Rice and the New Black Paradigm

Human Rights

Black history month is upon us, and it already feels like it weighs a ton. I've never entirely embraced the notion of relegating the observance to February – as every black comic has pointed out, it's the shortest month of the year – because it always feels less like a tribute than more segregation, a perennial substitute for permanently incorporating black history into the larger American narrative set forth in textbooks, daily papers and such. But the last decade of black history has been so dubious, so double-edged and so increasingly alien to what I've always thought of as racial and social progress, I'd almost be willing to skip the whole thing in '05. And I'd pass for one reason in particular: Condoleezza Rice.

For years now, my wrath for Rice has been simmering. With her tight smirk, serpentine gaze and hopelessly immutable hairdo, she's been Bush's black doppelgänger to a tee, albeit better-spoken. Initially, I thought she was progress on the public-image front, maybe – unlike her boss, she didn't resort to church-spun homilies, crass emotionalism or bad grammar to make a point. But certainly I'd hoped that beneath the starch there was some bit of sistah empathy, some meaningful connection to a Southern upbringing of burning crosses and strict segregation that practically all of us over 40 share but can't necessarily show, especially in politics. I had less and less faith as time went on that Rice harbored such a connection, but I kept hope alive anyway – one of the best and worst things about black people is a willingness to nurse optimism that often has zero basis in fact. Call me crazy.

I've finally gotten wise. Rice's recent, shockingly easy ascension to secretary of state has tipped my long simmer into a boil. I now feel free to call her what she is, a hermetic ideologue and rank opportunist who has about as much feeling for black people as for American people in general, which is none. That makes Rice the model Bushie, but her model-ness partly derives from the fact that, much to the secret delight of fellow neocons, she also represents just about everything that's gone haywire with black progress in the last decade and notably during the last four years. For starters, Rice is a very high-profile bit of history authored not by black people, but by white cynics like Bush who get to tailor a racial paradigm to his liking and then declare it democracy at work and liberty for all. This is not new, of course; Poppy Bush orchestrated the same thing last decade when he nominated Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court. Until blacks crack the white power structure that still governs this country, their interests will always be at the mercy of somebody else, which means that the higher a black person rises, the more likely it is he or she will align with the power structure, not the people.

But Condoleezza Rice shows us just how unpalatable this color-coded Peter Principle can be. From her perch as national security advisor and now as secretary of state, she gets to stump for the Iraq war, admit to her starring role in the Big Lie that brought about the war while not admitting to the lie itself and suffer no consequences, intensify America's isolation in the world and thereby endanger not just us, but the entire planet. She gets to ignore the well-being of black people – including all those soldiers of color who've died or come back maimed – but always sell herself as a black success story without ever having to tell the gory details. Not only does Rice go along with the new black paradigm (which is also an old one – black female helpmate to a wealthy but incompetent white man who can barely tie his shoes), she aids and abets it without a twinge of conscience. She embodies the worst instincts of the new black middle-to-upper class elite that W.E.B. DuBois realized way back in 1950 was probably going to be the sop of white folks, not the savior of black ones. So despondent was he about what he saw coming, he pulled up stakes and spent the last years of his life in Africa.

There are other blacks out there like Rice, those not just disinclined to racial justice but who actively work against it, but they don't have the latitude or platform that she has been given. And in these God-and-country times, Rice is making the most of her platform by aggressively proving herself as super-patriotic as blacks have been all along, though her idea of patriotism – blind corporate loyalty that rewards with promotions and more loyalty – is exactly 180 degrees away from what King meant when he talked about loving America enough to stand against it in ways like opposing the Vietnam War. I've never heard Rice speak about King, a fellow native of the deep South, but that's probably a good thing. The NAACP had the bad sense to give Rice an achievement award a few years ago – it might have been holding out the same foolish hope for her that I did – and the black press exclaimed over her gown, but nothing else. For papers still charged with mindlessly exhorting black progress and honorees of any kind, this was a very pointed silence. Among blacks of national stature, only Clarence Thomas has gotten similar if-we-can't-say-anything-nice-let's-not-say-anything-at-all treatment.

Another thing I despise about Rice is how she's given affirmative action, already on the ropes, a bad name. Her appointment is all Bush's doing, but many people want to admire her because they prefer to see an educated, single-minded black woman who shouldered her way to the top on the strength of her character and qualifications. Yet Rice is not qualified to be secretary of state, not because she's black but because she's inexperienced, partisan to the point of cheapening the position and its function, a colossal failure as a diplomat, and – last but hardly least – has a thin record that reflects she's already lied about and/or covered up dirty doings in foreign policy that predate 9/11.

Aside from smearing the reputation of affirmative action, Rice also impugns a long-held and rather useful belief that black people are the moral compass of the nation, that as victims of generations of cruel and openly hypocritical public policy, our bullshit radar is more keenly developed than most. Alas, Rice is the bullshit we all need to be guarding against now, along with a string of other so-called history-making Negroes – military man Colin Powell, who sold out his old rank and file when he peddled the Iraq war to the world at the U.N. with those ridiculous maps and pointers; son and soon-to-be ex-FCC chief Michael Powell, whose great vision was to make big media bigger and less accountable; conservative commentator Armstrong Williams, who turned out to be on the Republican Party dole and the worst kind of welfare cheat. Black people have their crooks and hustlers, sure, but Rice and company are hustlers of an entirely different class and caliber to say nothing of pay scale – creatures of the same system and social circles that remain tremendously indifferent to blacks, at best. Compared to Rice, accused con men like Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson are paragons of virtue – however manipulative they are, they never lose sight of their base. Politically, Rice has never been beholden to anybody but a Bush – remember that Freudian slip last summer, when during an interview she referred to W. as "my husband" instead of "the president?" Some of us were left convinced that, metaphorically anyway, there was no difference.

This is precisely how it should not be. My best suggestion to black people and to the rest of the country is to take a sabbatical from February – regroup, think about where black people really are, detoxify by turning off the television and reading or re-reading DuBois, Baldwin, Carter G. Woodson, Malcolm X and Dick Gregory (who first radicalized the word "nigger" by confronting it in a skillful but underappreciated autobiography). Examine the vaunted bones of black history and realize that Condoleezza Rice, for all the history she has made, is a bad break that needs to heal. Maybe by this time next year our range of movement – and I mean that in as many ways as possible – will be repaired enough to get something else, and someone else, started.

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