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Bush's Black Faces | The Nation

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Bush's Black Faces

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Many of George Bush's supporters say that his recent nominations of Colin Powell as Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice as National Security Adviser and Rod Paige as Secretary of Education prove that he is serious about racial diversity. Moreover, his nomination of a Latino and two white women to his Cabinet suggests that compassionate conservatism boasts enough room for all sorts of minorities. But before we count the votes for Bush's celebrated--or is it calculated?--display of racial leadership, let's at least acknowledge that we may have run into some dimpled chads.

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Michael Eric Dyson
Michael Eric Dyson, the Ida B. Wells-Barnett University Professor at DePaul University, is the author of I May Not Get...

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As Halle Berry elegantly strode to the podium to accept her best actress Oscar, the first for a black woman, she wept uncontrollably and gasped, "This moment is so much bigger than me." Just as revealing was Denzel Washington's resolute dispassion as he accepted his best actor Oscar, only the second for a black man, by glancing at the trophy and uttering through a half-smile, "Two birds in one night, huh?" Their contrasting styles--one explicit, the other implied--say a great deal about the burdens of representing the race in Hollywood.

Berry electrified her audience, speaking with splendid intelligence and rousing emotion of how her Oscar was made possible by the legendary likes of Dorothy Dandridge, Lena Horne and Diahann Carroll. And in a stunning display of sorority in a profession riven by infighting and narcissism, Berry acknowledged the efforts of contemporary black actresses Angela Bassett, Jada Pinkett Smith and Vivica Fox. But it was when Berry moved from ancestors and peers to the future that she spoke directly to her award's symbolic meaning. She gave the millions who watched around the globe not only a sorely needed history lesson but a lesson in courageous identification with the masses. Berry tearfully declared that her award was for "every nameless, faceless woman of color" who now has a chance, since "this door has been opened."

Berry's remarkable courage and candor are depressingly rare among famed blacks with a lot on the line: money, prestige, reputation and work. Many covet the limelight's payoffs but cower at its demands. Even fewer speak up about the experiences their ordinary brothers and sisters endure--and if they are honest, that they themselves too often confront--on a daily basis. To be sure, there is an unspoken tariff on honesty among the black privileged: If they dare go against the grain, they may be curtailed in their efforts to succeed or cut off from the rewards they deserve. Or they may endure stigma. Think of the huge controversy over basketball great Charles Barkley's recent comments--that racism haunts golf, that everyday black folk still fight bigotry and that black athletes are too scared to speak up--that are the common banter of most blacks. What Berry did was every bit as brave: On the night she was being singled out for greatness, she cast her lot with anonymous women of color who hungered for her spot, and who might be denied a chance for no other reason than that they are yellow, brown, red or black. Her achievement, she insisted, was now their hope.

At first blush, it may seem that Denzel Washington failed to stand up and "represent." But that would be a severe misreading of the politics of signifying that thread through black culture. Looking up to the balcony where Sidney Poitier sat--having received an honorary Oscar earlier and delivered a stately speech of bone-crushing beauty--Washington said, "Forty years I've been chasing Sidney...." He joked with Poitier, and the academy, by playfully lamenting his being awarded an Oscar on the same night that his idol was feted. Washington, for a fleeting but telling moment, transformed the arena of his award into an intimate platform of conversation between himself and his progenitor that suggested, "This belongs to us, we are not interlopers, nobody else matters more than we do." Thus, Washington never let us see him sweat, behaving as if it was natural, if delayed, that he should receive the highest recognition of his profession. His style, the complete opposite of Berry's, was political in the way that only black cool can be when the stakes are high and its temperature must remain low, sometimes beneath the detection of the powers that be that can stamp it out. This is not to be confused with spineless selling out. Nor is it to be seen as yielding to the cowardly imperative to keep one's mouth shut in order to hang on to one's privilege. Rather, it is the strategy of those who break down barriers and allow the chroniclers of their brokenness to note their fall.

Both approaches--we can call them conscience and cool--are vital, especially if Hollywood is to change. Conscience informs and inspires. It tells the film industry we need more producers, directors and writers, and executives who can greenlight projects by people of color. It also reminds the black blessed of their obligation to struggle onscreen and off for justice. Cool prepares and performs. It pays attention to the details of great art and exercises its craft vigorously as opportunity allows, thus paving the way for more opportunities. The fusion of both approaches is nicely summed up in a lyric by James Brown: "I don't want nobody to give me nothin'/Just open up the door, I'll get it myself."

