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Political Animal

One Token Over the Line

By Brian Morton | Posted 7/13/2005

If there’s anything that pisses black people off, it’s being considered a “token.” Not in the ironic sense, but in that “we’ve gotta have a black person” sense—with the unstated premise that only one is necessary, and that’s to avoid being a lily-white operation, company, board, firm, or what-have-you. It means that one black person is only a symbol—and not a good one.

Gov. Robert Ehrlich gets peeved whenever someone says he named Lt. Gov. Michael Steele his running mate only “because he is black.” That would make Steele a token. Of course, when you consider that Steele’s sole previous political experience was his chairmanship of the state Republican Party, the idea that he was put on the ticket only for his melanin might explain some things.

Steele also probably doesn’t like hearing that he was picked only because he is black. After all, it’s something that personally affects him. Now imagine if some golf club somewhere doesn’t admit black people, has never admitted black people, and would rather give up some cushy property tax breaks than start admitting black people—that doesn’t personally affect the lieutenant governor. After all, as he says, he doesn’t play golf.

It’s kind of funny when you look at it. Fifty years ago, black people got beat up, sprayed with fire hoses, and had dogs set on them for sitting at lunch counters or anywhere they desired on the bus. But maybe it’s been a long time since the lieutenant governor rode on a bus, so that likely doesn’t affect him much. And he’s the lieutenant governor now, so the meals are probably a little better than the ones at lunch counters—so that probably doesn’t affect him much either. That’s OK—we understand.

Steele is a lawyer, so he probably never had to worry about getting “steered” when buying a house. And he’s from Prince George’s County, where the police beat up black people and white people with an almost shocking level of equanimity, so there’s nothing untoward there to complain about.

But you would think—since Republicans are always saying that they care about the black vote, that they want African-Americans to look across the aisle—that little symbols like still-segregated golf clubs, like the one in North Baltimore where Bobby Smooth recently held a $1,000-a-head fundraiser, might mean something to those black people who do play golf. There may be more than one or two of them. And they might even vote.

Me, I never got kicked off a lunch counter or hosed down by the police in Alabama or kicked to the back of the bus. I’m a little young for that. But I understand why those people put themselves through that 50 years ago. They were being symbols of a larger movement, one that meant a lot to a large number of people. Some of whom are still alive now, and who tend to vote.

Some people understand the symbolism inherent in being a member of places like the Elkridge Club. In 1985, then-U.S. Attorney J. Frederick Motz quit the place when he was nominated to be a federal judge. It doesn’t look good when they start asking you questions about why you belong to a club established in 1878 that has never had a black member.

Gov. Smooth is living up to the nickname we granted him back in 2002 when he says the flap over his fundraiser at the Elkridge is “a bunch of nothing.” “We have no access to the membership information. Obviously, we’re renters. We come in and we pay our bill and we leave,” he told Tom Stuckey of the Associated Press. Of course, this is not quite as disingenuous as when Republican power lobbyist Haley Barbour said, when running for governor in Mississippi, that didn’t know anything about the crypto-racist Council of Conservative Citizens, even though his picture was taken at a barbecue sponsored by the group and displayed on its web site. For all we know, Barbour might not even eat barbecue.

It should also be noted that some Democrats have held fundraisers at the Elkridge Club, “and they know who they are,” Ehrlich’s press secretary Greg Massoni says, while at the same time refusing to name names after the accusation. Let the record show that this is quite the singular act of schoolyard cowardice—to make accusations but not back them up—but what do we know? Maybe Massoni has never been in a schoolyard fight, so this probably doesn’t affect him personally.

Baltimore County Executive James T. Smith, a Democrat, has already apologized for holding a fundraiser there, and says he won’t do it again—an interesting concept. His apology doesn’t really affect anything—after all, it’s just symbolic.

So maybe this flap is what the governor says: just a bunch of nothing. Symbols don’t do anything, really. But they say a lot about people. Like the governor and his loyal lieutenant.

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Political Animal archives

More from Brian Morton

The Fix (8/4/2010)

Police State (7/7/2010)

Funny Business (6/9/2010)

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