06/07/2010 05:12 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

It's About Race -- Michael Steele and RNC

Generally when someone says that a situation isn't about race, they are mistaken. It is. At least for somebody the situation is about race. The questions become just how much of it is about race and how many somebodies are we talking about? A current case in point is the evaluation of the Chairman of the Republican National Committee, Michael Steele's leadership in reference to RNC spending vs. fundraising. There appears to be enough criticism to stack up a case for ousting him without it being attributed to race. Yet to throw the black baby out with the bath water on this one would be naive. Arguably, the percentage of race-based evidence for wanting to dismiss Michael Steel is probably very low. Nevertheless, there has to be a hefty dose of "this black man is messing up" in somebody's thoughts. I would bet these words are being publicly and privately expressed by at least a few good republicans right now.

That is because the visibility of race as a component of a person's identity makes it impossible for race not to be considered a factor, however minute. We do see race even if we are not consciously noting it. With minorities, it is rare for race to be a neutral factor. Race is often a comparison benchmark--you are either like most folks from your race or not like any of the folks from your race. Your work is evaluated not only for its achievements or failures but for its context within your racial identity. The majority culture (white folks) gets to claim individuality. That is the benefit of privilege.

Many people are familiar with the classic Gestalt figure/ground image from their introductory psychology courses in college or recall the image from general reading. The figure/ground image not only illustrates the concept of perception, but how our brain works when it comes to managing differences. If you look at the black portion and view it as background and view the white portion as figural or in the foreground, you see the white portion as a vase (chalice or margarita glass if you are so inclined). If the white portion is receded as background and the black portion is figural, you see the profile of two faces. It is a simple enough concept to understand and most individuals can easily execute the perceptual shift that needs to happen in order to see both the vase and two faces.

Applying figure/ground principles to the "race thing" means that when race is involved it can be in the foreground or background depending on one's perception or worldview. Just as most people can see both the vase and two faces, most people will admit that in cases when you have a black man in charge of a group with a predominately white membership base, there is a high probability that race will come to the foreground occasionally. Evaluating the performance of Michael Steele (particularly when it is being viewed unfavorably) would be one of those occasions. Our natural human tendency when we are upset, angry about something or in conflict is to revert back to primitive behaviors (i.e. those behaviors that are absent of virtue, good manners, or political correctness). We are fooling ourselves if we think we live in a color-blind world especially when it comes to leadership and power.

Joe Scarborough of MSNBC's Morning Joe, among several political pundits, has introduced race into the discussion of Michael Steele's chairmanship death watch. For a white guy, he boldly named the elephant in the living room only to be met with retorts from the foreground brain of his guest that race was not the issue. They reasoned that clearly there were performance issues to warrant an ousting and that race had nothing at all to do with it. Yet Joe, still trying to raise the consciousness of the background brain of his guest, stated that he is convinced that some white guy is pouncing on Michael Steele's race as the basis for why he is messing up. I bet my money that Joe is right. After all, he's a white guy and if he is capable of thinking that it might be about race, so must at least a few dozen other white guys.

Former President Carter was lambasted for naming race as a factor for the negative treatment of President Obama in leading the country. Not surprisingly, Obama's administration was quick to deny that race played a role and publicly disagreed with Mr. Carter. I find it hard to believe that they did not in private agree with President Carter. The Obama administration knew that as a nation we are ill equipped to talk about race and better to cover up the elephant in the White House living room than to let it run amok.

Race remains a prickly topic for discussion in the U.S. But if we act as if only the vase exists, we miss the two faces. If we act as if only the two faces exist, we miss the vase. Seeing both as reality is necessary to understand the bigger picture and the opportunity to advance our country toward a more perfect union. Even Michael Steele stated on Good Morning America that he believes he is held to a higher standard because he is black. By making this public comment he put his party on notice. He would march that race elephant out of the living room and all over the nation if he wasn't supported. They have given him that support, but with the price tag of putting the race thing in the background where it can be safely ignored. Sadly, we have missed another opportunity for honest conversation about race.