Colin Powell has stepped down as Secretary of State, and it appears Condoleeza Rice is going to be his replacement. It also looks like the end of an era of essentialist thinking about race.
In a post-election essay that’s been circulating via the Internet, Charles Frederick characterized race as “a concept of no meaning while having endless consequence.” The first part of his point I take to refer to the fact that racial categories are imposed on human life rather than inherent in it. As the scientists tell us, the variations among individuals in any racial classification — “white,” “black,” “Latino,” “Asian,” etc. — far exceed those between these gross categories. To describe the diversity of human identity and culture, race is a blunt instrument. As to the second part of Charles’ point, the “endless consequence” of race, I doubt further explanation is needed.
Since I heard about Powell’s resignation, I’ve been thinking about the cultural meanings of the role he played. Our era has been strongly marked by thinking constrained into clumsy racial categories: among most people I know, the default assumption is that a person of color who ascends to high position is a type of Horatio Alger, having overcome huge obstacles of poverty and oppression. In other words, such racial categories carry essential meanings that are assumed to apply to all their members. By succeeding, an individual with this presumptive identity has access to a tremendous reservoir of good feeling many Americans hold in trust for the person who achieves against the odds.
There is no question that every person of color who comes up in America encounters racism, large and small, institutional and individual. But the recent prominence of people like Powell and Rice suggests that this reality does not necessarily determine the direction of every person’s life, loyalties, and values. In actuality, Powell’s personal history follows the pattern set by achievement-oriented immigrants like his parents: by the time he graduated from City College in 1958, his ROTC involvement had earned him an Army commission as second lieutenant; four years later, he married the daughter of a high school principal; professionally, he has risen higher with each year, carrying on as he began. Condoleezza Rice is also the child of Jamaican immigrants; both her parents were university professors, her mother a music teacher and her father the pastor of a Presbyterian church.
But myth often trumps reality. The result is that Powell has carried out the appalling international programs of the Bush administration while steadfastly managing to be seen as not responsible, even as an opposing voice — as Stevie Wonder once said, “in it but not of it.” Let’s not forget that Powell is the one who went to the UN and lied about weapons of mass destruction. Talking it over this morning, my husband asked “Who else could have made that sale?”
The stark truth is that the right has made cynical if brilliant use of essentialist racial thinking, appointing individuals of color to positions where presumptive goodwill will shield both those individuals (and the administration) from the full brunt of responsibility for the evil they have done.
The question that fascinates me is why Powell and Rice (and Clarence Thomas, who was born into poverty and seems since to have had his heart removed) do it. I also ask it of my own ethnic group of eastern European Jews. When I was growing up, the default assumption was that Jews were liberal or left. I never met a Jew who voted Republican until the Reagan era. At that point, Jewish intellectuals emerged — seemingly from nowhere, as rare as African American right-wingers — as ideologues of “neoconservatism.” I sought answers and found an interesting book by Earl Shorris, \Jews Without Mercy\. Shorris’s point was that throughout history, there are two paths open to minorities who wish to save themselves from oppression. One is to align oneself with the general idea of mercy: to work for social policies that protect human rights and distribute social goods to the benefit of all, protecting one’s own group along with all the others. This has been the time-honored path of Jewish progressives. The trouble with this approach is that when it does not succeed in raising the general level of mercy, one’s own group goes down along with all the others.
The other strategy is to “align oneself with the king” — to make oneself useful to those who hold power — in the hope of reward, in the hope of protection. Such a position might be adopted out of raw self-interest. But it can also be enacted unconsciously, as Paulo Freire has pointed out, in the form of “internalization of the oppressor,” where one comes to believe the king’s propaganda, that the interests of those at the top of the social heap are one’s own interests too. Either way, the trouble with this approach is that when the old king dies or loses the 2008 election or trips over his own hubris and tumbles, one falls too.
There isn’t much supporting evidence for this as a long-term strategy, because kings come and go, making and dropping alliances at will. But the desire for justice, loving-kindness and truth persists throughout human history. I imagine we can help to advance it by, at long last, discarding default assumptions about racial categories and judging each public official by his or her actions alone. Shall we start with Condoleezza Rice?