Jan 17, 2013 - Issue 500

Make Us Do Right

By Jill M. Humphries, PhD


Bill Fletcher, Jr.

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“She’s not qualified. Anyone who goes on national television and in defiance of the facts, five days later - We’re all responsible for what we say and what we do. I’m responsible to my voters. She’s responsible to the Senate of the United States. We have our responsibility for advice and consent.”

(John McCain, CBS “This Morning”)

Since the above quote, Susan Rice has removed her name from consideration to become the next Secretary of State; however, we feel discussing this issue within the Black community remains relevant to understanding foreign policy establishment politics. It is no surprise that African Americans interpreted the GOP’s opposition to Dr. Susan Rice’s possible nomination to be the next Secretary of State and in particular Senator McCain’s rhetorical comments about her to be both racist and sexist. Indeed they are. After all Jim Crow segregation, the model for South Africa's apartheid system, only ended 47-years ago. Likewise the Department of State, as an elite white male dominated institution (founded in 1789) only hired its first African American male Foreign Service officer (Clifton R. Wharton) in 1925. Subsequently, only two white and one black woman (Madeleine Albright, Condoleezza Rice, and Hilary Clinton) and one black male (Colin Powell) have held the position of Secretary of State. 

We contend that African Americans need to continue to challenge race and gender discrimination within US institutions. However, we question the recent attempts by many Black political female and male leaders and well-meaning citizens to rally support on behalf of Dr. Susan Rice’s nomination for Secretary of State because of the racist and sexist ways she has been criticized, without also calling for a critical review of her foreign policy record particularly in terms of the policies of the USA towards countries around the world, including those with 100’s of millions of Black people. We do not believe that our Black political leadership intentionally used the historical memory of racism and sexism for us to uncritically support Dr. Rice. Unlike the GOP, who also used racism and sexism to attack Dr. Rice, both groups rely on a racial and gender assumptive logic but for different purposes.

The unintended consequence is that both GOP critics and many Rice supporters rely on an uninformed Black populace to either “support” someone/something for superficial reasons or to not oppose someone/something even when it would be in the interests of the African American community and global Diaspora. As a consequence this essay is an attempt to contribute to the conversation by situating this controversy in a larger context about elite networks in the emerging multicultural foreign policy establishment of the USA, and, also US-Africa foreign policy. 

First, this essay is not about Dr. Rice’s ability or qualifications in order to assume the position of Secretary of State or the attacks on her pedigree. As the child of Black Washingtonian professionals, a high school valedictorian, a Stanford and Oxford graduate, a Rhode Scholar and recipient of numerous fellowships, her qualifications are beyond question. To this, of course, one can add her stellar professional career as a foreign policy-aide to Democratic presidential candidate Michael Dukakis, National Security Council director of international organizations and peacekeeping, as well as having been the youngest person to be assigned as Assistant Secretary for African Affairs, and current UN ambassador. Rather, we argue that African American support for her nomination for Secretary of State should be based on a principled position and a review of her Africa policy record in the context of US and the Obama administration’s foreign policy objectives. This is the context in which we examine the crisis over Dr. Susan Rice’s nomination as the next Secretary of State.

Elite Social Networks and Foreign Policy Establishment Institutions

Susan Rice is one example of the new African American foreign policy civil servant formation that makes up the emerging multicultural foreign policy establishment. Despite the decline in institutional barriers for African American advancement in the foreign policy arena it is quite uncommon for Blacks to access the highest levels of power in US institutions without support and access of elite white social actors, networks, and institutions. This raises a set of interesting questions not just about Dr. Rice but about who has access to elite social networks for career advancement; the need to demonstrate ideological alignment; how elite social networks undermine democratic principles of meritocracy; and accountability to civil society actors.

The Korbel-Albright Family Network. It is no surprise that both Condoleezza and Susan Rice speak about their family ties with the Korbel-Albright family. In the case of Condoleezza Rice, Josef Korbel, Madeleine Albright’s father and a former Czechoslovakian Republic diplomat, was Condoleezza Rice’s professor at the School of International Studies at the University of Denver. She later switched her allegiance to the Republican Party via a similar political network. On the other hand, Madeleine Albright is Susan Rice’s godmother and Rice is the former childhood classmate of Madeleine Albright’s daughter. It’s fair to say that having a family relationship with the Korbel-Albright family opens doors. These invisible elite social networks, regardless of political allegiance, provide a way to understand the rise of African Americans such as Susan Rice and Condoleezza Rice within the foreign policy establishment. For without the assistance and support of white gatekeepers and a demonstrated willingness to align their ideology with them to advance US interest they would be less likely if ever to gain access to the highest bastions of power on merit alone.

