Michael Steele on Having Difficult Conversations About Race

By Judy Warner


DE&I Online Article

Corporate America has a vital, indispensable role to play in determining the future of generations who have been excluded from the American Dream. At this moment in history, the frustration and rage of an increasing number of Americans over the blatant and endemic acts of racism against Black citizens at the hands of policemen are compounded by a pandemic more lethal in communities of color and an economic crisis that has further strained already oppressed minority communities.

Against this backdrop, there was really no better time to speak with Michael Steele, a self-described Lincoln Republican who was the first African American elected to statewide office in Maryland, serving as its lieutenant governor from 2003 to 2007. I had the pleasure of interviewing him on June 3 as part of NACD’s virtual “Leading Through Uncertainty” program.

As a national figure, Steele was drafted in 2008 to run the Republican National Committee in response to American voters electing Democrat Barack Obama as president. Steele admits that some Republicans supported him because of his race and the party’s desire to appeal to communities of color. But his new role presented an opportunity for him to reinforce the values that attracted him to a now-bygone iteration of the party, and he had no intention of allowing this to merely be a symbolic appointment.

“One of the realities that came true for a lot of people around me is that just because you put a Black man in the room, it doesn’t mean they stop being Black. It doesn’t mean that they stop being the person who came out of a community of color,” he told me. “Yeah, I could be on the same page on tax cuts and I could be on the same page on government regulation spending and all of that stuff. But we may not necessarily be on the same page when it comes to how you look at my community.”

And that very community has been under constant attack in this country for the past 400 years. We’re at a point where trust in our institutions—and even one another—is miserably low, which is why it’s imperative to act by first engaging in some difficult conversations and working through biases that are deeply entrenched in our culture.

“Corporate America doesn’t look like America,” Steele said. “We’ve seen people who consume our products and use our goods and all of that, and we like that because it helps the bottom line. But is that all there is in the relationship? What is a corporate citizen if not someone who adequately represents the best parts of that community? The way you begin to do that is [by] putting in place the infrastructure in the corporate boardroom to realize what’s happening on the streets around you.”  

Read more of Michael Steele’s comments on how corporate America can approach racial issues, why bipartisanship is disappearing in Washington, and what the next phase of his political career might be in the forthcoming July/August 2020 issue of NACD Directorship magazine.

Judy Warner
Judy Warner was editor in chief of NACD Directorship magazine and NACD's Board Talk blog. A journalist for more than 30 years, Warner joined the Directorship team in 2007 as managing editor from ComAve LLC, an independent content management firm she co-founded and operated for eight years. Before that, Warner was New England bureau chief of Adweek magazine for 10 years. She began her journalism career in the newsroom of The Boston Globe as an editorial assistant then contributing reporter to the City Desk covering breaking news. Warner earned a BS in journalism with a minor in political science from Northeastern University.