Thursday, January 06, 2005

Bringing Down the Hope: Condoleezza Rice, Black Capitalism and War

By Max Gordon
Democratic Underground
January 6, 2004

Having grown up in Birmingham, Alabama as the daughter of a Presbyterian pastor, it is easy to image that Condoleezza Rice kicked the underside of a church pew with patent-leather shoes, that she was shushed during a lengthy service with a peppermint from her mother's purse; or worse, an arched eyebrow silenced her and a girlfriend's giggles with the promise of a beating after church. Mrs. Rice may have stayed up late ironing Condoleezza's Sunday dress or pressing her hair by the stove, finally styling it with red ribbons the next morning. Pastor Rice might have carefully mouthed the words from the front pew as Condi remembered all her lines in the Christmas pageant.

As a young girl growing up in Birmingham, it is likely that Condoleezza Rice, at least once in her life, hesitated before two drinking fountains; finally approaching the one with the sign marked "Colored Only." She was born the year of the landmark decision, Brown vs. Board of Education, ending the legal segregation of public schools. In 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote "Letter From Birmingham Jail," having been imprisoned for the 13th time for protesting segregation. Dr. King had called Birmingham, "The most segregated city in the country." Police Commissioner "Bull" Connor promised that before integration was realized, "blood would run in the streets" and kept his promise.

At the urging of his aides, King had made movement history by recruiting high school students and elementary-age children to march, hoping to stir the moral conscience of the nation; Connor unleashed police dogs and turned fire hoses on them, blasting many protesters against concrete which ripped off their clothes and bloodied their skin. (1) That same year, at the age of nine, Condoleezza Rice's schoolmate Denise McNair was killed in the bombing of the Black Sixteenth Street Baptist Church when Ku Klux Klan member Robert Edward Chambliss planted 19 sticks of dynamite in the basement of the church.

At 15, Rice began attending classes at the University of Denver with the goal of becoming a classical pianist, her aspirations changing soon after to political science. After earning a degree at 19 with honors, she continued post-graduate education at the University of Notre Dame. For six years she served as Stanford's provost, where she was also a tenured professor; she was on the board of directors for the Chevron corporation; and joined the George H.W. Bush Administration as Senior Director of Soviet and East European Affairs in the National Security Council.

On December 17, 2000, Rice was picked to serve as National Security Advisor and stepped down from her position at Stanford. If confirmed by the Senate in January 2005, Condoleezza Rice will be the first black female Secretary of State ever in the United States.

Dr. Rice does not represent the typical physical example of black American success and self-denial. She doesn't have to play any of the Hollywood black glamour tricks or wear a foundation that is three shades too light for her skin, she isn't photographed from strange angles to keen her features, nor does she wear blonde dye-jobs, flowing shoulder-length extensions or green contacts. With her combed-back, straightened hair in a gentle flip, the tiny, friendly space between her front teeth and her carefully considered makeup, she recalls a handsome matron of the church or a favorite conservative aunt; authoritative and adequately fashionable, yet not enough to make a point of it. If you'd never seen a photograph or watched her on television, her first name alone would reveal to you who she was. Condoleezza Rice is an American black woman.

Which is the reason why the racism that she represents is so elusive, and that much more maddening. There is no question that Dr. Rice's achievements will be marked in the annals of black capitalism as a triumph. She is a talented woman, a successful business person, a military hawk; dedicated and fiercely loyal to her country and her president. She represents American progress, and specifically black American progress.

Yet something is painfully, deeply wrong. The theme-song to the 70's black upward-mobility sitcom "The Jeffersons" cried, "We finally got a piece of the pie!" My sister and I would jump up and dance to the song when the show came on. Maybe all black America danced to it. But did anyone stop to ask what kind of pie it was?

