Black Conservatives Split on Obama, McCain

There are only a handful of African-American delegates at this week's Republican Nation Convention. Still, some black conservatives feel conflicted about their choice for president this election cycle. In the latest installment of the series, What If, author Shelby Steele, political commentator John McWhorter and Republican activist Yvonne Davis discuss choosing between Sen. Barack Obama and Sen. John McCain.

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DEBORAH AMOS, host:

I'm Deborah Amos and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Host Michel Martin is reporting this week from the Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minnesota. Coming up, we'll take you to the floor of the Republican Convention to listen in on delegates. But first, throughout both the Democratic and Republican National Conventions, we've been bringing you a series called 'What If?' in which we explore the impact of an African- American president on race relations in America. What happens to stereotypes and expectations? This week, Michel Martin gathered together a panel of African-American Republicans to tackle that question. Her guests include Shelby Steele, the author of "A Bound Man: Why We're Excited About Obama And Why He Can't Win," political commentator John McWhorter, the author of the upcoming book "Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English" and Yvonne Davis, a former national co-chair of African-Americans for Bush. She is now an Obama supporter.

MICHEL MARTIN: I welcome you all to the program. I thank you all for speaking with us.

Ms. YVONNE DAVIS (Former National Co-Chair of African-Americans for Bush): Thank you.

Dr. SHELBY STEELE (Author, "A Bound Man: Why We're Excited About Obama And Why He Can't Win"): Good to be here.

MARTIN: As part of the series, we've been asking our guests this question. Did you ever think in your lifetime that an African-American would get this close to the White House? I guess I'll start with you, Shelby Steele.

Dr. STEELE: Yes, I do. I thought Colin Powell would - he did get come very close to - certainly, to the opportunity to run. I think that had he run against the weak - Bill Clinton in 1996, he very likely would have won. So I think it's - the last decade or so, it's been a problem more of people - available blacks for that auspicious role, more than a willingness in the part or American. I think Americans have been open to this for a while.

MARTIN: What about you, John McWorther?

Mr. JOHN MCWORTHER (Political Commentator; Author, "Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English"): I very much expected it to the extent that I thought about it. I assumed that if another Kennedy-type figure came along, that that person's special allure in our era would be that they would be black. Because there is, as we've now seen, a crucial segment of white and other people here in America who think of blackness not as a minus, but actually as a plus in terms of the diversity, in terms of what voting for that person would say about getting over the past and repudiating past's wrongs. And so, between them and then the black elector, I've always thought that really, it would be something quite plausible and Obama is exactly what the doctor ordered.

MARTIN: Yvonne Davis, what about you?

Ms. DAVIS: I felt that a first African-American president would be possible provided that the focus and emphasis was not on what we had in the past, which where candidates running for office focusing on a black agenda or a civil rights agenda, per se. Barack Obama brings an agenda that is more inclusive and has to be. So, provided he's come with a different message, it was possible. If he came with the usual construct that African-Americans have been used to in the past, then no.

MARTIN: Mr. Steele, I want to pick up with you on this. The title of your latest book is "Why We're Excited About Obama And Why He Can't Win?" Now, your book was published back when many people assumed Obama wouldn't make it this far. He was - back then, I mean, he was running, you know, a close second to Hillary Clinton, but she was leading the polls even with African-Americans. You know I'll fast forward to where we are now. Have your thoughts changed since then?

Dr. STEELE: Oh, absolutely. I have regretted that the last part of that self-title for probably eight or nine months at this point. But if I got anything wrong, it was that I underestimated the hunger in white America for this opportunity to finally document by voting for a black man, that America is no longer a racist's society. And what a wonderful opportunity Obama has offered them.

MARTIN: In essence you're saying part of his appeal is that he's African-American. It's not just...

Dr. STEELE: I'm saying that probably...

MARTIN: That he's a highly-skilled politician.

Dr. STEELE: I'm not sure we would have the phenomenon of Barack Obama were he white.

Mr. MCWORTHER: Oh, of course, he would.

