Michael Steele: Fakin' The Funk
So I see Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele "rolled" into the state the other day to drum up support for his party. Along the way, Mr. "Hat To The Back" stopped by a few places to encourage Republicans (presumably the white ones) to make more of a concerted effort to reach out to minorities.
And no, I'm not going to knock the man for trying. Even if I'm not sure if he has been all that helpful in banishing racial stereotypes, I realize he's a leader of a major political party and so he's got to do what he's got to do. Still, I think he's got a tough row to hoe with this young minority outreach thing, especially among young black people -- and if you ask me, he's one very big reason why.
Certainly, there's also black folks' historical resistance to the right-wing message, no matter how earnest the Republican ambassadors who deliver them. And I think this resistance hardens even more among the younger black voters Steele has said he wants to appeal to.
But another truth is that there are a handful of GOP themes that resonate with many black voters, due largely to the heavy influence that religion has in shaping a level of black social conservatism. No matter what the Armstrong Williamses of the world try to tell you in the course of selling a book, black people do not consider Republicanism new, maverick or "cutting edge." (We get it; most of us just disagree, OK?) Even so, you can still win plenty of votes among African-Americans with talk about God, family and "freedom," and the GOP has virtuosos who can hit those notes with perfect pitch at times.
But that's rare as compared to many other critical times minorities have seen the right wing as utterly tone deaf, not to mention hostile, when it comes to the issues and interests of many African-Americans, Latinos and others. And while I could riff almost infinitely about examples of this and why black folks in particular wouldn't be receptive to the GOP "brand," I am, as I said earlier, more compelled to think about why Steele himself is such a repellent.
From the moment he was named chairman of the RNC, Steele has launched into what, to this longtime hip-hop head, seems like one the lamest, bumbling and most crass attempts to develop crossover "hip-hop appeal" to younger, so-called "urban" voters that I've seen in some time. Dude wants to come off cool, but instead ends up embarrassing himself like some middle-age man trying to spit contemporary slang to a teenage girl at a kiddie disco. (He's also gotten some help in this regard from Michele "You Be Da Man" Bachmann and a few others.)
I can really only speak for me, of course, but Steele's timing seems incredibly poor, his ear for the broader black political conversation made of the worst kind of tin. At a time when he should be talking public policy to the audiences he wants to reach, he brags ignorantly about how he doesn't "do" policy. Just when he needs to be striking a pose of strength and intellectual independence, he bends over for the likes of Rush Limbaugh. ("I was maybe a little bit inarticulate???" Sorry, but that's just straight-up shufflin' in my book.) And when he should be trying to roll out something of a welcome mat for a black community rightly suspicious of right-wing policies, he's telling black voters that many whites in the GOP are scared of even him.
Just as bad, the hip-hop zeitgeist he seeks to channel is played out. Steele talks about hats turned backwards in an age when rappers like Jay-Z -- and the millions of young black, brown and white urban sophisticates who dig his style -- are trading in Timberland boots and sagging jeans for suits and sweaters. He's bopping around awkwardly tossing out 90s-era phrase like "bling bling" (really, Mike, even my mother knows that one's played). Cool to young hip-hop heads means something different in 2009 than it did 10, even five, years ago. And a big reason for it can be summed up in a short phrase: "The Obama Effect."
I get that Steele isn't a Dem, but if he really wants to make inroads, he should take a minute to realize how the election of the first black President has changed the game to the hip-hop generation. Obama raised the bar of expectation and offered young people glimpses of possibilities that, even to the post-civil rights crowd, used to be considered little more than wishful thinking.
And Obama didn't do it by strutting around and speaking in dated hip-hop catchphrases. Watching him campaign, for instance, it was clear that hip-hop flavored some of his style -- what hip-hop fan can forget how Obama "brushed his shoulders off" a la Jay-Z when dismissing critics or how he exchanged pounds ("terrorist fist jabs?") with his wife. But it all seemed natural and appropriate…and dignified. Steele, by comparison, seems to be little more than a bad caricature, a political version of Mudflap and Skidz in juxtaposition to Barack's Optimus Prime.
He starts from behind the 8-ball just by being a right-wing conservative, of course. Even though I think there are times when rap does indeed have its right-wing moments -- such as when MCs brag incessantly about how much money they've made and how they won't give you a dime of it -- I don't think this is the overarching sentiment that informs political thought among black voters who listen to rap. (Steele also probably doesn't help himself with young black voters when he attacks Obama, but like I said, that comes with the man's job so I get that part of his patter.)
Worse than that, though, are his frustrating, bizarre, mildly offensive, occasionally hilarious and always failed attempts to find the right pitch or pose. I think young people of color could accept that Steele's not really hip-hop and perhaps still listen to his message. But right now, he's fakin' the funk. And I'm pretty sure he won't convert many young voters -- not young urban ones anyway -- by coming off like a bad lounge singer struggling to retrofit old-school rhymes to his sleep-inducing musical stylings.