Condoleezza Rice’s Extraordinary, Ordinary Look at the Role of Race in America

by Latoya Peterson

Condoleezza Rice is an intriguing figure to watch as she moves across the national stage.

She held two of the highest offices in the United States – National Security Advisor and Secretary of State.

She is a Republican, yet she doesn’t shy away from talking about race, as is the custom for many members of the party.

She was a young prodigy, gifted in the arts and sports, but chose a life immersed in public policy.

Her new book, Extraordinary, Ordinary People: A Memoir of Family traces her life, beginning with her Grandfather Albert Robinson Ray III, then the lives of her mother and father, then her own life, growing up in the segregated South.  Her story flips between idyllic childhood memories of church picnics and piano lessons and terrifying memories of bombings and explosions, Rice chronicles the contradictions of the living in the land of the free, and still living with the legacy of what she terms “America’s birth defect.”Rice begins discussing race in the United States on page two, which sets the tone for the rest of the memoir.  An ever present force, race is something to be understood and grappled with time and time again.  She tries to paint a picture of life during that era, noting:

Certainly, in any confrontation with a white person in Alabama, you were bound to lose.  But my parents believed that could could alter that equation through education, hard work, perfectly spoken English, and an appreciation for “the finer things” in “their” culture.  If you were twice as good as they were, “they might not like you but “they” had to respect one.  One could find space for a fulfilling and productive life.  There was nothing worse than being a hapless victim of circumstances.

While doing the book rounds, she was cornered by one news caster who asked her to back up and explain what she meant by “twice as good.”  I can’t find the clip now, but the interviewer seemed amazed at this turn of phrase, this implicit acceptance of the idea that in order to go half as far as a white person, a black person had to be twice as good as everything.  If I remember correctly, Rice just smiled and explained the history of the adage – without bothering to explain how the policy is still in effect today.

Still, Rice refers to that adage, as well as a “no victims, no excuses,” mantra that permeates her story. Despite those convictions, Rice’s reflections on growing up are at times horrifying, when one realizes exactly how the threat of violence was always present in daily life.  A simple car breakdown experienced by her father and uncles turned into a harrowing race to have the car fixed after a passing police officer said “you boys had better have your black asses out of here before I come back.” The story of Rice’s birth reveals a story of how public hospitals were segregated. Not only were patients denied private rooms, all black patients were forced down into the basement, where they stood shoulder to shoulder with patients who had other, potentially communicable, illnesses.  Selecting a football team to root for was complicated by Birmingham’s refusal to allow integrated teams, the Redskin’s racist policies, ultimately choosing the Cleveland Browns. Joining the high school band provided an avenue to participation in black public life, when movie theaters and concert halls were closed to black patrons.  A youth-to-youth religious exchange program revealed fifty-four sticks of dynamite stashed under a local synagogue. The only restaurant available to African-Americans in Birmingham was next to a funeral parlor.  Roadtrips were carefully planned, as there were no hotels that accepted black travelers until you crossed the Mason Dixon line. One of Rice’s schoolmates was killed in the bombing of the 16th street Baptist Church.

Even a trip to see Santa Claus for Christmas turned into a racially charged moment, when Condoleezza’s father, John Rice, noticed that Santa would put the white children in line on his knee, but hold the black children away from him.  Rice remembers:

“If he does that to Condoleezza,” Daddy said to Mother, “I’m going to pull all of that stuff off him and expose him as just another cracker.”  I fearfully went forward, not knowing what to expect.  Perhaps Santa felt those vibes from my father because he put me on his knee, listened to my list, and said “Merry Christmas!”  All’s well that ends well.  But I never forgot how racially charged that moment felt around, of all things, Santa Claus.

However, Rice often points out how history is complicated, and many times inexplicable.  Why did a white man take in her homeless grandfather and raise him as one of the family? Why did Virginia Durr, a white woman, risk her life to stand up against segregationists? How did Jewish families influence the civil rights movement?  Why did physicians, like Dr. Sheffield and Dr. Carmichael, risk their practices and work after hours to provide medical care to blacks in Birmingham?

