His message to Corporate America is to look inward and into the communities where you live.

Interview conducted by Judy Warner

Michael Steele made history when he was elected lieutenant governor of Maryland in 2003, the state’s first African American voted into a statewide office. He again made history in 2009 when he became the first African American to be named chair of the Republican National Committee. A regular commentator and political analyst for MSNBC, among other networks, he can also be heard on his weekly eponymous podcast where he moderates spirited discussions that explore today’s most pressing political and cultural issues, of which there seems to be no shortage. NACD Directorship editor-in-chief Judy Warner interviewed Steele in June as part of NACD’s first national online peer exchange, delving into issues ranging from current politics, the COVID-19 pandemic, and the civil rights turmoil in our country. Highlights from their conversation follow.

In addition to a pandemic and an economy that is almost at a full stop, there is now country-wide civil unrest. Can you frame for me how you’re thinking about where we are in America right now? I’ve been thinking on this and reflecting on it, getting choked up from time to time about it, because it is so telling a time for us as Americans. We really have to confront a lot about ourselves that we probably don’t like, that we have hidden from the eyes of others, as well as ourselves. I think the COVID-19 pandemic coupled with the murder of George Floyd, coupled with the absence of leadership at various levels has put pressure on us as people to come to grips with these realities. What kind of a nation are we? How have we raised our kids? How were we raised? Does the American dream really apply to me? Does this country want me? All of these questions have been rolling around since the founding of our nation. The [other] questions I think we’re grappling with are: What did you hear? What did you see? What do you get out of the images on your screen every night? In such a time as this, we either move forward or we stand still, we either take each other’s hand or we fight each other. Every great nation has had to confront this in some form. As history has shown us, a lot of those great nations have fallen. Now we’re in a crucible where culture, economy, social fabrics, and politics have come together in a way that requires us to come up with an answer.

Why is having conversations around race always so difficult? Because there’s a lot of pain in that conversation. There’s a lot of ugliness in that conversation. [For Black folks,] there’s a lot of stuff about you and your family you don’t want to talk about in that conversation. I listened to my mom and listened to my grandmother as a young kid. I grew up in Washington, DC, when it was still segregated, where my mom couldn’t take me to certain parks in town. Then as a young man, I had experiences where subtle forms of racism were used to block or diminish an opportunity. That narrative has with it a very deep and long history. It’s not just a matter of having the conversation, we’ve had the conversation. Hell, Barack Obama stood in front of the country and had the conversation. But folks, we didn’t really have it. Because what it starts with is: Why do you hate me so much? What is it about my skin that turns you off? What is it about your actions that piss me off? Why don’t I trust you? Why have you suppressed and repressed my people? Why do you think you’re better than me? Why do you take from me what belongs to my children? That’s a conversation that Black and white folks can have with each other, because you can hear a Black voice and a white voice in each of those questions. It’s not absolute to just one side, it is part of a continuum that began in 1619 when the first Africans were brought to these shores against their will. I want to know why, when you see me walking down the street, you cross it. You cross the other way. Why, when I drive through your neighborhood, do you call the cops? Why, when I’m in Central Park watching birds and I say to you, “Ma’am, the sign says leash your dog. Could you leash your dog?” you call the police and tell them that I’m threatening you. I want to know why, when my kid is applying for a scholarship, he’s denied, and your son is given that scholarship because of the color of his skin. You can see how all of these pieces, whether they’re legitimate or not, fuel this negative energy around the issue of race, class, discrimination, Jim Crow, all of that. It’s a painful conversation, it’s a hard conversation, and it’s not one that gets resolved with 30 minutes on the couch. It’s a longterm process that, as a nation, we have to be willing to understand, and it means going back to the beginning and working through it.

