Lost in the din of economic statistics, “shovel ready” jobs and predictions of the Democrats’ fate come next Tuesday, many Americans have lost sight of a truly remarkable accomplishment: Three of the most powerful and influential people in the United States today are African-American men. Regardless of your view of their politics, ideology or articulated perspective, President Barack Obama, RNC Chairman Michael Steele and Fox News political analyst Juan Williams all wield significant influence in the manner in which our country is governed while also shaping the perception in who we are as Americans early in the 21st Century. Even ten years ago this accomplishment would have been thought impossible; yet today we take their ascendancy to power as nothing out of the ordinary. So how did they do it?
Little more than fifty years ago, America began to break away the last chains of slavery imposed by separate and unequal accommodations for blacks and whites. With the historic Brown v. Board of Education case in 1954, the Supreme Court held that the doctrine of separate facilities for blacks and whites was inherently unequal; equal opportunities for accommodations must be provided for all regardless of the color of their skin.
Juan Williams, Michael Steele and President Obama were all born in the shadows of the Brown decision (1954, 1958 and 1961, respectively) and all three men worked hard, applied themselves in school and achieved their piece of the American Dream. And yet along the way to their success, all three men were castigated for daring to be different than many of their contemporaries. That is, they were accused of acting white or being inauthentically black as they slowly but surely rose to the top.
All three men have been targeted, at one point or another in their careers by some in the African-American community, as being either an Uncle Tom, a sellout to their race, or acting white. Juan Williams is routinely targeted in Internet chat discussions as being an Uncle Tom, Steele was pelted with Oreos as he ran for elective office in Maryland and President Obama was accused by none other than the Reverend Jesse Jackson, Sr. that he was “acting like he’s white.”
What is the common denominator shared by all three men to have warranted such ridicule? Daring to freely express their views as individuals rather than representing the groupthink for an entire race. By working hard in spite of the obstacles placed before them. By refusing to adhere to the artificial ceilings that each had smashed through to achieve their dreams: A black chairman of the RNC? A black liberal working for the Fox News Channel or a viable black Senator could become the first African-American President in history?
Last year, I decided that I had had enough. I was tired of the ‘acting white’ slur and the corrosive effect the term has had on the African-American community across the country. With black graduation rates falling, out of wedlock births rising and more African-Americans falling into poverty than ever before, I wanted those who sought an education, developed a strong work ethic and ignored the naysayers to be praised as acting responsibly rather than acting white. Whether we agree with the politics, views and opinions expressed by Juan Williams, Michael Steele and President Barack Obama, they are three of the most powerful men in America and they deserve our respect and admiration. Why? Because through their hard work and determination, they have forever changed the perception that blacks were incapable of reaching success at the highest levels. These three men are acting right, rather than acting white and their ability to help set the course of the nation regardless of the color of their skin is an accomplishment to be hailed by all.
Ron Christie is Founder and CEO of Christie Strategies LLC, a full-service communications and issues management firm in Washington, D.C. A former special assistant to President George W. Bush, Christie is the author of the just published book, Acting White: The Curious History of a Racial Slur (St. Martin’s Press/Thomas Dunne Books).