So what is the US interest? The US consensus on African policy regardless of political party is to maintain geo-strategic dominance, access to strategic minerals and resources, and more recently the construction of Africa as the new theater for the so-called war-on-terror. In this regard, Dr. Rice would make an excellent Secretary of State for she has sought to protect US interests in Africa by simply implementing the established paradigm. The recent criticisms of Dr. Rice’s Africa policy record concerning her close relationships with several African authoritarian leaders, her attempt to suppress the UN Congo report, pro war attitudes, and, separately, her family's investments in the Keystone XL pipeline are all a reminder that we do not live in a post-racial society. In this sense, it appears that Dr. Rice has behaved no differently than some of her white counterparts who have used their government positions to pursue business relationships for personal gain and to influence foreign policy on behalf of their patrons, even if they are authoritarian leaders.

The most legitimate criticisms come from Black progressive voices and African social justice advocates who have consistently critiqued US policy toward Africa regardless of the political party in power in Washington. Ethiopian social justice advocates have spoken out against the appointment of Dr. Rice as Secretary of State precisely as a result of her relationship with the former Ethiopian President Meles Zenawi. While Dr. Rice is not the only government official who may have benefited from personal ties with authoritarian leaders, the more important question is whether this is the type of model we want to follow? And how does this damage our ability to build relationships across Black ethnic and African Diaspora communities and other progressive groups and movements based on mutual interests, by supporting the nomination of Rice whose record suggests she has always only worked for the interests of the USA as defined by the elites of the USA?

The Black Foreign Policy Consensus. The more important question for the Black community is whether the Civil Rights Movement was only about abolishing Jim Crow in order to provide equal opportunity and access for Black Americans to behave in the same manner as their white counterparts in abusing their relationship with the citizenry and global community? Or more importantly, was it to articulate and advocate for an alternative collective vision based on human rights, anti-racism, political and civil rights, democracy, anti-colonialism, and social and economic justice?

We believe that the current Black foreign policy establishment represents a disjuncture with this history. Historically, many African American Department of State and Foreign Service officers who came of age under the oppressive Jim Crow era had organic connections to the Black community and saw themselves as an extension of the civil rights movement championing equal rights and justice in the US and also advancing a more humane foreign policy abroad. Unlike their predecessors, we can view the rise of Dr. Rice as a new African American foreign policy formation that is more integrated into America’s elite ruling class, but that is also more disconnected from progressive African American and Diaspora civil society actors. This disconnect is ironic in the sense that it was the struggles and sacrifices of progressive African American and Diaspora civil society actors, which made it possible for such African Americans with the right “pedigrees and thinking” to gain access to the career path opportunities associated with America’s elite ruling class.

As a result of the racist and sexist manner in which the debate over the possible appointment of Susan Rice as Secretary of State was handled, it became very difficult to hold a sober exchange on the policy issues at stake. Rather than an examination of Susan Rice-the-person, we needed to look at her candidacy in the context of the objectives of US foreign policy. While Susan Rice is eminently qualified for the position, we in Black America needed to be challenging her policy prescriptions and orientations that, in point of fact, put her at odds with the history of the Black Freedom Movement and its objectives, both domestic and international. When we are silent about such matters, we can objectively become complicit in the crimes that are committed around the world in our name, regardless of our intentions. 

For more about this topic, read Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice Foreign Policy, Race, and the New American Century by Clarence Lusane. Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers, 2006.

BlackCommentator.com Guest Commentator, Jill M. Humphries, is an educator and researcher on Africana populations and has served as an expert witness on African political asylum sexual minority cases. Click here to contact Ms. Humphries.

BlackCommentator.com Editorial Board member and Columnist, Bill Fletcher, Jr., is a Senior Scholar with the Institute for Policy Studies, the immediate past president of TransAfricaForum, and the author of They’re Bankrupting Us” - And Twenty Other Myths about Unions. He is also the co-author of Solidarity Divided: The Crisis in Organized Labor and a New Path toward Social Justice, which examines the crisis of organized labor in the USA. Click here to contact Mr. Fletcher.