If you are a black employee of an American corporation and have decided to file a complaint about racism, you may be dismayed to find that the entire human resources department is black (with the exception of one white supervisor). Having to face this black army you are immediately discouraged. To have to tell a black face, with your black face, that you've been passed over for a promotion or raise, or that you're underpaid and you think it is because of your race, seems more than a little odd. It takes a black bulldozer to get over the psychological fun-house mirror of seeing blacks "everywhere" in the human resources metropolis and still argue about black invisibility within the company (we're on every other floor as secretaries, mail-room clerks, and custodians - not as executives). You leave the confrontation and return to your desk, confused, postponed.

I consider the human resources department of the United States of America: Gutierrez, Gonzales, Rice, Powell. What should elicit exuberance at the progress we as a nation are finally making towards inclusiveness, instead inspires weariness and cold suspicion.

In his Atlantic Monthly article of July 2003, Alan Berlow described how Alberto Gonzales, legal counsel to then Texas Governor Bush, helped in deciding the fate of prisoners on death row. (It is estimated by the ACLU that of the more than 2,000 people on "death row" virtually all are poor, a significant number are mentally retarded or otherwise mentally disabled, and more than 40 percent are African American, a disproportionate number Native American, Latino, or Asian.)

Gonzales was responsible for creating the summaries that helped determine whether fifty-seven prisoners lived or died: clemency was denied in all cases but one. Berlow notes that "one of the most basic reasons for clemency is the fact that the justice system makes mistakes. (Yet) during Bush's six years as governor 150 men and two women were executed in Texas - a record unmatched by any other governor in modern American history." Gonzales also wrote a controversial February 2002 memo, in which Bush claimed the right to waive anti-torture law and international treaties providing protections to prisoners of war; our debacle in Abu Ghraib was arguably its consequence.

A black, a Jew, a Latino, an Asian, a woman, and a homosexual can be brought to the table of capitalist power; but if they are all right-wing and neo-conservative, if they are determined to maintain the status quo and erase their unsavory "differences" by outwhiting the white people, outmaling the men, the richness that comes from true diversity, from the exchange of contrasting cultures, religions, genders and sexualities, is compromised. What remain are six variations of a patriarchal and white supremacist ideology - the same person six times.

It's this kind of "diversity" that is celebrated in the photographs of company annual reports and White House press conferences. A black woman at home watching television knows the people being sworn-in don't represent her or her community, and may actually do her great harm. She certainly doesn't trust them; they look too hollowed out, benumbed, Stepford-niggered.

A president who chooses the birthday of the greatest American civil-rights icon to express his condemnation of affirmative action, can't really care about diversity or about black students at American universities. Bush's comments were directed specifically at the University of Michigan; having gone to school on that campus, I know that as far as retention of students of color is concerned, U of M, like most American universities, needs all the help it can get. Affirmative action goes against our puritanical values: you shouldn't get something if you haven't earned it. However, for the working-class black student who may come from a community with inferior schools, inadequate money for materials and no advanced placement classes; whose relatives have taken out loans to get her a place to live on campus; who has to barter at the financial-aid department, filling out scholarship applications and concentrating this year on how she's going to pay for next year; who feels isolated on a predominantly white college campus and has to guard herself against the potential racist epithet uttered by the white person on her dormitory hall, or by her professor under the guise of "intellectual discourse"; who wants to stay in bed all semester, overwhelmed with the anxiety of trying to prove to herself and everyone else that she is there because of her achievements and not a number; by the time this student sits in a classroom at an American university, believe me, she's earned it.

My great-grandmother was educated in rural South Carolina through the sixth grade, when racist whites burned her school to the ground. Several children were still inside. As the story is told in my family, she went back to the school and searched the ashes for the charred bones of her classmates, some of which she kept and placed on a mantle piece. My grandmother grew up with those bones as a reminder of what education means in America for a black person, what it has sometimes cost.

