raceAhead: Michael Steele Fights Back at CPAC

February 26, 2018, 6:11 PM UTC
U.S President Donald Trump speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) at National Harbor, Maryland, U.S., February 23, 2018. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque - RC1E381C6420
Kevin Lamarque—Reuters

Imagine attending one of your organization’s busiest, most media-covered conferences of the year.

Now imagine that one of that organization’s senior representatives takes to the podium and publicly shares his view that hiring you—a diversity pick at that—was a big mistake.

This was the nightmare scenario that greeted former Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele during the annual Ronald Reagan dinner at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) on Friday night.

CPAC director Ian Walters, addressing hundreds of attendees, began his remarks with a trip down memory lane. The year was 2009. “We were sort of lost as a group,” he said. “We had just elected the first African-American president, and that was a big deal. That was a hill that we got over and it was something we were all proud of. And we weren’t sure what to do.”

Evidently, “they” had decided on an overtly race-based strategy: Hire an equal and opposite Negro. “In a little bit of cynicism, what did we do? This is a terrible thing—we elected Mike Steele to be the RNC chair because he’s a black guy,” he continued. “That was the wrong thing to do.”

People in attendance reported audible gasps.

Later that night, Steele told MSNBC’s Joy Reid that it was a “what the #$%&?” moment for him. “I’m surprised that people in the party still feel this way and look at the contributions that anyone would make to the party through the prism of race,” he said. “It’s unfortunate, it’s stupid it’s immature and…I hope it’s not a reflection of the leadership of CPAC.”

And then it got worse.

The next day, Steele sat down on a Sirius radio show with CPAC chair Matt Schlapp to unpack the issue, specifically how badly the remarks reflected on an organization that had long promised to become more inclusive. If you’ve ever had an uncomfortable conversation about race (and I know you have) then you’ll recognize the dynamics right away.

Schlapp came in prepared to deflect. “I think [Ian Walters] said some words that…the worst people… our political enemies could take in the worst way,” he said. The real issue was Steele’s lack of support for “the more conservative aspects of the Trump phenomenon.” Walters remarks were merely a critique of Steele’s job performance and nothing more. “Can you accept that’s what he’s coming at and not a racial issue?”

Steele could not. “What the hell does my race have to do with any of that?” Steele said, getting steelier. What follows is the most excruciating back-and-forth I’ve seen in ages, with Steele explaining his dedication to conservatism and defending his obligation to call out inconsistent values, and Schlapp fully believing that he could explain away the remark by removing the racial component.

At the five minute mark comes the final slap from Schlapp.

He implores Steele, the injured party, to “have some grace,” and forgive Walters who was continuing to express some sort of remorse-by-proxy from an undisclosed location. At that moment, Steele’s exasperation spilled over into anger. “I’ve spent forty-one years in this party. I’ve taken crap you have no idea about, and I’ve carried this baggage… there’s only one word I can say and I can’t say it on the air.”

There are plenty of people who are incredulous that Steele believed certain ascendant elements of conservative thinking, animated by nationalism and buoyed by unalloyed talk of white supremacy, would behave any differently.

But Steele seemed legitimately wounded by people he’d worked with for years, and whom he’d considered some type-of-a-friend. And perhaps that was the most painful part—watching the thin veneer of the legitimacy of his legacy, regardless of how he’d originally envisioned it, be snatched away by people who evidently didn’t see him at all.

They’d hired the wrong black guy. And the crap that we have no idea about was nearly laid bare.

The call for Steele to forgive his attacker was reminiscent of so many moments of public racial conflict when the aggrieved is required to soothe the hurt feelings of white leaders who believe they have too much to lose by facing their own demons. In that way, CPAC is no different than any other organization of any kind.

And, of course, most diversity hires worry that they’ve been hired for the wrong reasons. It’s just so rare to have our worst fears confirmed on national television.

