After listening to the (excellent!) weather forecast (mid-seventies) and walking the dog in the woods near us, I made my morning tea and opened the Washington Times to find the secretary of state talking about race again:
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said yesterday that the United States still has trouble dealing with race because of a national “birth defect” that denied black Americans the opportunities given to whites at the country’s very founding.
“Black Americans were a founding population,” she said. “Africans and Europeans came here and founded this country together — Europeans by choice and Africans in chains. That’s not a very pretty reality of our founding.”
As a result, Miss Rice told editors and reporters at The Washington Times, “descendants of slaves did not get much of a head start, and I think you continue to see some of the effects of that.”
“That particular birth defect makes it hard for us to confront it, hard for us to talk about it, and hard for us to realize that it has continuing relevance for who we are today,” she said.
Secretary Rice is a highly educated and sophisticated woman who, like many who have risen from modest circumstances to great heights, sometimes seems to suffer pangs of guilt for her great success. And so, it seems to me, she is vulnerable to one of the more common intellectual/emotional traps of our time, which is the yearning to believe in our own victimhood. I have good standing to pronounce on this subject, being a Jew, for a great deal of Jewish self-identity involves precisely that cult of victimhood. A famous Jewish joke tells of a man complaining about the miseries of his life, to which another remarks, “so look who thinks he’s suffering.” There is now an open competition throughout the Western world for the title of “most victimized.” It’s ridiculous, of course, not least because those truly oppressed and suffering rarely get the same chance for freedom and success that the Western whiners have.
She is quite right to say that slavery has relevance to American Blacks’ sense of themselves. How could it be otherwise? Just as the Jews’ slavery, oppression, and genocide are relevant to our sense of ourselves (our constant anxiety about the fragility of our success, whether in Israel, America or elsewhere), so Black slavery, the institutionalized racist oppression of Blacks for a century after the formal abolition of slavery, and the continued negative attitudes toward Blacks among other Americans, is a source of anger and anxiety.
But the subject is much more complicated than she seems to think, and she seems unaware that most Americans no longer find it difficult to talk about past and present racism, nor to embrace one another across “racial” lines. For many years now, she has lived in a cultural cocoon, whether on the politically correct campus of Stanford University, or the cubes in the NSC offices in the White House and the Old Executive Office Building, or the State Department. It seems to me that she has little direct experience with the melting pot of America, where “intermarriage” is rampant. This is nowhere more dramatic than the military, and I think she’d be astonished to see the extent to which racial and ethnic distinctions have vanished in our armed forces. We recently had the exhilarating experience of spending five days on a Marine base, where ethnicity is melting away, and it is really quite impossible to define soldiers, and even more so their children, in ethnic terms. And yes, history is a factor in their identities, but it is still history, it is not today and will be less of a weight tomorrow.
It would be good to hear an American secretary of state talk along those lines, I wish she had more a sense of the dynamics of American society. Those young men and women in the armed forces are a cross section of America, far more than her peers at the academy or in the government. Instead, she finds it emotionally satisfying to talk about the victimization of her ancestors, and of herself when she was younger. Some of her words are even plaintive, which she does not seem to realize are inappropriate for a person who has risen to great heights.
Secretary Rice attracted a lot of attention a while back when she told a group of Palestinians that she understood their suffering, because she came from a people who had similarly suffered under unjust oppression. But that sort of statement is unworthy of a serious person, because “victims of oppression” is not a universal category. We are all victims in one sense or another, and we do not automatically understand one another by slapping that label on everyone who whines, or even on everyone who is really oppressed. It takes serious study and hard thinking to recognize the enormous differences between Palestinians–most of whom are oppressed by other Palestinians, or by “brother Arabs,”–and American Blacks, almost all of whom were enslaved by others. The whole basis for the oppression, and thus its content, is different. Unfortunately, she only looked at one slice of the Palestinians’ woes–their domination by Israelis in Gaza and the West Bank–instead of coming to grips with the more difficult context.
Later in the interview, she says that, even in the worst times, black Americans loved America and believed in America. I’ll take her word for it, and if it is true it is because they knew that America, despite slavery, was fundamentally committed to the equality of all. No Palestinian believes that his society is committed to human equality. Unless we get these distinctions right we shall get the policy wrong, as night follows day. She is muddying the waters.
“We were slaves in the land of Egypt,” we Jews say every Passover, at the beginning of the celebration of the Exodus. That’s a good model for all those who were oppressed, and eventually found freedom. If she had said “we were slaves in the land of America,” and then gone on to celebrate the abolition of slavery and then the civil rights fight, and now the remarkable rise of a black upper class that is an integral part of the country’s elite, I would have cheered. America is supposed to be about freedom, and the opportunity to excel. No one more fully embodies the American Dream than the secretary of state, and she should lead the celebration instead of whining that discussions of race are sometimes difficult. I doubt it, frankly. But even if it were true, so what? Lots of worthwhile endeavors are difficult. Get on with it.
And by the way–just to add one more layer of complexity–I wonder if she would be surprised to learn that there are plenty of Africans who are convinced of the inferiority of black Americans, on the grounds that they were enslaved, and therefore weak. The Africans know that winning tribes enslaved the losers, and some of the enslaved losers were sold to Arabs, Europeans and Americans. Does Secretary Rice think that Africans find it difficult to discuss this matter? Did she raise the subject in her conversations with African leaders? I first heard about this from Africans, and they did not seem to me to have any trouble talking about it.
So look who thinks she’s suffering, I would say to her. Try being an Iranian, or any woman in the Middle East (aside from Israel), or a pretty girl most anywhere in the Third World who is an automatic target for the sex traffickers, or a Syrian, or an African threatened with death in various forms (disease, starvation, massacre) every day. That’s real suffering. Today. Not a generation ago. Our mission is not to encourage discussion, but to fight these evils, as we’ve so often done. It’s discouraging to hear the secretary of state sound like Michelle Obama in her more unfortunate moments.