Affirmative action was not meant for black idiots to have free rein, for colleges to hand out diplomas like flyers as an apology for past maltreatment, for someone to work three weeks in a company's mail room and suddenly be advanced to CEO. It was a way, however flawed, to rectify the fact that education for black Americans has been violently discouraged in the United States through racist legislation, lynching and murder. The easiest way, of course, to keep from having to share the American pie is to make sure certain people are too terrified to come anywhere near it.

While expressing her reservations at a press conference, Dr. Rice supported the president in his criticism of affirmative action and the policies of the University of Michigan, despite having acknowledged in prior interviews that her own tenured position at Stanford was based, in part, on the school's diversity initiatives. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, also a beneficiary of the opportunities afforded blacks as a result of civil-rights efforts and giddy from his own stylized brand of black contempt, is famous for his views against affirmative action as well.

Perhaps the determinant factor in knowing one has reached the pinnacle of black capitalist power is when one is economically or politically powerful enough to slam the door of possibility on a set of young black fingers as brutally, and as finally, as any racist white person ever did or could.

I avoided seeing the Queen Latifah film "Bringing Down the House" for as long as possible but, so as not to appear hypocritical for condemning a movie I hadn't seen, I relented. Friends had warned me about it, but their choice of words was curious; not the usual, "it's bad, but funny," assigned most modern black comedies, but, "it's painful." A black life is saturated with so much historic pain that it seems masochistic to deliberately seek out further persecutions, absolutely insane to pay for them. I went anyway.

In the movie, Latifah plays Charlene, a black female ex-con who claims to have been falsely convicted of a crime, and who tricks Steve Martin's Peter, a tax attorney, into meeting and defending her. Martin attempts feebly to rescue her from a series of humiliations, one involving an older white client played by Joan Plowright, who recalls at dinner a black servant from her childhood, ("Our Ivy… We used to pay her nothing. We would put all the food we hadn't eaten from our plates onto one plate just for Ivy.") and sings a happy "darky" song (entitled "Mama, is Massa Gon' Sell Us Tomorrow?") while Latifah serves her in a pink maid's uniform.

Charlene has no real community in the film except her black "friends" who "bring down the house" by almost destroying it during a raucous party, and her ex-boyfriend, a black thug who tries to kill her. The movie sets up the romantic-comedy expectation of boy gets girl, but ends instead with Steve Martin going back to his ex-wife and Charlene sitting on the lap of Peter's lascivious, white best friend who has objectified and violated her throughout the movie with provocative racial and sexual come-ons. Latifah pulls down the shade and looks at the audience with a smile that promises a "bootylicious" good time once we are out of the theater, and a secured future for her character in the sex industry (Charlene to Peter at the end of the film: "Shaking is what I do best"). Disney meets Mandingo.

It is extraordinary, the impact of a tiny, silly movie - I am still recovering. After watching, I take a moment away from considering the lump in my stomach, and imagine a 12-year-old black girl. Examining media images for a reflection of herself and her developing sexuality, she visits a friend who tells her she has to see the movie because it's "hilarious." My mother told me once, at about the same age, "Be careful what you expose yourself to. Some things change you in ways you can't imagine and it can take a while to get yourself back." (I took this to mean protect your innocence: as a rape and incest survivor, her innocence hadn't been protected.)

What I want to shield the child from is not sex-talk or naked bodies; it's the contempt the movie has for her, for humanity. It's never the sex in pornography that eats away at us, nor is it just the sexual contact of incest that ultimately destroys; it's the cynicism, the overwhelming psychological burden of despair that an adult pours into a child's body and mind.

We know how to protect our kids from the blatancy of obvious sex: what we don't protect them from is the blatancy of commercialism. A black girl or boy who looks to this film for inspiration finds two: the prostitution that occurs on the screen and the prostitution in the movie studio's boardroom.