But for CPAC in particular, this reveals an ongoing problem. We desperately need informed and dedicated conservative thinking in the marketplace of ideas to help solve the pressing problems we face. But we also need them to show some of the grace they demand. “We have allowed this element to have a voice, we have given countenance to it, we have given it the space to express itself,” said Steele. “There is no taking that back. You can’t deny that that has been freed up.”

On Point

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The speaker of the Italian Parliament has been getting death threats for fighting against racism and sexism
She’s been threatened with rape, parodied by a colleague with an inflatable sex doll, she’s even received a bullet in the mail. While the threats against her are so common they barely make news, Laura Boldrini continues to fight—with added security at her side—for progress on two lightning rod issues: immigration and gender equality. She faces serious headwinds as racist, anti-immigration violence has been on the rise, and as the party of once sex-scandal-plagued former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi increases in popularity. “The ones that hate migrants and the ones that hate women in positions of power—it’s the same cultural framework,” Boldrini told Buzzfeed.

A six grade teacher has created a “Wakanda Curriculum” and everyone want to go back to school
Tess Raser, a teacher at the Dulles School of Excellence in Chicago, has built the curriculum in part from material she’d taught before, but supplemented with other work to better discuss the important themes highlighted in the film. “I loved the movie but left with critiques as well, and spent most of the weekend engaging in conversations in regards to those critiques and my friends' analysis of the film and its characters,” she told Blavity. “I was excited thinking about my students having those conversations. Some of the issues Raser is exploring includes the real-life inspirations behind the costumes, the legacy of slavery and colonialism, global anti-blackness and full analyses of main characters. The curriculum is designed for fifth to eighth graders, though it seems pretty useful for anyone. Click through and enjoy.

Graduate students are not your diversity saviors
Prabhdeep Kehal, a doctoral student in sociology at Brown University, begins their essay with this poignant confession: “I have hit the diversity wall.” Their thesis is simple—asking graduate students to do unpaid diversity work that benefits their university is exploitative and destructive. The thing is, Kehal didn’t always feel this way. “Diversity work was a moral imperative: to do nothing felt like giving up and resigning myself to persistent educational inequality.” At the heart of the matter is the delta between Brown’s talk about their inclusion and their investment in the things—like tenured professors—that would make the work stick. And in a world that is increasingly filled with racist rhetoric, the work is dangerous in new ways. “This gap enabled the institution to benefit from my and other students’ free labor without being held accountable,” they said.
Inside Higher Ed

The Woke Leader

How an indie game beat the odds
Cuphead is a gorgeous, award-winning and freakishly hard-to-win video action game, which has wowed the independent game world and created a legion of fans. It’s sold more than 2 million copies and features three hours of jazz ensemble music and 60,000 frames of hand drawn images, giving it the feel of a 1930’s cartoon. (I love this game. Does it show?) Equally delightful is the tiny and reasonably diverse Canada-based Studio MDHR who created it. Recently Marija “Maja” Moldenhauer, Cuphead’s executive producer, explained how it all came together, in an informative Q&A. It's pretty inside baseball, but she also had some advice for changing gamer culture, which she fears is continuing a downward slide into bad behavior. “I would say that karma is real. Be kind. Be nice. Don’t wish bad things on other people. Don’t knock somebody down because they have an opinion.”
Venture Beat

Sixteen Candles all grown up
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Having trouble seeing people of color as anything but thugs? Try LaZercism!
National treasure Lakeith Stanfield hosts this satiric infomercial advertising a special laser which treats “racial glaucoma” and “cuts through the calcified layers of white supremacy obstructing your visual cortext.” The laughs die off as a “former police officer” (someone you’ll recognize) explains the terrible error of his racist vision. Later, we meet a black woman who had her self-loathing removed. But this Q&A with writer and director Shaka King, is equally provocative. Can racism be cured? “On an individual level, empathy can help,” he says. “On a systemic level, an asteroid, pandemic, extinction level event, etc.”


Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. This is not a way of life at all in any true sense. Under the clouds of war, it is humanity hanging on a cross of iron.
Dwight D. Eisenhower

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