Revisiting Rice’s invitation to speak

In response to the invitation to bring Condoleezza Rice to speak at the University of Minnesota this week, a faculty petition has been generated in protest. I write to make clear that some of us who signed on would do the same if the invitation had been extended to someone from the current White House administration or President Barack Obama, who has executed more “suspects” via drones and deported more undocumented immigrants than George W. Bush ever did.

What I find particularly objectionable is the official rationale for the invitation from the Humphrey School of Public Affairs. Rice’s talk, President Eric Kaler explains, “will be speaking about her personal story of overcoming adversity as a black woman who faced discrimination growing up in the segregated and racist South. Her appearance on campus is part of the Humphrey School’s yearlong series about the Civil Rights Act of 1964.”

I can’t help but be reminded of another Washington operative, also with blood-stained hands: Robert McNamara, who, as a key architect of the U.S. war in Vietnam, also, in subsequent years, tried to repaint himself in softer, warmer hues. Unlike McNamara, however, Rice attempts to do so on the backs of those who realized one of the noblest moments in the history of the democratic quest in the U.S. 

As someone who also grew up in the world of Jim Crow, I see nothing remarkable about her story — in fact, it is “ordinary,” as she conceded in her 2010 autobiography. Hers is a narrative about how a particular black family coped with, and refused to be broken by, that system. I, too, could claim such a story, along with hundreds of thousands — if not millions — of others. Much more inspiring are the stories of those who went from strategically coping and/or exiting to outright public resistance. In 1963, Birmingham, Ala., was ground zero for the then-8-year-old Civil Rights Movement. The 9-year-old Rice had opportunities that others of us could only have wished for: to make history. But she was missing in action. Some estimates say that 90 percent of her cohorts made the decisive contribution for the victory, the Children’s Crusade, when the masses took to the streets — the turning point in that historic epic. She claims, no doubt true, that her parents prevented her from taking part. But many of the participants did so against parental wishes. There’s nothing in her account to suggest that she, too, wanted to be so rebellious.

The class divide in Birmingham’s black community and its implications for the movement — lamented in Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” — probably best explains her absence. I recognize, of course, that we’re not responsible for the families that we’re born into and the politics they may have. I was privileged to have had parents who supported my youthful steps into the fight against Jim Crow in New Orleans. But we can be held accountable for choices we make as we grow into adulthood.

So what was Rice’s later trajectory? How did she advance the civil rights struggle that would warrant such a lucrative invitation, $150,000, from the Humphrey School? Since she missed — through no fault of her own, I’m willing to concede — the decisive fights that led to the overthrow of officially sanctioned American racial segregation, where was she when the opportunity arose to take part in the next stage of that fight — the overthrow of the apartheid regime in South Africa? It lasted from about 1976 to 1994, but there is not even a hint in her autobiography that she embraced it, despite the fact that it was then that she began to see herself as a cosmopolite. 

What about the domestic struggle, especially in the world in which she operated — the fight to diversify the academy? She rightly acknowledges that she was a beneficiary of affirmative action. But when she became provost at Stanford University, from 1993 to 1999, she opposed efforts to employ affirmative action when it came to granting tenure.

Can those who extended the invitation to her provide any evidence, aside from improving Stanford’s financial picture, that her time as provost improved the diversity of its tenured faculty?

Unless the inviters and their defenders know something about her civil rights record that’s not available to the public, they are simply enabling her rehabilitation campaign and need to explain why.