How do you view the role of corporations in our society and how should directors be thinking about the effect of race on some of the decisions that they oversee? Our boardrooms do not look like the country. They just don’t. Our corporate ladder has rungs up to a certain point, and then there’s just space. Corporate America: It’s your responsibility to add rungs so that those who have found the tools and resources to progress themselves successfully up that ladder can continue to do that. If there are more women, African Americans, Hispanics, Asians, gays and lesbians, if there’s a diverse community of people around you in that board meeting, what are you afraid of? What do you think they’re going to say? You don’t think they’ll have the same interest in protecting those corporate goals and moving that company forward? Of course, they would. Corporate America doesn’t look like America. 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? When I was the lieutenant governor of Maryland, I would sit down with our companies and I would say to them, “Are you familiar with this little girl over here who’s in the elementary school that’s two blocks from your business?” “No.” I go, “Why? Because that’s your workforce. That five-year-old who just started kindergarten in 13 short years may come knocking on your door looking to work for you.” That’s where it begins, how you open yourself up and recognize that you have a space in this community that you can fill. To open that door creates and affords opportunities where you learn and listen, and you’re no longer afraid to hire or to bring her mother or her father or her uncle on the payroll for sure, but also into the boardroom.

When you were appointed chair of the Republican National Committee (RNC), the United States had just elected its first African American president. What were your objectives? In hindsight, did you meet those objectives? Part of the reality of my election is that there were some members of the committee who voted for me because I’m Black. I got it, I understood it. They saw Barack Obama standing over there after the inauguration going, “Okay, what do we do now? The party is in shambles. We lost the 2008 presidential election. We got our behinds kicked in the 2006 congressional cycle.” Our brand basically sucked, and we were hemorrhaging not just donors, but activists and people who had been Republicans most of their lives. But I also know that regardless of how I got in the room, I’m in the room. Not only am I in the room, I control the room. I’m the one right now who has the opportunity to put into action the things that I’ve articulated and believed for most of my adult life as a Republican. That’s what I set out to do. 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. Yeah, I could be on the same page on tax cuts and I could be on the same page on government regulation and 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.

How would you describe the RNC’s brand today? We’ve moved away from the country on a host of issues. That has been more pronounced since 2012. I left in 2011. And even more so since the election of 2016, where some of those very basic principles that we articulated had been thrown away. We were once a party that advocated for affirmative action and civil rights and the environment, and so forth. Today, we stand in opposition to immigration and the environment, which makes it a much harder narrative I think for the party in a space where more and more people are looking for leadership in those areas.

How do you account for the current rhetoric and vitriol between Republicans and Democrats? There are a number of elections throughout history where the political and partisan rankles were evident, which is why a number of our founding fathers advocated against political parties. And until the 2000 presidential election, it was almost like that cartoon with the sheep dog and the coyote. They come punch the clock [at the start of the workday]. The coyote tries to steal the sheep. The sheep dog goes and sits on the hill and tries to stop the coyote from getting the sheep. They battle each other, and they beat each other up, but at the end of the day, they punch out, and it’s all right. I grew up in Washington where that was pretty much how the game was played. You could go around town in the evening after a bruising day of politics, and see members sitting in the restaurant, Republicans and Democrats having dinner together. The 2000 election came along and it became about the tribe you belong to. That cancer has grown over the last 20 years to the point that we see it now I believe exacerbated by the current administration’s political leveraging of everything. Now, you have this tension where members of Congress don’t even talk to each other. That’s not the way our politics should operate because we have in the past gotten things done when we’ve moved off of our anchored moorings in our political space, to a space that serves the public.

