It's too bad Michael Steele is so obsessed with equating himself to President Barack Obama. The chairman of the Republican National Committee tried to put his troubles on the same plane as the president's on Monday when he was getting heat about his management of the GOP's fundraising arm.
Steele was accused of playing the race card after he agreed with ABC interviewer George Stephanopoulos' suggestion that being African American gave him a "slimmer margin of error" than a white chairman might have in dealing with the RNC's spending scandal. "The honest answer is yes," Steele agreed. "It just is. Barack Obama has a slimmer margin. We all—a lot of folks do. It's a different role for me to play and others to play, and that's just the reality of it. But you take that as part of the nature of it." Of course, the White House, which never hesitates to distance the president from racial issues, was quick to dismiss Steele's suggestion. White House press secretary Robert Gibbs quipped: "I think Michael Steele's problem isn't the race card. It's the credit card."
Too bad Stephanopoulos raised the issue through a buffoon like Steele, whose insensitive past remarks on race hardly qualify him for a substantive discussion about such issues. With anyone else, the question could have morphed into a serious discussion of how race affects leadership, which wouldn't be a bad thing around now. A lot of African Americans are convinced that Obama is treated differently by the media, the opposition, and of course, the far-right Tea Partiers. Few blacks believe that a member of Congress would have yelled, "You lie!" at a white president of the United States during a joint session of Congress—and that Republican leaders would not have waffled about condemning Rep. Joe Wilson's rudeness.
Many African Americans also worry about challenges to the president's legitimacy. They are expressed in exaggerated fashion by the Tea Partiers and birthers, but many of us suspect that far more people doubt Obama's right to be president than is generally conceded.
But parsing the nuances of race, racism and racial resistance can be a fruitless exercise. Better to examine past history when it comes to understanding the process of acceptance that led Obama to the White House and the challenges he faces. And it isn't the civil rights movement that offers the best lessons. Civil rights were about gaining equal rights for all Americans. Issues of leadership and race can best be examined in arenas like sports and corporate life when blacks are making decisions that affect whites, or when blacks have authority over whites. The kinds of problems Obama—and Steele—are facing have plagued blacks in those areas for many years.
Sports, which Americans often tout as the model of the meritocracy, has gone through a slow and sometimes painful process as blacks have moved from being players on the team into positions of leadership. Jackie Robinson's pioneering role breaking racial barriers in Major League Baseball in 1947 is now remembered as a triumph that led to opportunities in arenas far beyond baseball. But it took 28 more years before baseball appointed its first black manager, Frank Robinson.
For many years, very few African Americans played the central positions in football (linebacker, center) that were considered "thinking" roles. Black quarterbacks are more commonplace now, but placing a black quarterback in the key role on a Division I college team or the NFL is hardly without controversy. And while blacks make up nearly a third of coaches (7 of 24 last year) in the NFL, their numbers don't match the 60 percent of players who are African American.
Meanwhile, American corporations lagged far behind sports in accepting African Americans in leading roles. Most U.S. corporations stayed segregated well into the 1970s. Under federal and public pressure, a trickle of African Americans flowed into companies, often into token roles. The discovery of ethnic markets opened opportunities for African Americans to prove that they could sell and manage and the most successful moved into more senior corporate positions.
Years ago, while writing an article on efforts to diversify corporations, I attended a seminar for middle managers at major corporations led by Dr. Price Cobbs, a psychiatrist and co-author of the 1960s best-seller Black Rage. During the session, blacks and whites unburdened themselves of their anxieties about working with people of different races. African-American managers chafed at casual racial remarks and worried they would not get a fair shot. Whites stereotyped their black colleagues as lazy or less competent even in the face of evidence they were performing as well or better than their white counterparts. Later, Cobbs told me that the crux for white executives was: "Can you put your fate—or that of your company—in the hands of a black man or woman?"
While we have undoubtedly made much racial progress since I attended those sessions in the early 1980s, I often wonder if that lingering doubt about black ability persists, the sense that it's always a gamble when a black person rises to leadership. I wonder if that doubt is at the heart of decisions not to hire or promote someone of color because they are perceived as different, and not because they are truly less competent or less deserving.
And it's not just a conservative thing. We shouldn't forget the hysterical doubt among liberals over the progress of Obama's health care reform bill. From the Huffington Post to The Nation to Bill Maher, liberal pundits accused the president of being spineless, too conciliatory—and lacking in cojones. Suddenly he was too intellectual, lacked passion or too disconnected to be a successful president.
Too many liberals assumed that the president would automatically agree with their positions because he is black. When he disagreed, some suggested he wasn't really black—one more reason for him to avoid being cornered on race.
Of course, the liberal tune changed when health care reform became law, but it surely must have been stinging to the president to find such a lack of faith among his own allies. For in the case of Barack Obama, the question many Americans must confront is, "Are you comfortable putting the fate of your country—and your own future—in the hands of a black man?" I thought the voters answered with their votes in November 2008. But whenever the president seems to falter or a new external threat arises, the instant panic suggests that for too many, the answer is, "I'm not sure."
Doubts about Michael Steele, on the other hand? You'd be dumb not to have them.
Joel Dreyfuss is managing editor of The Root. Follow him on Twitter.