Can I Just Tell You?

Can I Just Tell You?Can I Just Tell You?

NPR's Michel Martin gives a distinct take on news and issues

Michael Steele's Apology Doesn't End The Dialogue

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You may have noticed I took a few days off to recover from some kind of bug I just couldn't seem to shake. (Thanks again, Cheryl and Korva.) And that gave me some time to read some stories that just happen to be interesting, as well as the ones that are actually important.

I think the whole Michael Steele vs. Rush Limbaugh vs. the White House dust-up falls into that first category. With unemployment climbing above 8 percent, the clash of the talking heads hardly qualifies as the major issue of our time. But I do think it tells us something about how this country is changing and the fact that some people see it and some people don't.

To catch you up, if you're not sure what I'm talking about, the new chairman of the Republican National Committee, Michael Steele, teed off on gab master Rush Limbaugh a couple of days ago. Limbaugh's been in the headlines for saying he hopes the Obama administration will fail. And because of this, Steele, who is also the first African-American chairman of the Republican Party and has been complimentary of Obama's success, if not his politics, was asked who really speaks for the party? Him or Limbaugh? Steele said Limbaugh is not a party leader but an entertainer whose comments are sometimes "incendiary and ugly."

Limbaugh and his assorted supporters got mad, and Steele apologized. And the White House jumped in by saying, you know what? Limbaugh really is the head of the Republican Party.

Can I just tell you? I think I know what this is all about. It's about the fact that Michael Steele can read the census and Rush Limbaugh, evidently, cannot.

Let's just admit it: Some people hate the federal government because they can't get past the fact that the government switched sides from being a weapon in the violent oppression of black — and sometimes brown — people to being one of the tools creating opportunity for them as well as other people. With his cheap shots at black leaders and feminists and anybody else who doesn't want to time-travel back to the past, Limbaugh is the quintessential angry white male who is not just yelling at people to get off his lawn but infuriated that the whole lawn doesn't belong to him anymore.

Let me just say that Steele has earned some of the criticism directed at him. There are those who find his urban lingo corny and his critiques of his own party too jarring and even hypocritical. One of the people he bested for the RNC job said he didn't see the point of Steele's outreach efforts because Republicans would never be getting too many votes in Harlem. But Steele's audience isn't in Harlem. It is in Mitchellville, Md., and Shaker Heights, Ohio, and Mount Vernon, N.Y., and Houston. And many of the people who live there are not blinged out hip hop-heads but minority professionals like, well, Steele ... and Barack Obama. And they do not hate the government, but they are impatient with it.

The commentator Boyce Watkins, assistant professor of finance at Syracuse University, was kind enough to crunch some numbers for me. He told me that in 2004, some 1.1 million African-Americans had an advanced degree. That's almost double the figure from just 10 years earlier. There are 1.2 million black-owned businesses in the U.S.; there are more than 50,000 black physicians and almost 45,000 black lawyers. But he also told me that African-Americans represent only 6 percent of those with incomes in the top 20 percent — they are 17 percent of those in the bottom 20 percent. That means that unlike many affluent whites, many African-Americans at the top of the income scale are still very much connected to those at the bottom. And so while many of them have incomes that qualify them as "rich" in the eyes of the Obama administration's tax plans, in addition to paying their own bills and raising their own kids they are very likely sending money home to Mom, and paying for school clothes for their sister's kids and even college tuition for their brother's. And they also tend to live in high-cost urban areas, like New York and D.C. and Atlanta, where the median home prices, on top of student loan debt, can make that $250,000 seem not very rich at all.

And they don't hate the government. They realize they couldn't live in those nice homes if the government had not done its part to create the conditions that allowed them to buy them.

But they are starting to wonder if they'd be better off with their money in their own pockets to handle their families' and communities' business — "to do for self," as Nation of Islam followers like to say — instead of sending it back to the government to fix the lousy schools and the broken neighborhoods they left behind. They and everybody else have been waiting a long time for that to happen.

So sure, the White House wants to tie the Republicans to Limbaugh because he's fighting the last war. But the different visions of what is best for family and community are the next one. Michael Steele seems to know that, and it will be interesting to see whether the Obama White House knows that, too.

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Can I Just Tell You?

Can I Just Tell You?Can I Just Tell You?

NPR's Michel Martin gives a distinct take on news and issues