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Vol. LXIV, No. 8
Wednesday, February 24, 2010
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“Lincoln Republican” Steele Considers State of America at University Discussion

Dilshanie Perera

Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele and Princeton University Professor Eddie Glaude sat down together Monday for a public conversation on campus. Hosted by the Center for African American Studies, of which Mr. Glaude is the chair, the event sparked a lively debate that touched on Mr. Steele’s biography and inequality in America.

“Our understanding of who Michael Steele is is highly mediated,” Mr. Glaude remarked, allowing for the chairman to present himself in his own words.

Mr. Steele explained that his mother was an 18-year-old student at Catholic University, who had decided to have an abortion, but was later dissuaded from doing so. “A lot of people don’t know that aspect of my beginning … the choices people make in life cannot be narrowed down to a sound bite.”

His adoptive mother Maebell, the daughter of a sharecropper who had to drop out of school in the 5th grade, was “the one who formed me,” Mr. Steele said. The young Steele grew up in Washington D.C. with his mother, who worked at a laundry facility, and his father, who suffered from alcoholism and died at 36. “We were one of the first black families in the neighborhood, and the environment was at the cutting edge of the civil rights era.”

“I was 10 years old the day Dr. King died … the way my mother described him was as a friend of the family,” Mr. Steele added. “She saw him as someone fighting for her, and fighting for me.”

Characterizing his mother as having taught him how to engage with people, Mr. Steele said she would tell him, “Son, you would do so much better if you would shut up and listen.” The moment revealed to him that one must never presume to understand someone else’s walk, journey, and stance. “That is something both parties need to learn,” he said.

Asked about the role of religion in his life, Mr. Steele noted that he is a first generation Catholic, and that his mother belonged to the Church of God in Christ tradition. Much of his childhood was spent at church, and though he was once on track to become a priest, he later dropped out to attend law school. Nonetheless, the experience proved formative. “I could not do this job without having spent two-and-a-half to three years in a monastery,” he said.

On the subject of books that have influenced his life, Mr. Steele cited Augustine’s City of God, the dialogue between Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois, and the writings of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X as inspirations.

Mr. Glaude asked how one can reconcile being a self-described “Lincoln Republican” with simultaneously supporting the principles of Reaganism. Wherein “government under Lincoln expands exponentially,” and a general “resisting of American elites” takes place, the “Reagan impulse” could be seen historically as a “fundamental betrayal of the Republican Party” up until then, he suggested.

Countering that what drew him into the party was a “mindset that valued the role of the individual over that of the government,” Mr. Steele recalled that he saw Ronald Reagan’s views and mode of conceptualizing America as “very optimistic and very forward thinking” at the time.

“What happens when the base of the party takes on a narrow view vis-à-vis difference?” Mr. Glaude asked.

“The base of both parties is narrow,” Mr. Steele replied, adding that whenever the Republican party moves away from the idea of freedom, is “when we get into trouble,” pointing out the eight years of the Bush Administration as an example.

Being an African American in the Republican party can prove difficult at times, with Mr. Steele acknowledging that he is called names frequently. “I know what I am walking into everyday … but you try to find the moments that make sense, to find the common ground” between and among Republicans.

“Bipartisanship is a fiction. It is a ruse. It is a zero-sum game that is being played,” Mr. Steele cautioned, adding “By its very nature, politics is partisan, but at important times, like now when you have people without jobs, without healthcare, you need leadership to work toward consensus, and consensus involves sacrifice.”

Mr. Glaude noted contemporary political discourse by the right has sometimes criticized principles on the left as “anti-American,” wondering if consensus can be built while remaining true to core principles on both sides.

Highlighting certain claims in Mr. Steele’s recently released book, Right Now: A 12-Step Program for Defeating the Obama Agenda, Mr. Glaude asked whether some of the ideas constituted a “purity test” for the Republican party.

Acknowledging that being Republican is a “principle-driven identity” that advocates for smaller government, fewer taxes, and an emphasis on the individual, Mr. Steele explained that what initially drew him in was a “recognition of my independence, and my freedom to go out and access the American Dream.”

Mr. Glaude highlighted key statistics: African American unemployment is predicted to be at 17.9 percent by the third quarter of 2010, 35 percent of African-American children are living in poverty, and an estimated $71 to $122 billion of African American wealth was drained by predatory lending, he then asked Mr. Steele what he thought of those numbers.

“The question I have always grappled with is ‘When do we say enough?’” Mr. Steele remarked. “It’s not about what the Republican Party wants to do, but about what we want to do first. At what point do we take action?”

“Circumstances are so dire in the cracks and crannies of American society right now. Is substantial economic inequality compatible with democracy? Since 1980, the majority of growth in America has gone to the top one percent,” Mr. Glaude noted, adding the redistribution of wealth is typically framed as ‘class warfare,’ while what we’re actually seeing is a redistribution of wealth from the bottom to the top.

“The job isn’t coming from the bottom up,” Mr. Steele said, suggesting that “the avenues for wealth creation” must be spurred through education and the ability for people to create their own businesses, which in turn employ others.”

“The idea of economic mobility through education doesn’t account for the gap. It’s a matter of policy,” Mr. Glaude responded, pointing out that an understanding of the “relationship between structural inequality and the legacies of racism and persistent racism” must be understood.

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