Doing the right thing, while noble in hindsight, is not always a clear path.  Rice notes that her father, and many members of her church did not participate in the marches nor in acts of civil disobedience.  She points out that blacks in Birmingham had no place to go to escape the violence – and one neighbor’s act of courage could spark a wave of bombings, white “night riders” and visits from the Ku Klux Klan, who did not bother to distinguish between targets.  She also notes that King’s strategy, in its day, was heavily controversial.  Rice’s father did not believe in nonviolence in the face of violence, and felt that being on the streets would have signed his own death sentence.  Rice’s father also disagreed with some of the tactics of rebellion:

Out of frustration with the slow response to the protests, Martin Luther King and the movement preachers called children into the streets on May 2 for what became known as the “Children’s Crusade.”  Some of my friends were involved.  James Stewart, George Hunter III (called “Third”), Raymond Goolsby, and Ricky Hall, all students of my father, were told to go out front first and distract the police.  Others were to follow and get as close to city hall as they could before being stopped.  As they approached city hall from Sixteenth Street Baptist Church Bull Connor yelled over the bullhorn, “Do you have a permit?”  When they said that they didn’t, he opened paddy wagons filled with police who arrerested the kidss.  When the kids kept coming and Connor could not stem the tide of protestors, he called in police dogs and turned fire hoses on the marchers.  These young kids had been led straight into the teeth of Bull Connor’s henchmen.  The rightness of their cause aside, my father was appalled at what he saw as endangering innocent children.

Outside of marches and protests, Rice’s narrative deftly weaves the threat of violence into the narrative in a way that recreates the trauma of that era. Reading Rice’s words, I remember how sanitized the version of history we are taught in textbooks really is.  I recently visited the Northwest African American Museum, and was drawn to a vintage TV set displaying news coverage from various marches and protests.  One stood out in particular: a group of attractive white kids, dressed as if they were going to American Bandstand dancing, laughing, and chanting.  Their chant? “2-4-6-8, we don’t want to integrate!” It is often noted that “bad things” happened to black people.  The names of those who perpetuated those “bad things” are often lost to history.

But Extraordinary, Ordinary people doesn’t just look at race.  It also explains some of the influences on Rice’s foreign policy strategy and why she identifies strongly as a Republican.

Reading through her stories, I was stuck by one passage in particular:

[O]ne of my most vivid childhood memories is the Cuban missile crisis in October 1962.  We were glued to the set every evening during the thirteen-day standoff.  It was a very scary time.  We’d never bothered with a bomb shelter in the house, even at the height of the Cold War.  But some of our friends did have them, fully stocked with provisions to survive a nuclear exchange. [...]

But the standoff in Cuba was no drill.  Because the missiles were deployed just ninety miles from the Florida coast, the newscasters reported, probably incorrectly, that Birmingham was in range.  They showed big arrows pointing right at us.  I could tell that my father was worried, and I realized this was something my parents couldn’t save me from.  It was the first time I remember feeling truly vulnerable.

Daddy explained our country had never last a war, and he was sure we weren’t going to lose this one. He was nevertheless visibly relieved when the Soviet ships turned around, ending the crisis. The whole episode had a surprisingly strong impact on me. I once told an audience of Cuban Americans that Fidel Castro had put the United States at risk in allowing those missiles to be deployed.  “He should pay for it until he dies,” I said.  Even I was surprised by the rawness of that comment.

When I read that passage, I almost dropped the book.

One of the main areas of contention for me, with Rice, is her perpetuation of neo-colonialist policies around the globe.  Her memoir reveals why she is a hawk, not a dove, starting with this passage. Indeed, it helped to clarify many of her decisions.  After the missile crisis ended , she became interested in Soviet politics, learned Russian, traveled to Europe, and wrote her dissertation on the politics of Czechoslovakia. She was also heavily involved in White House politics, relating a tale of how she had to juggle two powers from Russia in a time of crisis, without lending the opinion that the US endorsed either.  But still, questions remained.  When I interviewed Dr. Rice on the Dyson show, I was trying to figure out how to cram all the questions into the fifteen allotted minutes – if I could jump back in time and ask one more question, I would have asked how her experience with domestic terrorism here in the States shaped her idea that an aggressive show of force was the correct policy in Iraq and Afghanistan.  I’m not sure if the answer she would have supplied would have been different than the answer she gave me, but I would have been interested to see how the reframing might have impacted the question.

Her views on national security also speak to why she identities as a Republican.  Originally, her family had been Republican since 1952, back when the Democrats (many of whom were former Dixiecrats) ruled the South and championed the continuation of racist policies.  Rice recounts the story of her mother and father taking the poll test, with her light-skinned mother being asked who the first president of the United States was, and her darker skinned father being asked to correctly identify the number of beans in a jar.  However, the Republican party was looking to rebuild, and allowed blacks to register to vote, which is why her father was a faithful Republican.  Rice explains that Jimmy Carter’s foreign policy strategy was part of the reason she returned to the Republican party, but then explained:

Many years later, when I was asked about my decision to become a Republican, I first explained quite honestly that the choice reflected my disgust with Jimmy Carter’s foreign policy and my attraction to Ronald Reagan’s worldview.  But, pressed about the domestic agenda of the two parties, I gave an answer that came directly from my experience with the many forms racism can take.  “I would rather be ignored than patronized,” I said, pointing to the tendency of the Democratic Party to talk about “women, minorities, and the poor.” I hated identity politics and the self-satisfied people who assumed that they were free of prejudice when, in fact, they too could not see beyond color to the individual.

