Dual milestones for racial equality
Ten days later, a second, less visible achievement demonstrated the completeness of African American acceptance in our society. Another African American, former Lieutenant Governor Michael Steele of Maryland, was elected chair of the Republican National Committee, a major political party largely shunned by African American voters since the 1930s (and vice versa).
Steele’s accomplishment doesn’t come close to matching President Obama’s. But both men’s accessions share an important attribute that is extremely significant for African American progress. Both men won with significant support from white voters (a majority in the case of Steele’s electorate) because they were regarded as the best candidate for their respective jobs, not because they were black. Neither tokenism nor political correctness played a role in either win.
That was not the case for many of the earlier African American pioneers. While James Meredith (the first black student admitted to the University of Mississippi law school), Thurgood Marshall (the first African American justice of the United States Supreme Court), Colin Powell (the first African American Secretary of State) and Freeman Bosley, Jr. (the first African American mayor of the City of St. Louis) all had important merits that put them in position to achieve their success, their race played a major role in their election or appointment.
Obama and Steele are more in the mold of baseball great Jackie Robinson, who became the first African American player in Major League Baseball, not because he was black (more likely in spite of being black), but because he was just too good at what he did to be denied. While race played an important role in the surge of black voters to Obama (who even won a majority from black Republicans), white voters (first in Democratic primaries and then in the general election) merely concluded that the smooth, articulate, erudite Obama was the best person available to lead our nation out of both our severe economic crisis and our overseas military conflicts. Better than Hillary Clinton, the once presumed winner, and better than John McCain, the respected war hero and, yes, moderate maverick. The fact that Obama was black mattered little to most voters.
Similarly, Republicans elected the smooth, articulate, erudite Steele to lead them back to political relevance because he demonstrated the greatest skills needed to do so of all of the candidates for his job. Steele had previously chaired the Republican Party organizations of both his county and state and demonstrated strong communication skills both on the Sunday talk show circuit as chair of GOPAC for the past two years and as a popular Fox News contributor. It was clear that the party did not elect Steele to score points with African Americans, because they understood that, during the height of national euphoria over the Obama presidency, there were no points the opposition party could make with that electorate. Steele’s race was incidental.
To borrow from Martin Luther King, Obama and Steele both won because of the content of their character, not the color of their skin. And to borrow from a leader from the other end of the political spectrum, that’s the way things ought to be.