In "Monster's Ball," Halle Berry plays Leticia, another bereft black female character with no family or friends, who depends on the white prison officer of her husband's execution to be her great white savior. Leticia has no on-screen community either; no black cousin or neighbor to borrow rent money from before she is evicted from her house, or even to sit with at a kitchen table and cry over a piece of sweet-potato pie. Rudderless and adrift, Leticia has the skin of a black woman, but no visible cultural antecedent in the movie; she may as well have hatched from an egg. Her son, the only family she has, is killed in a way that serves the plot more than it makes any comment on their lives: his death, dispensable like her husband's, doesn't linger or provide the viewer with a lasting grief.

To keep from being completely abandoned one night, she offers a monologue about her son's obesity and his greediness for fried chicken as she rips open her blouse and presents her breasts to Billy Bob Thornton's depressed, grieving, Hank. Through offering sex, she is finally vital and focused, Hank is guided and redeemed. Order is restored. Latifah and Berry's screen characters revisit the old Southern plantation ethic; American homeland security achieved through a black woman's vagina.

As a black gay man who has had more than my share of white male sexual partners, I may be the last person to challenge anyone on sucking white dick, metaphorical or otherwise. A black man or woman who sleeps with white men may seem to justify condemnation for engaging in the "ultimate" act of capitulation to patriarchy, but the judgment against them is only a crude and limited analysis of the real dynamics of racist power. Whether we are gay or straight, male or female, to survive America is to suck white dick a lot of the time (Saddam Hussein refused to before the war started, and look what happened to him). Liberation comes not only from defining who one's sexual partners are (i.e. loving a white man or woman as an empowered choice and not the codependency that comes from fearing a loss of power), but from resisting the inevitability of the black prostitute archetype, which has been our American birthright, in all its forms; economic, social, artistic, commercial.

When I call my friend to commiserate about "House," I've already anticipated his response. While we both agree that the movie is "wrong," we can't even claim that Latifah was victimized, or complain about what "they" did to her - she executive-produced the film. "Well," he sighs, "at least she got paid."

It is the same justification that African-Americans, many Americans, give for Condoleezza Rice: "Well, I don't agree with her politics, but you can't take away from her achievements. She is the most powerful black woman in America."

As a leading proponent of the war in Iraq, a war that sends black and Latino soldiers from economically depressed communities around the country to untimely and unnecessary deaths, this black female Secretary of State is not only not an inspiration, but a macabre distraction. The racism of the war continues to go unchallenged, perhaps not even considered, because it has a black stamp of approval. An oven may be made of the highest quality metals, work with amazing precision and be a creation of manufacturing art, but if it was used at Dachau, is it still to be admired? Is a great achievement still great in the service of a great wrong?

There were black Americans whose romance with Malcolm X's fierce entreaty of the 60's, "By Any Means Necessary" ended with the increased opportunities for black capitalism on the horizon; his words became no more than a poetic battle-cry. Malcolm X and Dr. King shared visions in their lifetimes of world equality for all black people, but to the provincial, capitalist black "civil rights" may have been re-defined as the opportunity for black capitalists finally to exploit poor American blacks and the rest of the world as freely as American whites had, protected at last from the racist reprisals that led to black business owners' being lynched in the South.

As Maya Angelou writes, "They don't want change, they want exchange." We are now at war with insurgents who, when they say "By Any Means Necessary," mean it. (Anyone who can chop your head off and create a music video at the same time makes one thing absolutely clear: theirs is a far uglier, fiercer resistance than we anticipated). It is deeply unintelligent to support this war in the unequivocal manner of Donald "You Go To War With the Army You Have" Rumsfeld or Condoleezza "Stand By Your Man" Rice. Tennessee Williams couldn't have imagined delusions of grandeur this determined.

A black right-wing politician can be as adrift and isolated from her community as any Hollywood representation of a black person on-screen (and as discouraging; an example to the black viewer of the impossibility of coalition building and political empowerment, which may be the representation's cynical intent). She may be black by racial lineage and cultural heritage, but her complete disregard for her community's needs and her unaccountability to them make her obsolete. She cleaves to her president and appears to have the support of her party, but she is only allowed through their patronage to be the most "powerful" black in America as long as her power doesn't shift or threaten anything that matters to them (their money or real power.)

