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Steele Reaches Out to Skeptical NAACP

It was clear that Republican National Committee chair Michael Steele was facing a skeptical crowd even before he stepped onstage to address the NAACP's 100th anniversary convention Tuesday.

Steele, the first African-American chair of the GOP, was introduced by a woman who told the assembled delegates she wanted to say a few words "before you start cheering for" Steele. At that, the delegates at the Hilton hotel in New York City broke out in laughter.

When Steele did step onstage, however, he garnered polite applause – and quickly quipped that he understands "that I'm here to protect the tax-exempt status of the NAACP." He then reached out to a constituency that often seems all but lost to Republicans in the age of Obama.

"The Republican Party, which has shared an inextricable link to the African-American community, has a way forward" in the "struggle for economic and educational opportunity," Steele said.

"Certainly my visit here does not represent some miraculous breakthrough in GOP-NAACP relations," he said. "This is the first baby step in many more baby steps to come. After all, we know that old loyalties and attitudes die hard. But the question is, if the GOP is willing to take those steps, will the NAACP be willing to do the same?"

After the speech, Steele, a longtime member of the NAACP, told he felt welcome at the conference. Standing on the first floor of the Hilton, he asked those who are skeptical to give his party "a chance."

"I appreciate that skepticism, I understand it, I know where it comes from, I know why it's there," he said. "There's history on both sides here. There's history that talks about how the party was there to empower and free African-Americans to really access this great country. And then there's history there where the party walked away from the civil rights agenda in many respects for African-Americans in the '60s."

"So my job now is to be the bridge…to sort of bring us to a new place," Steele added. (Watch the interview at left.)

Steele was asked if he agrees with President Obama's suggestion that African-American fathers need to take more responsibility.

"Every dad needs to be responsible for his children, I don't care what background or ethnicity you come from," he said. "It is a particular problem in the black community because – it goes back to our very origins here in this country. When you strip the male out of the family, as has been the case in the days of slavery, you set up a matriarchical system. There is a very different dynamic there."

"I think there are a lot of societal ills that we can point to that have led to the degeneration of the black family, and its sort of degradation overall," he continued. Steele suggested the opportunity now exists to "bring back the strength of the family" through church and economic and educational opportunity.

"So I think President Obama is right in his overall assessment," Steele said. "There's got to be an emphasis placed on the role of men in the family. There's got to be an emphasis placed on the role of black men in society."

The RNC chair said his success and that of Mr. Obama does not mitigate "the fact that black neighborhoods are still redlined" and that "kids are still sitting in failing public schools." He stressed that there are things that have not changed for the black community since John F. Kennedy's presidency.

"I think our party, given some of the things that we offer on education and economic responsibility, we can be there to help," said Steele.

Among those attending the conference, the reception to Steele's message was mixed.

Republicans "don't have much to say," according to Emory Williams, who came to the conference from Illinois. "All they're doing right now is being very negative to the Democrats. They had their chance, and they blew it."

New Jersey's Claudia Smith, however, stressed that the NAACP doesn't officially back either party.

"The Republicans are not shut out from the NAACP, nor are the Democrats," she said. "And if there is something in between, they're not shut out either."

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