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Condoleezza Rice Talks Race, Relationships in Book

Oct 16, 2010 – 10:10 AM
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Andrea Stone

Andrea Stone Senior Washington Correspondent

WASHINGTON (Oct. 16) -- Partisans on both the left and the right are "too easily driven to calling each other racists," says Condoleezza Rice, the highest-ranking black woman in U.S. history.

"There is nothing that is a bigger hot button than to question somebody's motives and to call it racist, and unfortunately people do it on both sides," she says.

In a wide-ranging interview with AOL News on a day filled with speeches and TV appearances to promote her new book, Rice spoke candidly about the misconceptions and assumptions about herself and the black community.
The cover of Condoleezza Rice's book, 'Extraordinary, Ordinary People'.
Crown Archetype
Condoleezza Rice's book, "Extraordinary, Ordinary People," is dedicated to her parents, John and Angelena Rice.

The "deep and abiding wound" of race is at the center of "Extraordinary, Ordinary People: A Memoir of Family." The book is dedicated to her parents, John and Angelena Rice. Though she spent her preteen years in the most segregated big city in America, Birmingham, Ala., they taught her that she might not be able to have a hamburger at Woolworth's but she could grow up to be president of the United States.

Instead, Rice has advised two presidents and, despite perennial suggestions, insists she doesn't have "the fire in the belly" to run for the office herself. But at a time when the first black president is in the White House -- Rice met with Barack Obama there Friday to discuss foreign policy -- the enduring damage of the nation's "birth defect" of slavery is very much on her mind these days.

"I grew up in a politically complex family and sometimes it is almost sanitized to 'Oh she's a Republican, she's conservative,' " Rice said. "My father was a conservative Republican but spent a lot of time giving voice to black radicals like Stokely Carmichael."

In her memoir, Rice reveals in detail for the first time how her parents, teachers whose own parents had worked their way into the middle class through education and the church, navigated life in the Jim Crow South. Birmingham was ruled by Bull Connor and was a place where Rice, an only child, was told she could succeed but only if she was "twice as good" as whites.

"Bombingham" was also a dangerous place. Rice played dolls with one of the four girls killed in the bombing of Birmingham's 16th Street Baptist Church. Her father sat on the porch of their house with a shotgun to protect the family from Ku Klux Klan night riders.

And there were regular humiliations: the store clerk who pointed black customers to a storeroom instead of the fitting room, a department store Santa who took white children on his knees but kept black children at arm's length.

Rice's book recounts her parents' efforts to shield her from such slights. Her mother once stared down a clothing store clerk by saying, "Either she tries them on in the fitting room or we won't buy a dress here."

But she also vividly recalled hearing her father explain why he stayed home when Martin Luther King Jr. and other blacks marched in downtown Birmingham, where police wielded fire hoses and carted hundreds off to jail.

"He told my mother, 'If somebody comes after me with a billy club, I'm going to try to kill them and my daughter would be an orphan,' " Rice said. "He didn't really believe in the nonviolent part of the movement. ... He was somebody who would fight back."

John Rice "lionized" King but, as a college administrator in Alabama and later at the University of Denver, he gravitated toward controversial figures. There was Carmichael, who later joined the Black Panthers, and Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, though, Rice hastens to add, that was "prior to his going way off."

In her book, Rice writes that her father "was fascinated with the radical side of black politics" and, "Years later, when so much attention was paid to then-Senator Obama's radical associations, I wondered what might have been made of the people who sat at our dinner table."

Yet her father was also a conservative Presbyterian minister and staunch Republican who came to the party because of the racism of Southern Democrats at the time. Rice often tells the story of how he joined the GOP in 1952 after a poll tester, a Democrat, stopped him from registering to vote by asking him how many beans were in a jar. He later learned the fledgling GOP in Alabama would sign up anybody willing to join party of Lincoln. So he did, even though he later supported Robert Kennedy for president.

Rice says her views can't be easily categorized either. The racist violence of Birmingham made her a true believer in the Second Amendment right to bear arms.

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Yet she is also is a firm defender of affirmative action. She said the policy helped her get a job at Stanford University even though her undergraduate degree was from the University of Denver instead of Harvard or Yale. She is proud of speaking out to President George W. Bush when he was considering siding with plaintiffs seeking in the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn two affirmative action programs at the University of Michigan.

Rice said she was "furious" after Hurricane Katrina when critics said Bush -- who appointed the nation's first and only two African-American secretaries of state -- "didn't help those people because they were black."

She also said she is unconcerned by liberal critics in the black community who called her and Colin Powell "house Negroes" for working in the Republican Bush administration.

"I really don't care," Rice said. "I don't need anybody to tell me how to be black. We don't really need arguments about what it is to be authentically black. That is nothing but a tool for a silly conversation."

Rice said she is more concerned about "the witches' brew of race and poverty" that is holding back a generation of minority students. Since leaving Washington, she has devoted herself to K-12 education when not teaching business students at Stanford.

Rice's book ends with her father's funeral at the end of 2000 and her departure a week later to take up her job as Bush's national security adviser. Readers searching for fly-on-the-wall revelations about 9/11 or insights into the controversial decision to go to war in Iraq will be disappointed. She plans to detail her eight years in the Bush White House in a second book due in 2012.

"Extraordinary, Ordinary People" often reads like one long list of precocious achievements: playing piano at age 3, graduating from high school at 15, achieving tenure at Stanford at 32, becoming the youngest provost in Stanford history at 38. Many of the stories were in Elisabeth Bumiller's more comprehensive 2007 book, "Condoleezza Rice: An American Life: A Biography."

But there are glimpses in the memoir that Rice expanded on in an interview:

Relationships. Rice, who has never married, dated football players. In Denver Bronco Rick Upchurch she thought she had "found the man I wanted to marry" but two pages later said "complications in his life" ended the relationship. When pressed for details, Rice smiled: "That's why it's called a personal life."

Rice briefly touches on and denies rumors she is a lesbian. "I just never found the right guy under the right circumstances," she said. "Friends of mine would say, 'Well don't you want to get married?' And I would say you don't get married in the abstract. You want to marry somebody."

Gay Rights. Rice writes in passing that her best friend at Stanford is Coit "Chip" Blacker and notes that his "long-term partner" helped care for her father during his last illness. She also includes a photo with them and another friend.

"I've been traditional" in believing that marriage was between a man and a woman, she said. "But I know a lot of very stable gay couples, in fact more stable than some of my heterosexual friends who didn't make it that long. And I think they have the right to be happy and to care for each other and I hope we find a way they can have a legal foundation" to recognize their commitment whether through civil unions or marriage.
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