With the conversation turning to race, Obama and Steele need to talk

By Courtland Milloy
Wednesday, July 28, 2010; B01

Not so long ago, President Obama and Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele were being hailed as the post-racial hope of our times. But the two black men soon became mired in racial muck. Circumstances cried out for them to meet and have their own conversation about race.

What happened was not a beer summit so much as a Johnny Walker Black talk.

Obama: Notorious G.O.P. What's up?

Steele: We've got a problem, Hawaii 5-0. When a right-wing race baiter can get away with doctoring a videotape to make a woman like Shirley Sherrod sound like a bigot, the head of the Republican Party comes off looking like a weak-kneed Stepin Fetchit.

Obama: Tell me about it. When the White House panics without even seeing the video and gets Sherrod fired from her federal job, the president ends up looking like a spineless Uncle Tom.

Steele: Two brothers tarred with one brush stroke. We ought to be driving this conversation on race, not getting run over by it.

Obama: How did things go downhill so fast? Just two years ago, I was kissing white babies all over the country. They were cooing "mama," "dada" "O-ba-ma." Now I'm accused of being in league with the New Black Panther Party and out to kill every white baby in America.

Steele: So, to prove he's not a "reverse racist," my evil twin throws the sister under the bus?

Obama: I gave Sherrod a personal presidential apology; virtually guarantees her a lucrative book contract. I pulled the sister from under the bus and put her in the driver's seat. Besides, people might even read the book and learn something about the Sherrod family legacy of civil rights activism -- instead of everybody acting like me and the white people in my administration were the only ones who didn't know about it.

Steele: Word on the street is that Barry-O could use a friend -- a black friend -- to help school him on racial politics.

Obama: You applying for the job, Mini-Me? You know the NAACP also denounced Sherrod. And the doctored videotape was from a speech she gave at an NAACP conference. NAACP President Ben Jealous admitted that his group was "snookered," too.

Steele: "Snookered?" What kind of word is that? Sounds like Ben could use a black friend, too.

Obama: Every time we talk about race, they accuse us of playing the race card.

Steele: What do you mean 'we'? Just the other day, on "Good Morning America," George Stephanopoulos asked whether race gave me a "slimmer margin for error." I said: "The honest answer is yes. It just is." Then I said: "Barack Obama has a slimmer margin." See, I speak up for you, too, bro.

Obama: Gee, thanks. But maybe we should stick to speaking up for ourselves. Which gives me an idea: Why don't we have a televised debate -- not about race, but about freedom? Race and freedom are inextricably linked, so we'd still be talking about race, by proxy, without the spectacle of black versus white.

Steele: Who better than us to frame the debate, define the terms and set the tone?

Obama: I do wonder whether the country really wants to deal with race. The latest rap against me is that I favor blacks over whites. At least nobody can say that about you.

Steele: And they shouldn't be saying it about you, either, pal. But we're still in this together. If the country wanted to duck the race issue, there wouldn't be two black guys in these jobs. The only way the country gets beyond race is by going through it, not by trying to wish it away, and we have been put in a position to lead the way.

Obama: So maybe we start by arguing the meaning of freedom and the responsibilities of a free people -- me as a black liberal Democrat from Hawaii, and you as a black conservative Republican from Maryland.

Steele: Be careful. A lot of white people might find out that all blacks don't think alike.

Obama: Or worse, that a lot of black and white people do.

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