[lg policy] US: Michael Steele (Afr-Am, Chair of Republican Nat'l Cttee) & the Black Vote

Damien Hall djh514 at YORK.AC.UK
Fri Sep 17 17:57:09 UTC 2010

A nice blog-post on the effect of language on and in politics, with 
particular reference to Michael Steele's efforts to connect with 
African-American voters. In January 2009, Steele was elected the first 
African-American Chairman of the Republican National Committee (and still 
holds the position). The post is from Word, 'the online journal on African 
American English', based at New York University.



Michael Steele and the Black Vote
September 17, 2010
tags: Michael Steele, black Republicans, GOP, race politics, rhetoric
by Zeke

Michael Steele, the 63rd Chairman of the Republican National Committee 
(RNC), wants many things. And he has drafted a plan to get black people to 
vote Republican-speak their language.

Michael Steele.

When he became RNC Chairman, Steele articulated the contours of a strategy 
that involved speaking to black voters according to their own cultural 
idiom. He referred to hip-hop and used AAE vocabulary in order to describe 
what he had in mind. In the time since the statement of these ambitions, 
the specifics of this supposed public relations campaign have failed to 
materialize. Readers, if you can think of something the RNC has done that 
features black culture, post it below, but I find myself scratching my 

It seems Steele encountered a critical obstacle of code switching. While 
concerns over policy likely account for much of the gap between Republican 
candidates and African American voters, the RNC Chairman sensed that 
cultural differences exacerbated the separation. He recognized that beyond 
being represented by a politician's voting record in legislature, citizens 
like to feel that a candidate represents them. They seek a familiarity of 
voice and image. It made sense for Steele to announce an interest in 
overcoming the divide, but somehow the movement to do so has failed to 
materialize. Where is the use of African American English in Republican 
rhetoric? Where are the black Republicans appearing in great numbers? Where 
is the prominent conservative figure who makes the plight of the modern 
African American a top priority? Somewhere along the line, Steele's 
comrades have abandoned his idea.

It might have something to do with how unconvincing Steele is as a 
meaningful participant in black culture. His speech does not frequently 
display features of AAE, and when he does express himself in that manner, 
the results can seem forced and awkward. Study has shown that speakers of 
AAE judge verbal performance with a keen ear for authentic voice. When 
Steele says "y'all" with all the natural ease of Rush Limbaugh, he does not 
inspire confidence in his target demographic.

The politics of language always affect the politics of government, and this 
holds true in the case of African American English. If a speaker's 
rhetorical olive branches don't have the desired effect, he can't hope to 
explain away policies that his audience dislikes. In fact, such a speaker 
even risks the threat of parody.

Damien Hall

University of York
Department of Language and Linguistic Science
YO10 5DD

Tel. (office) +44 (0)1904 432665
     (mobile) +44 (0)771 853 5634
Fax  +44 (0)1904 432673



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