Black (Un)like Me
You might have blinked and missed this one, but now black people have to check with Republicans to find out if something is a racist remark or not. It’s probably even better if we check with black Republicans, as soon as we find out in which phone booth they’re meeting.
You see, Howard Dean, the new chairman of the Democratic National Committee, was meeting with a roomful of members of the Congressional Black Caucus on Feb. 11. During that meeting, he said, “You think the Republican National Committee could get this many people of color in a single room? Only if they had the hotel staff in here.”
The line was good enough to crack up the roomful of black lawmakers, who reportedly gave Dean a standing ovation at the end of his talk. But Maryland’s own lieutenant governor, Michael Steele, got into the act and issued a statement (along with former Republican congressman J.C. Watts of Oklahoma), calling for Dean to apologize, saying, “Dean equates African-Americans who support Republicans to ‘hired help.’”
This made me laugh so hard I almost dropped my mop.
After that, Ken Mehlman, hometown-boy-wonder-made-good and chairman of the Republican National Committee, went on conservative talk show host Sean Hannity’s radio show on Feb. 15 and said the remark was “pretty offensive.” I’ve got it now: If I were in that room, and Dean made that remark, I now know that, before I laugh or get upset, I have check with the lily-white head of the party whose presidential candidate drew a percentage of the black vote that I can count with both hands and one shoe removed.
Does anybody really think this reverse Mau-Mauing of Howard Dean is serious? If a roomful of elected black Democrats thought what Howard Dean said was offensive, he never would have made it out of that room whole.
It gets better: the Steele/Watts release says, “Democrats wonder why they are losing electoral ground among African-Americans and other minorities.” Well, no, we’re not wondering. We’d probably be doing a whole lot better electorally if we weren’t waiting for hours in line at polling places in Ohio or getting purged from voting rolls in Florida. But we sure know we wouldn’t be rushing to join a party whose previous Senate majority leader, Trent Lott, said in earnest that the United States would have been a better place if Strom Thurmond was elected president in 1948.
Not all Republicans show such a profound lack of clue as Steele and Watts, however. Ramesh Ponnuru, a senior editor at National Review, said on the conservative magazine’s blog that Dean had a point.
“Give me a break,” Ponnuru said. “Dean is saying, hyperbolically, that there aren’t many blacks or other nonwhites in the Republican party. He’s right. I’ve been to many, many Republican dinners where most nonwhites present have been serving the food. (Or giving the keynote.) If Republicans are bothered when people make that observation, they should try to make it less true.”
Every year some Republican tries to convince the large majority of black voters that the GOP really cares for their concerns, except every year some other Republican politician undermines the first one by pushing policies that either covertly or overtly remove, restrict, or hamper black people’s chances to vote, work, or stay healthy. If it’s not George W. Bush mischaracterizing Social Security or demonstrating his unfamiliarity with the Voting Rights Act (it comes up for renewal before the end of his term, by the way), then it’s the GOP trying to recast itself as “the party of civil rights.”
I’m not kidding you, either: The Republicans have produced a “2005 Republican Freedom Calendar” that showcases great moments in Republican civil-rights history—mostly from the 19th century. A letter from California GOP Congressman Christopher Cox in the calendar says, “We started our party with the express intent of protecting the American people from the Democrats’ pro-slavery policies that expressly made people inferior to the state.” The whole idea that black people might remember that the ideological heirs of those 19th-century Democrats fled the party in the mid-20th century due to integration seems alien to them. Or the fact that it took modern Democrats like Lyndon Johnson to pass that Voting Rights Act seems a foreign concept as well.
So maybe the next time Lt. Gov. Steele gives a big speech to a roomful of Republicans, he ought to take a good look around at how many people of color are listening to him. Here’s a hint: Don’t count the ones carrying dishes.
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