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.
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.