Michael Steele and the Black Vote
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.
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 head.
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.