Dr. STEELE: He is black and yet at the same time, he is what I would call the bargainer. He puts whites at ease and so he has this really I think rather profound appeal to whites. If you look at Obama's actual political positions on things there's no galvanizing or original political idea there. There's just a nice fellow who is articulate, this is his vice presidential candidate once said, and that is his appeal.

MARTIN: Yvonne?

Ms. DAVIS: I take a little different approach with this. Dr. Steele talked about proving a moral evolution of white America. I think that moral evolution comes generationally. If you're talking about your baby boomer generation, people who grew up in the civil rights movement, who experienced Dr. King, experienced a lot of changes and those who have the bent that we need to do something, I could see that occurring and taking place. I think if you're looking at generation X or Y I don't even think that crosses their mind in the same way in terms of him being a black candidate and support for him as a black candidate.

MARTIN: Actually, it's seems to me that so far we've been only having only one side of the conversation. We've been talking about the effect on whites of an Obama presidency.

Dr. STEELE: Yeah.

MARTIN: It seems to me that they are two more aspects to this conversation. One is the effect that an Obama presidency could have on African-Americans and other minorities, and on the relationship that these groups have with each other. So John McWhorter, talk to me about that.

Mr. MCWHORTER: Well, I think that's very important because for me that is one of the main reasons I want to see Obama as president. If there were eight years of him in the White House or even four, but especially if it were eight then I think it would change the whole conversation we have about how deeply racist this country is. I know that there is racist - I mean, I know that the playing field isn't level. But I do believe that there were series of historical accidents, a lot of very smart black people, along with white fellow travelers have decided that their message to this country and to their people must be that it's worse than it is. The idea is that the racism isn't over anymore but it still basically condemns too many people to failure and can't really be grappled with until we completely turn upside down the way the country works.

And I don't think that that message really helps anybody. I don't think that that's a good message to give to poor black people. The message is not to say that there is no racism, but the message is to say the world - that for better or worse is not ever going to be perfect. And if the person who was in the White House was black, if the person getting off of Air Force One was black and you saw that person and his very black wife and thoroughly black kids, every single day on your laptop and your TV, I think that the whole generation of black kids would grow up - and the idea that racism was their main problem, that America is based on racism and the racism is something we need to be having forums about every week for the next 50 years, I don't think they could see it that way. I think they've realized the things that gotten subtler and in many ways better, and I think that would also be the case for black people in general. The president would be black. Whatever you want to say about racism, to say that this is a nation that is founded upon bigotry against black people would no longer be possible in the way that is often put now.

MARTIN: Shelby Steele?

Dr. STEELE: Well, John and I are friends but I would disagree on this point. All my life, I come from the - grew up in segregation my - with the King generation. Our point was that race did not matter and to come around now, and even though, I am a conservative, support somebody who is to very far to the left simply because of the color of the skin what seemed to be a betrayal of everything that the civil rights movement fought for and won. It is a novelty. Barack Obama for the most part has run - not as a political candidate - he's run as a cultural break through. Yes, on a very-very symbolic level, he may push - nudge forward this idea black responsibility as opposed to the excuse of racism.

But I want somebody who is strong in national security, who is for vouchers and in inner cities, who wants poor people to have school choice. I want lower taxes not higher taxes. I'm not in favor of universal health care. And to vote for somebody just because their skin is black and betray all of those convictions that I've come to would seem to me to be a hypocritical in the worst way. I can't help to be a little disappointed when people advertise themselves as conservative and then each claim they going to vote for the single most liberal senator in the United States Senate.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is Tell Me More from NPR News. I'm speaking with John McWhorter, Shelby Steele and Yvonne Davis about the impact in Obama presidency could have on race relations in America. Yvonne?

Ms. DAVIS: I'd like to take a different position from Mr. Steele, and that race did matter in the civil rights matter. It just did matter. Secondly, I'd like to say, with an Obama presidency, what I would suspect may happen is that the dialog has to change for to a more universal global dialog that is inclusive of not only the traditional black-white discussion that we've had for decade or centuries but the black, white, Latino, Asian, Pacific-Asian, Middle Eastern Central Asian, it is a melting pot of cultural discussions that will have to be had. And so from that standpoint, I think he's in a prime position to begin to talk in a global sense.