Powell's nomination is a no-brainer, which, as it turns out, may perfectly suit Bush's presidential profile. To take credit for nominating a national hero to extend his stellar record of public service is only a little better than taking credit for inventing the Internet. Powell's halo effect may redound to Bush, but his choice of Powell owes nothing to Bush's fundamental bearing as a racial statesman. Powell and Bush are at significant odds on crucial issues. Powell's vigorous support of affirmative action, his belief in a woman's right to choose and his advocacy for besieged urban children put him to the left of the Bush dogma. To be sure, Powell is no radical. His moderate racial principles are largely acceptable to many blacks because they're not bad for a guy who buys the Republican line, some of its hooks and not many of its sinkers. Unlike Congressman J.C. Watts, the black Republican from Oklahoma who'd just as soon fish all day with his conservative colleagues than cut the race bait. Indeed, Powell's beliefs run the same blush of racial centrism that coursed through the Clinton Administration over the past eight years. The difference is that such moderates, and a sprinkling of liberals, had plenty of company in the Clinton Administration. In a Bush Administration, Powell is, well, a hanging chad.

Of course, Powell's beliefs will have little substantive impact on his future boss's domestic policies, because he has been dispatched to foreign fields where Bush surely needs the help. So what looks like a plum for black folk may be a pit. True, no black person has ever served as Secretary of State. But once we get past the obligatory gratitude black folk are called on to display when conservative whites finally do something halfway decent, the fact is that Powell will have little influence on the public policies that may hamper black progress under a Bush Administration. Powell has not been nominated as Secretary of Health and Human Services, so his input on welfare, for instance, is lost. Instead, if confirmed, Wisconsin Governor Tommy Thompson will practice his widely praised variety of welfare reform, a policy that on both the local and national level has had a horrendous effect on millions of poor blacks. Neither is Powell slated to be the Attorney General, where he may choose the civil rights czar, who carves the policy groove on race in the Justice Department. Instead, that honor may fall to John Ashcroft, an ultraconservative whose opposition to black interests is destructive. An omen of things to come was glimpsed starkly in Ashcroft's contemptuous scuttling of the nomination of black Missouri Supreme Court Justice Ronnie White for the federal bench. Not only is Powell's value to Bush on race largely symbolic, that symbolism will more than likely be used to cover policies that harm the overwhelming majority of black Americans who were never persuaded by Powell to join the party of Lincoln (Continentals).

Rice and Paige may be lesser-known political quantities, but they are nonetheless instructive of Bush's racial politics. Rice, the former Stanford provost and assistant national security adviser for President George H.W. Bush, is not as vocal a supporter of affirmative action, preferring a lukewarm version of the policy that may comport well with Bush's nebulous "affirmative access." At Stanford, Rice was not nearly as aggressive as she might reasonably have been in recruiting black faculty, failing to match the efforts of equally conservative universities like Duke. And her record of advising the senior Bush on national security matters indicates that she was a blue-blood conservative in black face.

As for Paige, his my-way-or-the-highway methods have yielded mixed results for the predominantly black and Latino students in Houston, where he has served six years as superintendent of schools. A proponent of annual standardized tests, a measure heartily supported by Bush, Paige has overseen rising test scores while all but abandoning students who couldn't pass muster. Moreover, Paige supports the use of tax money to fund private education, a policy favored by Bush and many blacks but that could have deleterious effects on poor families. The lure of vouchers is seductive, but it fails to address the fact that there is hardly enough money available to make a real difference to those students whose parents are financially beleaguered.

With Rice's nomination, the point may be that a black can be just as staunch in spouting conservative foreign policy as the next wonk. With Paige, the point is that a black can promote the sort of educational policies that help some black folk while potentially harming a larger segment of the community. It is clear that such a state of affairs does not constitute racial progress. The irony is that Powell, Paige and Rice were chosen in part to prove an inclusiveness that is meaningless if their very presence comes at the expense of representing the interests of the majority of black folk, especially those poor and working-class folk who are vulnerable and largely invisible. The lesson the Republicans would have us learn is that not all blacks think alike, that we are no ideological monolith in liberal captivity. The real lesson may be that a black face does not translate into a progressive political presence that aids the bulk of black folk. Especially when that face must put a smile on repressive policies that hurt not just most blacks but those Americans committed to radical democracy. If that counts as racial progress, we need an immediate recount.

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