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Michael Steele and the Black Vote

September 17, 2010

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 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.

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10 Comments leave one →
  1. Daniel Ezra Johnson permalink
    September 17, 2010 12:19 pm

    Nice post, but I am confused about one example. Growing up in Southeast Missouri, why wouldn’t Rush Limbaugh be likely to use “y’all” comfortably?

    • African American English permalink*
      September 27, 2010 3:06 pm

      Okay Dan, maybe we were being a little facetious with the Rush Limbaugh statement. But in any case, we checked with Ben Torbert at University of Missouri-St. Louis and he doesn’t get the sense that R.L. has southern phonology and furthermore, he notes, “Rush is from Cape Girardeau which is just up into the Loess hills out of the Bootheel, (but not in the mountains) and styles itself a bit more Midwestern.”

  2. Mike Schneider permalink
    October 27, 2010 3:25 pm

    Is this argument made on the premise that it’s not feasible to see one who speaks AAE in power?

    As always, it’s important to separate rhetoric from policy. How the Republican Party (or specifically Michael Steele, since his interests are often tangent to the common will of his party) addresses potential voters has little to do with how the speaker sees the interests of potential voters.

    In theory, the way in which politicians speak should have little bearing on people’s impressions of them (what really matter are the policies they pass.) But this is obviously not the case. Across political, ethnic and economic lines, we Americans are by-and-large a lazy people. It’s much easier–and I suppose it’s only human to–like the person who is a better speaker and/or speaks in a way you find pleasing.

    The most substantial change that the Republican Party could make would be getting rid of public relations nightmare Michael Steele as chair of the RNC. The fact that he’s chairman seems to suggest a disconnect between the higher structure of the party and black voters.

    • Sylvia permalink
      October 31, 2010 6:05 pm

      It is interesting to note that African Americans have a sensitive ear for determining the authenticity of a speaker’s version of AAE. Just as I (a native speaker of Californinan English) can usually determine whether someone is from California, or at least if they’re a native speaker of American English, it seems appropriate that African Americans would have the same ability to distinguish members of their speech community from non-members.
      It makes sense for Steele to try to lessen the divide between Republican candidates and African American voters by incorporating aspects of AAE into his speech. A sort of way of saying, “Hey. You can trust me, because I am one of you.” However, to do so unconvincingly to the point where African Americans would be able to tell that Steele is not actually a native speaker of AAE would completely defeat the purpose, and even worse, come off as forced, false, and dishonest (not necessarily characteristics you want to be associated with as a politician).
      I think Mike brings up a good point in that we shouldn’t see Steele’s inability to reach out to African Americans through speech as a sign that it is not possible to see a speaker of AAE in power. Politicians who do speak AAE natively and authentically should be encouraged to do so, despite the social stigma associated with AAE: in American linguistic culture, we associate AAE and political speech as existing in two distinct, non-overlapping realms. However, think of how associations could change if more African-Americans in power embraced using features of AAE.

  3. Peggy O. permalink
    November 1, 2010 10:51 am

    While I think Steele’s intentions in trying to bridge the gap between the Republican party and African American voters were good, I don’t think that trying to use AAE in his everyday speech was the right way to go about it. For someone who usually uses Standard English, attempting to use AAE without really knowing the rules implies that Steele, like many Americans, thinks that AAE is nothing more than bad English. Not only does this not bridge the gap between the RNC and African American voters, but it also seems a little insulting. I think any voter would have more respect for a politician who acts naturally rather than one who pretends to be something he or she is not just to get votes.

    • Rachel D. permalink
      November 1, 2010 9:16 pm

      I agree with Peggy. But even though Steele’s intentions were good, he ends up making matters worse. Because his AAE does not sound natural or native he ends up looking like a joke. He looks like a joke to the black community and he helps reinforce stereotypes about the way the black community speaks in the eyes of other communities. His AAE probably sounds ridiculous to AAE speakers as well as speakers of Standard English because he isn’t very consistent about using AAE syntax, he simply sprinkles in AAE vocabulary and occasionally manages reduction or approximates some AAE phonological feature. As a result, he appears to be pandering, but not very successfully. In the end, he isn’t taken seriously by those who believe politicians should speak Standard English or by those who speak AAE because in both the political community and the black community power comes from the ability to manipulate language and use it in effective rhetorical strategies, which Steele does not seem to have command of.

  4. J. Diaz permalink
    November 1, 2010 12:52 pm

    Steele’s entire proposal betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of the relationship between a dialect and its speakers. Suggesting that “the republican party” use more AAE in its rhetoric instead of involving any more speakers of African American English (AKA African Americans) seems to want to benefit from the appearance of change without actually undergoing any.

  5. Elise H permalink
    November 1, 2010 5:04 pm

    I would think that any attempt by Steele to speak AAE would seem like pandering. I could see the benefit of maybe recruiting native AAE speakers to represent an image of the party different than the current one, to attract more supporters, but if someone like Steele were to suddenly attempt to adopt this different vernacular, it seems almost insulting, as if he doesn’t think that the black community can understand or connect with standard English. Granted, there is a sense of community among speakers of the same language, but making a token attempt at changing a cosmetic appearance without really taking a look at what issues would appeal to the black voter seems patronizing to me.

  6. D Robinson permalink
    November 1, 2010 8:09 pm

    Often lampooned on The Daily Show and Colbert Report, Mr. Steele has probably done his party more harm than good. Recognizing that he needs to ‘speak the language’ of his target audience is a novel idea, but attempting to do so in a room full of (mostly) older white men makes it a little over the top. I don’t think the AAE speaking community (especially younger generations) necessarily watches enough CNN or other news networks to even understand what Steele is trying to do. I feel that it also probably alienates other black Republicans who have purposefully turned away from speaking AAE.

  7. Chelsea Douglas permalink
    November 1, 2010 8:47 pm

    Steele’s attempts to use AAE in order to appeal to AA voters strikes me as a very condescending way to drum up voter support. Perhaps if Steele actually agreed with AA voters on issues he wouldn’t have to resort to such a token and obviously calculated gesture.

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