Michael Steele, the Republican National Committee's first black chairman, told an audience that his party wants to help the black community but they need to do a better job of depending on themselves and not the government to create opportunities.
Steele received a warm welcome from hundreds of black activists at the annual meeting of the National Action Network, an organization founded by the Rev. Al Sharpton, a noted civil rights activist and former Democratic presidential candidate.
Steele has come under fire from some Republicans after saying he is held to a different standard because he is black. He is also battling accusations that he has allowed RNC money to be misspent.
Polls continue to show that most black voters favor the Democratic Party and approve of President Barack Obama, the nation's first black president.
The audience reacted somewhat skeptically when Steele invoked Thurgood Marshall, the first black Supreme Court justice. Marshall once said that while people need to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, a teacher or religious figure probably "bent down and helped us pick up our boots."
Steele called that a Republican message.
"The Republican National Committee wants to bend down and help," he said, drawing cries of "How?" and "Not the Tea Party!" — the largely white, antitax movement that Steele has tried to woo into the GOP fold.
Steele honored other civil rights leaders like Harriet Tubman and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and invoked slavery to encourage blacks to own their own businesses.
"I want to own, I don't want to be owned," he said to applause.
Steele acknowledged that blacks still trail whites in education and employment opportunities but urged the audience to apply business- and community-oriented solutions to solve those problems. He said depending on government stifled black progress.
"No child should be imprisoned in a failing government school," Steele said, urging activists to support charter schools and other innovations.
He also criticized the federal stimulus program, saying he'd rather see stimulus funds go to a small business owner in Harlem than to a government agency.
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