- The Washington Times - Monday, January 20, 2003

Republican Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele said yesterday that 30 years of Democrat-sponsored affirmative action had failed to create racial equality, and that lawmakers now must lead discussions on such issues as poverty, crime and teenage pregnancy to end the "vestiges of racism."
Mr. Steele, Maryland's first black lieutenant governor, made the observations on the eve of Martin Luther King Jr. Day. They likely will remain in his mind through today's celebration, including a parade in Baltimore and a morning church service where he and Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. will be joined by President Bush.
"We have a lot of work to do," Mr. Steele said. "We need to learn to live and work together be honest with each other on issues of race and opportunity and not try to hide behind old paradigms that have failed us."
He said the Bible reading, homily and hymns yesterday at St. Mary's Catholic Church in Prince George's County resonated with him because they explored the theme of answering the Lord's call.
"Here we are celebrating Martin Luther King's birthday, and everything just kind of floods together and reaffirms the serious nature and responsibility of what I am doing," Mr. Steele said.
Much of that responsibility involves addressing racial issues in Maryland and reconnecting the Republican Party with minority voters.
"I see my role, as one of the few black Republican leaders in the country, as making sure first and foremost that our party understands its historical obligation to the African-American community," said Mr. Steele, who studied to become a priest before entering business and political life.
He also said that the Republican Party, which freed the slaves and drafted the 19th-century civil rights laws, lost clout with minorities over the last 50 years by remaining silent on equality while Democrats wooed blacks and Hispanics.
"It is going to be important to remind the party of that, then go into the black community to make sure people understand that our message is one of inclusion and hope and opportunity, that we believe in the power of the individual over anything government can ever do," Mr. Steele said.
During the campaign, Mr. Ehrlich and Mr. Steele carried the Republican message of economic empowerment into heavily Democratic black neighborhoods in Baltimore and Prince George's County. Though they failed to win either of the heavily populated areas, they captured enough votes to clinch the first Republican gubernatorial victory in 36 years.
Mr. Steele is expected to have a key role in the Ehrlich administration's focus on education, faith-based social services and minority business opportunities.
He said his party has been unfairly characterized as unfriendly toward minorities and that the situation is made worse if Republican leaders make insensitive racial remarks, such the comment, widely seen as pro-segregation, that recently cost Sen. Trent Lott, Mississippi Republican, the post of majority leader.
"I'm trying to get people to stop buying into stereotypes of the party," Mr. Steele said. "I'm trying to get the party to stop buying into stereotypes of itself. It's a tall order for the handful of us [black Republicans] out there. But it is important because our party has a lot to offer and it has to be incumbent on the leadership to make sure it communicates that."
Mr. Steele agrees with President Bush on the issue of racial preferences in the admissions policy ofthe University of Michigan, which is being challenged in the U.S. Supreme Court. However, he said the president did not go far enough in opposing affirmative-action policies.
"I've always maintained that just giving someone an opportunity because they are black is not what society should be about," Mr. Steele said. "Martin Luther King Jr. would be offended by that because it runs counter to his admonition that we be mindful of the content of one's character, not the color of their skin."
Mr. Steele said racism persists in many black communities where rates of poverty, unemployment, crime and incarceration are still high.
While affirmative action will not cure the problems, he said, it provides a starting point for necessary discussion about race.
"All of these now become starting points for a new dialogue on race that takes on the old thinking on those subjects and looks at it in terms of what the president aptly phrased as 'affirmative access,'" Mr. Steele said.
"The worst thing you can do with any affirmative-action program is design it in such a way that there is a backlash, so that white folks feel they are now being discriminated against," he said. "If you are creating a level playing field where everyone has access, then you don't have to worry about those things. But it is going to take a little bit of maturity to get to that point, and I see that maturing process still under way."
Mr. Steele said the immaturity of Maryland's racial politics was made clear during the campaign when a Baltimore Sun editorial stated he brought nothing to the Republican ticket except "the color of his skin."
"I am still waiting for the apology," Mr. Steele said. "It has yet to come. I don't think it ever will because they don't understand. They see me purely as skin color."


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