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A lesson from Condoleezza Rice
By Derrick Z. Jackson, 11/20/2002
The national security adviser to President Bush was asked if she thinks the Democratic Party still patronizes ''women, minorities, and the poor.'' Laughing, she declined to answer the specific question last week before the Trotter Group, an organization of African-American columnists. But her answer was as riveting as if she had actually gone on to trash the Democrats.
''The fact of the matter is, race matters in America,'' Rice said. ''It has, it always has ... It is not that I mind being associated with the group. I am African-American and proud of it. I wouldn't have it any other way. And it has shaped who I am and it will continue to shape who I am.
''I do not believe it has limited who I am or what I can become. And that's because I had parents who, while telling me what it meant to be African-American and exposing me to that, also allowed me to develop as an individual to be who I wanted to be.''
Rice said the 1963 church bombing in Birmingham that killed four girls, including friend Denise McNair, shaped her views on the war on terrorism. ''If you've been through home-grown terrorism,'' Rice said, ''you recognize there isn't any cause that can be served by it ... Because what it's meant to do is end the conversation.''
In profiles, Rice talks about being hollered at as a child by a white store clerk for touching a hat. Rice's mother told the clerk ''Don't you talk to my daughter that way!'' Her mother then said, ''Now, Condoleezza, you go and touch every hat in this store.''
That reminded me of around 1965 when I was about 10. I bought comic books and ice cream in a drug store in DeKalb, Miss. Later, my grandfather informed me that was the ''white folks'' drug store. He could have berated me for breaking white folks' rules. Instead, he smiled and said, ''Good.''
For me, not accepting racial barriers would mean going on to little things like being on the first integrated child championship bowling team at a particular alley in Milwaukee, then bigger things like sportswriting when there were few African-Americans covering pro teams for major newspapers.
For Rice, it meant parents who ''didn't say to me, 'You know, it's really weird for a black girl from Birmingham, Ala., to want to be a Soviet specialist.''' Rice said that she liked Motown, the blues, and funk music like most of her friends, but her parents drove her to learn Brahms. Rice has often said bluntly that she had to master the white world better than a whole lot of white people to succeed.
''Sometimes when we say to our kids, 'You are a minority,' we don't say it in a way that says it is part of who you are, we say it as if it's an impediment that cannot be overcome by hard work and access to education and all of those things,'' Rice said. ''And I just think the messages are wrong when there is only focus on what group you happen to belong to, rather than the group is part of who you are, but also, who you are is who you are as an individual.
''We don't talk about it very much, but, yes ... it is a very good thing for the rest of the world that when Colin Powell and I walk in with the president of the United States, we are there as secretary of state and national security adviser, because I think it says to people that there aren't boundaries in which black Americans are not supposed to play ... I think it's an extremely important message to our kids. That's why I talk so much about the individual. It's not to deny the group, but I really think it's important that we appeal to each individual's worth and capability.''
Such reflections do not make Rice's political views and America's global arrogance any more appealing to me. But those who dismiss her as a hotheaded cold war queen miss a chance to dwell on her focus and drive. Unlike many black conservatives who shout louder than white ''color-blind'' conservatives that race no longer matters, Rice has no problem saying race matters, and since it is so, black folks had better work to get the most out of their individual talents.
In a Newsweek interview last year, Rice said, ''It wasn't as if someone said, 'You have to be twice as good' and 'isn't that a pity' or 'isn't that wrong.' It was just, 'You have to be twice as good.''' One does not have to like Rice's politics to appreciate how being twice as good has made her the most powerful woman in the world.
Derrick Z. Jackson's e-mail address ismailto:%firstname.lastname@example.org.
This story ran on page A19 of the Boston Globe on