A blogger's depiction of Lt. Gov. Michael Steele (search) in minstrel makeup has brought to surface issues of race — and fidelity to one's race — as the Republican seeks to become Maryland's first black senator.
A black man in New York who runs a left-leaning news commentary site created the image and condemned Steele last week as "Simple Sambo."
The posting highlighted the perception among some black voters that black Republicans are sellouts who do not support their race on such issues as education and affirmative action.
Steele said he understands some black voters view black Republicans with suspicion.
"When people say you can't be black and be a Republican, I look at them and tell them, `History proves you are wrong and your family probably proves you wrong,"' he said. "I just think that when we set up this monolithic test for individuals like myself to pass, it diminishes us."
The Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee recruited Steele to run in 2006 for the Senate seat that will become open with the retirement of Democrat Paul Sarbanes (search).
National GOP leaders have said they want to restore the party's historic bond with black voters and have showcased Steele, most prominently when he spoke at the 2004 presidential convention.
The "Sambo" blog followed other similar incidents involving Steele. The head of the state Senate in 2001 called Steele, then head of the state GOP, an "Uncle Tom." During Steele's 2002 campaign for lieutenant governor, Oreos were distributed at a debate, and an editorial in The (Baltimore) Sun said he brought little to the ticket but his skin color.
Steven Gilliard, the blogger who brought the topic to the forefront during the very first week of Steele's Senate campaign, said he does not believe that "if you are a Republican you are an Uncle Tom."
But he said it is fair to criticize Steele because when it was learned that Republican Gov. Robert Ehrlich had held a fundraiser at an all-white country club, Steele initially failed to speak out against the event.
On Wednesday, Steele's staff responded by organizing a news conference with a black business leader and two black pastors — all Democrats — who were upset that racially charged terms had become part of the debate.
"I don't quite understand why Michael Steele has been targeted for this kind of hatred," said Garland Williamson, president of an organization of black business leaders. "Anybody can disagree with Michael Steele or anybody else they want to disagree with, but let's talk about the issues."
Ron Waters, author of a book on conservative public policy in the black community, said black Republicans are often "perceived to be tools of the conservative white power structure."
"Terms like Uncle Tom, sellout, Stepin' Fetchit — those terms have not come from nowhere. They have a history," he said. "It is deserved, to the degree that they support anti-racial policies."
Steele never ran for office before seeking the lieutenant governor's job and so has no voting record on issues such as affirmative action and education. However, as Ehrlich's second-in-command, he presided over a commission that recommended wider use of charter schools in Maryland.
Blacks cast about 20 percent of the votes in statewide elections in Maryland, and between 80 percent and 90 percent of that vote traditionally goes to Democrats.
But some believe the old suspicion of Republicans that has led to automatic support for Democrats among black voters is breaking down.
Democratic state Delegate Anthony Brown, a black man from Prince George's County, a suburb of Washington, said that in Prince George's especially, "African-Americans are much more willing these days to evaluate candidates based on what they stand for."
"They are not going to just approach it from a narrow standpoint of: `Are you Democrat, are you a Republican?"' he said.