prejudice has historically required a combination of government intervention, along with individuals encountering those who defy the negative stereotypes that they possess. So far, Steele does not appear to be doing that. Which does not help any of us -- particularly among some of the extremists within his party who are looking to validate their prejudice.

So even though I don't agree with Steele on everything, I for one am rooting for him to salvage both his reputation and his leadership role.

Because if Steele fails, it simply makes it that much harder for those who have refused to accept the President in a leadership role, to accept any Black man in one, and in the end that doesn't help any of us.

This piece is republished courtesy of TheLoop21.com for which Goff is a political writer.

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