MARTIN: Shelby, can I push you on a - on two points? One, is you're saying that in essence that - I understand we see things sort of politically and substantively - on a policy stand point Barack Obama is just to far away from you for you to vote for him. But there are two questions...

Ms. DAVIS: And that's personal.

MARTIN: But there are two questions I wanted to ask you. One, Is there any power or benefit to the image he projects as a serious family man, a devoted husband and a father, a person who's played by the rules, that has an important cultural and sociological impact? And secondly, what about the fact that he has in fact gotten all this people interested on the process, engage them in a way that they had not been, does that have any importance substantive importance?

Dr. STEELE: Well, you know, I think that a lot of people listening to Yvonne won't feel that way. I mean, that cultural symbology is just a fool's game. How does that apply or come down to the real world? One of my problems with Obama all along has been that he is something of a blank slate. He's never really given us what is deep convictions are. Where you are projecting your hopes on to Barack Obama and assuming that somehow rather he's going to carry them out I would say to you, you very likely to be disappointed in that regard. He hides from blacks now. He won't be photographed in public with them, and so the kind of cowardice he shown there don't you think that into account?

MARTIN: Yvonne?

Ms. DAVIS: The point here is, you don't follow Senator Obama around in this campaigns so you don't know what pictures he's taking with, if he's running from black folks or all that. You're making a lot of suppositions you cannot based on fact. I think that someone who is Generation X I have a different view about it. You can't run like you used to. You can't be like the mayor for life in Washington, D.C.- I forgot his name right now, that...

MARTIN. Marion Berry.

Ms. DAVIS: Marion Berry. You can't run the same way like you used to be. You have to have a different approach and it proved that it worked. And you know what, black folks came along to support him. So I think black folks are willing to say OK, if he has to, if I take Mr. Steele's position one second, pull away a little bit that's OK. Because you know what, we want this president.

MARTIN: And what's the most important thing that changes in this country in your opinion if Barack Obama becomes president?

Ms. DAVIS: I think that the change is going to be hard. We're in a serious economic situation, problems in America, across the board, whether McCain gets in officer Obama. So if people have expectation that change comes right away, that's the dangers of leadership. And that's another show of course. And that's the problem, America expects things to happen too fast. It's going to take time.

AMOS: John McWhorter?

Mr. MCWHORTER: What changes if Barack Obama becomes president is that we're going to have a different kind of debate on what the role is of race in someone's faith in this country and what we need to do about it. And to me, that is so important that even if Obama has flaws, I would like to see him in, in order to this. Now, I wouldn't say that if he didn't seem to be a thoroughly competent, not to mention very bright possible president. I wouldn't be doing this if he just had brown skin, but the combination, wow that's why I'm here. That's why I decided to be race commentator and having the sorts of things people say about you, that's why I put up with this because I think this sort of thing is very important and here, this guy is.

AMOS: Shelby Steele.

Mr. STEELE: I think the reality is that societies change culturally on their own. And I think that if Barack Obama got to be the president, we'd have a black guy who is the president. I can remember when we had the first black mayor of Cleveland, Carl Stokes, and we thought the world was going to change. Well, he's just the first black mayor. I think Obama will just be the first black president and we will go on as a society and evolve, I hope, culturally, toward a kind of world we all like to see. But that's going to happen down on the ground. It's going to happen - the kids I see on 14th St. in Oakland are not going to suddenly stop being gang bangers because Barack Obama is in the presidency.

Ms. DAVIS: That's true.

AMOS: To be continued, I say we convene this group in some time in the future and assess these predictions. And I thank you all so much. Shelby Steele is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, he joined us from Monterey, California. Yvonne Davis is the former national co-chair for the group African-Americans for Bush, she joined us from member station WTIC in Connecticut. And John McWhorter is a Manhattan Institute senior fellow in public policy, he joined us from our New York bureau. I thank you all so much for this conversation.

Ms. DAVIS: Thank you.

Mr. STEELE: Thank you.

Mr. MCWHORTER: Thank you very much.

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