Don't Dismiss Michael Steele's Race Comments

Perhaps the worst public-relations sin an American can commit is blaming his problems on something other than himself, especially when the scapegoat is ethnicity, gender, or race. One would have thought Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele would have known that. But apparently his current troubles are such a distraction that, when given the bait, he was reduced to blurting out what he felt to be the truth.

"Do you feel that as an African-American you have a slimmer margin for error than another chairman would?" asked Good Morning America host George Stephanopoulos. "The honest answer is yes," responded Steele. The question arose amid growing calls for Steele's scalp from conservatives fed up with a series of public-relations snafus, to which this latest statement can now be added, and over-the-top expenditures—the most embarrassing of which was a $2,000 RNC outing to a bondage-themed strip club.

Steele's statement was greeted with derision on the right and left. Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, who has served as RNC chair himself, laughed off Steele's comment by comparing Steele's plight to his own: "When you're a fat redneck like me and got an accent like mine, you can say, 'Well, they're going to hold me to a higher standard,' " he told CNN. White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs pronounced Steele's comment "silly." Steele's problem "isn't the race card, it's the credit card," added Gibbs, referring to the RNC's questionable expenses.

But is it true that African-Americans are not, in fact, given less room to make mistakes? Or is it possible that Steele just fulfilled the axiom that a political gaffe is made when one speaks an uncomfortable truth? After all, the very fact that Steele is in the job has something to do with race. "He has a symbolic value in the context of an Obama presidency," notes Sharon Collins, a sociologist at the University of Illinois. "So race is front and center." Since race has been so central to his tenure, it inevitably influences how people see him, says Collins, who studies high-ranking black executives. "When [Steele] said that, my first thought was, I know what he means, but he will never be able to explain it to people who haven't experienced it or aren't sensitive to that on some level." So even if what Steele felt was true, says Collins, he would have been better off keeping his mouth shut instead of risking sounding like a witless crybaby. "Once you say it, it makes you look like an idiot, because it's so hard to explain what you mean."

But let's assume that it's possible that two things are true: that Steele, in many respects, has done an awful job, and that he is also held to a different standard. Since there is no white RNC chairman who has performed in precisely the same way and whose public acceptance can then be judged against Steele's, there's no real way to evaluate Steele's complaint. There is only Steele's suspicion, which is very easy to reject and even ridicule—particularly by those who believe we have approached that American ideal in which people, for the most part, are judged by their accomplishments instead of their race.

Similar issues arose during Hillary Clinton's presidential run. Many people felt that she, and even her female supporters, were held to a different standard because of her gender. In an op-ed column for The New York Times, Gloria Steinem observed, among other things, that people were too quick to accuse Clinton of playing the "gender card" and that male voters "were seen as gender-free when supporting their own, while female voters were seen as biased if they did and disloyal if they didn't."

In one sense, the question doesn't much matter. Hillary, after all, lost; and she did enough things wrong that it's impossible to say just how much how gender had to do with her losing. And, even putting the latest imbroglio aside, it's not as if Steele has been a paragon of managerial competence. But none of that makes his comment "silly" or even inaccurate. It merely makes it easy to dismiss.

Ellis Cose is also the author of Bone to Pick: Of Forgiveness, Reconciliation, Reparation, and Revenge and The Envy of the World: On Being a Black Man in America.