The fact is, race is a constant factor in American life.  Yet reacting to every incident, real or imagined, is crippling, tiring, and ultimately counterproductive.  I’d grown up in a family that believed you might not control your circumstances but you could control your reaction to them.  There was no room for being a victim or depending on “the white man” to take care of you.  That self-sufficiency is the ethos passed down by my ancestors on both sides of the family, and I have internalized it thoroughly.  Despite the gross inequalities my ancestors faced, there has been progress and race is no longer determinative of how far one can go.  That said, America is not color-blind and likely never will be.  Race is ever present, like a birth defect you learn to live with, but can never cure.

Rice has some complex politics.  She supports affirmative action, yet recoils from what appears to be dependency on the government, and has more than a little disdain for identity politics .  Interestingly enough, these seeming contradictions come to a head when she becomes Provost at Stanford University. She recounts how requesting all departments to trim their budgets by 10% led to a racially-charged showdown:

Predictably, the pushback came from those who felt privileged and untouchable for political reasons: groups in Student Affairs where my colleague, the Vice Provost Mary Edmonds, had proposed major cuts.  The ethnic centers (Asian American, African American, Chicano, and Native American) were the most offended.  The protests heated up, and they called a town hall-style meeting and asked me to attend.  I had a faculty dinner that night, which would make me a bit late, but Chip had gone ahead to assess the situation.  As I walked from the Faculty Club toward Cubberly Hall, where the meeting was being held, Chip met me halfway.  “There’s a huge and angry crowd,” he said.

“Okay, I thought there would be.”  I took a deep breath and walked in.

The president of Standford’s Black Student Union was serving as moderator.  After a few strong words about how marginalized and victimized the ethnic students were feeling, he handed me the microphone.  I resisted the temptation to say that I thought marginalization was a peculiar term for students who’d been given the chance at a Stanford education. Instead, I plowed into a presentation of the financial situation, saying that I’d asked the Physics Department for the same budget analysis.  Everyone had to contribute.

During the question-and-answer session, a young blond woman who was apparently Native American yelled rhetorically, “The problem is, you just don’t care enough for the plight of minorities.” I waited while the audience erupted in cheers.  Then, out of nowhere – not really having thought it through – I said, “You don’t have the standing to question my commitment to minorities.  I’ve been black all of my life, and that is far longer than you are old.” The buzzing told me I hit a nerve.  The young woman sat down.  I said a few words more and prepared to leave.  But as I was turning away, the moderator decided that he would have the last word. I went back and took the microphone from him. “When you are provost, you can have the last word,” I said.  Then I left, feeling that I had established necessary boundaries.

Rice dealt with yet another racially charged situation, Rice chose to let go of the most senior Latina administrator at Stanford University, Cecilia Burciaga.  Rice mentions her reluctance to do so, considering Burciaga was the affirmative action officer on campus, and was involved in Rice’s hiring. Still, Rice decided to cut her from the staff to save faculty positions and the academic program. The Chicano students rallied, setting up a tent city, and “four young women started a hunger strike.”  The protest went on for more than a week, but Rice wasn’t having any lip:

Several faculty members took the floor to bemoan the sacrifice the hunger strikers were making.  “Don’t you feel bad that our children are sleeping on the quad and not eating?” one person asked. I was always struck by how students suddenly became “children” in these circumstances.

“I am sleeping and eating just fine,” I said. “They can stay out there until hell freezes over. My decisions stand.”

Later on, a détente was reached by creating a new major called Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity.  However, Rice reflected on the moments wondering if she had been too rough with the students. After a faculty spokesman told the student newspaper that she’d “treated the students as if [she] were negotiating with the Russians,” she sought council from her father.  Her father reminded Rice of why it was important for students to find their political voices in the university space, and reminded her the students were quite young.  Rice reflects:

I realized Daddy was right.  In the classroom, I was always careful not to put a student down for a comment, no matter how inappropriate.  To do so is to freeze the rest of the students, who will fear humiliation.  The power relationship is unequal, and the students feel it. I decided to try to remember that in my encounters with them as provost.  In any case, I had established a pretty tough line.  Maybe it was time to back off.

All in all, Extraordinary, Ordinary people is a fascinating read. Unfortunately, it ends as Rice heads toward the G.W. Bush White House – outside of a few stories peppered into the narrative, there is no explanations of her tactics and ideas around September 11th and its aftermath.  It will be of interest to those fascinated by Condoleezza Rice, but ultimately leaves the reader with more questions than answers.

Related: My Interview with Condoleezza Rice on the Michael Eric Dyson Show

Earlier: Looking at Sarah, Somehow Seeing Condi