Bringing Down the Hope: Condoleezza Rice,
Black Capitalism and War
January 6, 2004
By Max Gordon
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.
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
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 is an unusual black American icon. Refusing to play any
of the Hollywood black glamour tricks, she doesn't 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 disarmed. 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
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, etc., 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,
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
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
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
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
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 wince, imagining 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
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 black 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 judgement
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, 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 Colin Powell). 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
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
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
Read Max Gordon's blog at http://maxgordonworks.blogspot.com
Oates, Stephen B., Let The Trumpet Sound: A Life Of Martin Luther
King, Jr., Harper & Row Publishers, New York, 1982.