Do you think voters in November will consider and hold the president accountable for the administration’s responses to the virus and the economic crisis? A lot of it has to do with how voters typically process information relative to their choice at the ballot box, versus how they will do it in 2020. In a typical environment, the facts and the history are very clear. Reagan posed the question [to voters] in his election, “Are you better off today than you were four years ago?” Having come through the ‘70s recession, folks said, “No, I’m not.” He offered something better and they bought it with their vote. But then you have these other externals that we have not experienced before, like COVID-19. Up to COVID-19, my analysis led me to believe that Donald Trump was going to win reelection. Regardless of everything else you may say, feel, or think about him and his presidency, at the end of the day, people were going to look at their state, their condition, and ask themselves, “Am I better off than I was four years ago?” When they looked at their 401(k), when they looked at the opportunities for their kids, and when they looked at all these sorts of externalities related to their economy, the answer was probably, “Yeah.” Even though, ironically enough, they didn’t get the kind of tax cut that the guy making 40 times more than they are did. But they bought into this notion that everybody else was doing okay, I must be doing okay, too. COVID-19 hits. The response by the president was one thing, but then the layoffs, the closed businesses, the lost wages, the economic hardships set in. Even for a person with a modest 401(k) saw 30 percent, 40 percent of their life savings and their wealth disappear in a day. All of a sudden, that conversation became real for them. The combination of the health concerns coupled with the economic impact, and this is what we were seeing right up until the death of Mr. Floyd, was taking a chunk out of the president’s numbers. Then [President Trump] saw the opportunity to take advantage of the crisis on the street from the death of Mr. Floyd, and to use that as leverage to get people off of COVID-19. Notice we haven’t talked about COVID-19 as a country since all of this has erupted. Yet still, it’s a real thing. There are still people getting infected from the virus. There are still people dying from it, but the president has now sort of shifted. He has shifted more of that emphasis off of his handling of COVID-19 and more on his bravado to be the law-and-order president.

At what point did you decide to become the anti-Trump spokesperson of the Republican party? I’m not the anti-Trump spokesperson of anything. I still believe in the values that drew me into the party as a young man. I don’t know whether they will continue to take shape and form inside this thing called the GOP. But, like a Motel 6, I believe someone has got to keep the lights on for as long as you can. That’s why I speak out. Look, I like tax cuts as well as the next person, but they’ve got to benefit everybody. I see and know who my adversaries are. I don’t want to be friends with Kim Jong-un. I don’t want to get palsy-walsy with Vladimir Putin. The premier of China is as much a threat to not just our economic security, but our cybersecurity and the things that underpin and run our economy as anyone else. Keeping perspective on these things is important to me. Building relationships with communities as this country continues to change and diversify itself is of real value to me.

How do we start to rebuild trust in our institutions, in our companies, and in each other? Is that even possible? It is possible. But do you know what it’s going to require? It’s going to require you to be honest with yourself. It’s going to require you to be honest about what’s in front of you. You’ve got to be ready to have the hard conversations. You’ve got to be ready to be honest about what you really feel. Ask yourself how you really feel about Black people. Ask yourself how you really feel about white people. If you can’t answer that for yourself, and then if you can’t express that openly, that’s a problem. That’s where we’ve always been. As part of the solution, some people now at least are saying, “I want to have that conversation. Let me tell you why I don’t want you coming through my neighborhood. Let me tell you why I don’t want you dating my daughter.” That’s where you have to go. This is not something that just came up with the death of this young man. It didn’t happen when Trayvon Martin was killed. It didn’t happen when Freddie Gray was killed. It didn’t happen when Dr. King was killed. We’ve been in this space for 400 years. It’s part of who we are as Americans. Africans [were brought] to this country against their will and enslaved, and generations of whites and Blacks together participated in that enterprise that built this country. I listen to people, certainly some conservatives, who trash the [New York Times’] 1619 Project. I’m like, “Okay, yeah. Keep the blinders on. That’s not a rewriting of history, that’s an exposition of history.”

Do you see a political future for yourself? I’d like to. I love my state. I loved the time I served as lieutenant governor. I’m going to take a look at possibly running for governor when Larry Hogan—who is our current governor, he’s been a great governor here in Maryland—reaches his term limit in 2022. I’ll also take a look at the US Senate. I believe in public service. One of the most valuable things we can do as civic leaders is put our names and our reputations and our service in front of the people, and ask them to entrust you with their vote to serve them. It’s important then that we honor that by being transparent and being forthright. That’s why I say to all of you—Republican, Democrat, conservative, progressive, I don’t care where you are—if your leadership is failing you, break the cycle. Vote them out.

NACD Directorship July/August 2020