If it does, he or she is out faster than one can say "no weapons of mass destruction" (see Powell, Colin). Our Lady of the Black Hope stands at a White House podium asking us to admire her slave collar from Tiffany & Co., beautifully encrusted with diamonds. It sparkles, and we may admire its price, but in the end it's just as tight as ours.

In his great speech, delivered on the steps at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C. on August 28, 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said: "I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal."

Maybe the right to black capitalism, to black neo-conservatism is part of that equality, but I believe that the freedom Dr. King wanted for blacks was also spiritual, not only economic.
Might he might question the "freedom" of a Michael Jordan, no matter how great our admiration for his athletic skill, who endorses Nike, a company famous for its exploitation of workers in the Third World, countries whose militaries retaliate violently against those who fight for fair wages? The "freedom" of rap-artists like Ice Cube who enjoy contracts with liquor companies whose advertising is targeted specifically to black communities, encouraging addiction, drug use and violent crime? Or a black conservative like J. Kenneth Blackwell who co-chaired President Bush's re-election campaign while serving as the Secretary of State for Ohio; a state where black voters complained of disenfranchisement and were allegedly discouraged from voting in many areas in our last presidential election?

If anything has assassinated King's dream, long after the assassination of the man himself, it is the backlash against what is often referred to as "political correctness". In our efforts not to be "politically correct" and thus hypocritical, we may now call someone a nigger directly to his face and take satisfaction from the fact that we have been honest with him. We've created a nation of John Waynes; hearty, swaggering bigots, desperate to be challenged so they can prove how politically incorrect (racist) they are.

All progressive change is now under the banner of being "politically correct" and is thus considered too obnoxious to discuss; one feels unhip or a whiner for demanding equal pay for women, reproductive rights, anti-racist education, an end to homophobia, anti-Semitism, homelessness and poverty. Coming from the University of Michigan where, to some people's minds, political correctness was invented, I wonder: if all these political ideals are so "correct," why haven't we achieved them? How can we hope for change when those sent in the image of the oppressed are more determined than ever to ensure nothing changes, that business goes on as usual?

Our victory lies in not just seeing any black face in power, or any woman, but in the knowledge that as people of color, as gays, as women, we aren't enabling greater crimes against those we represent, that our faces aren't used to promote a war or to reassure, to anesthetize or disempower, to exploit or enslave.

From the first black African who refused to get off the boat in Charleston to Fanny Lou Hamer's "we didn't come all this way for no two seats" lock-out at the 1964 Democratic National Convention, we have always resisted, and must now insist on a definition of success that is not only financial; an idea of liberation that is greater than our ability to wield economic or military power. If that means asking different questions than most Americans; our legacy, as an enslaved people whose children were sold away from us so that someone's company could have a great year, demands it.

It was in Birmingham, Alabama, where Condoleezza Rice was born and raised, that Dr. King enjoyed perhaps his greatest civil rights victory. On Sunday, May 5th 1963, three thousand young people went on a pilgrimage to Birmingham jail and were confronted by police. They sang and knelt in prayer. When Police commissioner Connor, waiting with dogs and armored cars, gave the command to "turn on the hoses" as they had before, the firemen and cops just stood there, disobeying his command, mesmerized before the crowd; a few even crying. The crowd marched on. King later said, "It was one of the most fantastic events of the Birmingham story. I saw there, I felt there, for the first time, the pride and the power of nonviolence."

In the end, despite her many achievements, I can't claim Dr. Rice. If she is the realization of Dr. King's dream, he should have been more specific.

(1) Oates, Stephen B., Let The Trumpet Sound: A Life Of Martin Luther King, Jr., Harper & Row Publishers, New York, 1982.

copyright Max Gordon

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