Steele needs to find his voice on race issues

October 25, 2005|By MICHAEL OLESKER

At Prince George's Community College today, Michael Steele is expected to announce his Republican candidacy for the U.S. Senate. He wanted to make the grand announcement at the Elkridge Country Club, but they told him they were already booked.

No, please, I joke. But I only joke because I know the lieutenant governor of Maryland has such a rich sense of humor about such things. His candidacy is certainly no joke, but Steele's observations about politics and race - that's another story.

Back in July, as everybody knows, Steele reacted to Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. holding a $1,000-a-head golf outing at the historically all-white Elkridge club with the immortal words that he didn't "care, quite frankly, because I don't play golf. It's not an issue with me."

After a mere two-week pause to consider the political fallout - and to duck the barrage of criticism that the issue wasn't about golf, for heaven's sake, it was about generations of racial discrimination - Steele finally said, "I will admit that my initial reaction to this was a little more flippant than it should have been."

Flippant, that's it.

So His Flippancy will go to Prince George's Community College today, and announce that he's bringing his great sensitivity, and his political record, to a bid for outgoing Sen. Paul Sarbanes' seat. The Democrats have been lining up candidates for several months now, including Rep. Benjamin Cardin and former NAACP leader Kweisi Mfume. Each has drawbacks. But neither has ever mistaken a discrimination issue for a question about golf.

The Elkridge issue lingers because of Steele's own history. He is the first African-American to hold statewide office, and he would be the state's first black U.S. senator. But, while his race is a belated symbolic triumph for Maryland, it is also a great perplexity.

Four years ago, when Ehrlich chose Steele as his running mate, he clearly was not basing the choice on Steele's political record. There was almost none. The Ehrlich-Steele partnership was, instead, intended as the signal of a new day. Instead of seeing the Republican Party as the one that tried to stand in the way of a generation's bid for racial equality and fairness, this was now to be perceived as the Grand New Party that would embrace black people as well as whites.

And into this new party Steele would bring the great insights, and the great sensitivity, of a man who understood America's racial slights because he'd been on the receiving end of them the way almost no other modern Republicans had ever been.

When he finally came to his senses about the Elkridge issue, Steele told a reporter, "When I was posed with this question, my response was in the context of all the things I am fighting for and thinking about. ... My concern is not whether or not African-Americans or Hispanics or any minorities have access to an all-white country club. I'm concerned that they have access to a better education system, a greater opportunity to get jobs and keep jobs, a greater opportunity to put themselves in a position where they can realize their dreams. And if their dream is to one day play at Elkridge, God bless them. But we have a lot of work to do between now and then."

Those are fine words. But they also have the sense of isolation about them. For, across his three years as lieutenant governor, where are Steele's words about the continuing economic and social disparities between blacks and whites?

We heard them once. Just weeks after his election, Steele delivered a speech at downtown's Renaissance Harborplace Hotel. There were several hundred people there, racially mixed, and most of them Democrats. He talked about equal employment opportunities, about more money for schools. When liberals talk about such things, conservatives accuse them of throwing money away. So they loved what Steele had to say - because he sounded like them. They imagined the arrival of a brave new voice. Steele also spoke movingly about crime.

"My house gets robbed," he told the big crowd. "We know why. There are no jobs. So let's not ignore the community and those who need help. I am tired of 15-year-old black males seeing their future in a jail cell or a graveyard. We can't afford to lose another generation. It will not happen on my watch."

Here's the problem. Steele has mostly gone mute on such things over the last three years. On the Ehrlich-Steele watch, the juvenile justice system has fallen into full catastrophe, and the prisons are bulging, mostly with young black men. The struggle over funding for public schools continues to be acrimonious, and the cost of an education in Maryland's colleges has mushroomed in the past three years. We have a governor who famously called multiculturalism "crap" and "bunk," while Steele stood silent. And, when the same governor found nothing wrong with holding a golf outing at an all-white club, Steele had to be pushed into finding anything wrong with it.

On matters of race, he has to be more than a symbol. If he's still struggling to find his voice on the fundamentals, what does that tell us about the complex stuff?

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