The election of Barack Obama struck a huge blow for race relations in this country, and he is undoubtedly a role model for all Americans, not just African Americans. In spite of a failing economy and global tensions, he remains immensely popular both domestically and internationally.
Role models are so important, especially to young Americans, because they give them something to aspire to and show what is possible. On the other hand, highly visible figures who are not good role models have the reverse effect. They may reinforce negative stereotypes and discourage new generations from entering a profession.
Take a look at two politicians, who next to President Obama, have been the most visible African American figures, Roland Burris and Michael Steele. Burris was appointed to Obama’s vacated Illinois Senate seat by the now impeached Governor Rod Blagojevich despite a cloud of suspicion of “pay to play” politics. After insisting that he never did any favors for Blagojevich or attempted to bargain for the job and refusing to turn down the appointment, it has become increasingly obvious that he did not come into the job on merit.
Steele was elected to Chair of the Republican National Committee after a series of highly contentious votes. His chief competitors for the post were from Katon Dawson, head of the South Carolina GOP, who only recently canceled his membership in a whites-only country club, and Chip Saltsman, the Tennessee party leader whose claim to fame was distributing CDs of “Barack the Magic Negro”. Steele narrowly defeated Dawson on the sixth ballot by 91 to 77, not exactly a ringing endorsement. You get the feeling that the Republican party is in such turmoil, they had to resort to appointing one of only three African American members of the RNC to lead them. And Steele has not disappointed, declaring that he wants to bring some “Hip Hop” to the party. In fairness, Steele’s task may be insurmountable. The closest the Republicans ever come to Hip Hop is Frank Sinatra. Recently Steele criticized Rush Limbaugh’s remarks that he wished Obama’s economic policies would fail as “incendiary” and “ugly”, only to backtrack the next day after realizing how incendiary his remarks were to the party’s right-wing base.
America needs African American role models, especially in this time of great uncertainty. Too bad that for every Obama we get a Burris and Steele.
Ethnicmajority politics page.