Sean McCormack serves as the Department Spokesman and Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs at the U.S. Department of State.
I wanted to share with you an excerpt from Secretary Rice's interview yesterday with the Washington Times. I believe it is instructive to consider her responses to questions about race in America in the context of our administration's commitment to promote democracy around the globe. While I read some commentary questioning our commitment to democracy and human rights promotion, I also hear plenty of criticism on the other hand that we come across too often as wagging our fingers at countries struggling with democratic reform. So while we push, prod, cajole, criticize and praise others, we should also keep in mind our own struggles to build a more perfect union. (Full disclosure: you will find that Secretary Rice has made a similar point in public before). Since this exchange took place at the end of the editorial board, I also included the rest of the interview as it addresses the issue of education as an important national security priority.
Interview: Secretary Rice With The Washington Times Editorial Board, March 27, 2008 --
QUESTION: Madame Secretary, I wanted to ask a question that has absolutely nothing to do with any other country. (Laughter.) We're pulling up on the 40th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King. And regardless of what race we were or what class we belonged to, it was a devastating time for America, without a doubt. And there's so much talk about race in the race for the White House. What, if any, lessons do you think Americans, as a whole, have learned since then?
SECRETARY RICE: Well, you know, it's -- America doesn't have an easy time dealing with race. I sit in my office and the portrait immediately over my shoulder is Thomas Jefferson, because he was my first predecessor. He was the first Secretary of State. And sometimes I think to myself, what would he think -- (laughter) -- a black woman Secretary of State as his predecessor 65 times removed -- successor, 65 times removed? What would he think that the last two successors have been black Americans? And so, obviously, when this country was founded, the words that were enshrined in all of our great documents and that have been such an inspiration to people around the world, for the likes of Vaclav Havel, associate themselves with those documents. They didn't have meaning for an overwhelming element of our founding population. And black Americans were a founding population. Africans and Europeans came here and founded this country together; Europeans by choice, and Africans in chains.
And that's not a very pretty reality of our founding, and I think 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. But that relevance comes in two strains. On the one hand, there's the relevance that descendents of slaves, therefore, did not get much of a head start. And I think you continue to see some of the effects of that. On the other hand, the tremendous efforts of many, many, many people, some of whom, whose names we will never know and some individuals’ names who we do know, to be impatient with this country for not fulfilling its own principles, has led us down a path that has put African Americans in positions and places that, I think, nobody would have even thought at the time that Dr. King was assassinated. And so we deal daily with this contradiction, this paradox about America, that on the one hand, the birth defect continues to have effects on our country, and indeed, on the discourse and effects on perhaps the deepest thoughts that people hold; and on the other hand, the enormous progress that has been made by the efforts of blacks and whites together, to finally fulfill those principles.
QUESTION: Like running for President, for example?
SECRETARY RICE: Pardon me?
QUESTION: Like running for President?
SECRETARY RICE: Well, yeah. I think the President, or being Secretary of State or having been Chairman of the Joint Chiefs or being the CEOs of some of the most major companies or being the best golfer in the whole world.
QUESTION: I mention it because, obviously, the race has become a major issue this race.
SECRETARY RICE: Yeah, but I'm not -- look, I'm not going to talk about the campaign, because I don't do politics.
QUESTION: It was a serious attempt.
SECRETARY RICE: It was a very good attempt. (Laughter.) I don't – I am not going to do politics --
QUESTION: Darn, that messed up my attempt. (Laughter.) And I wasn’t even going to ask about the presidency, but the vice presidency. (Laughter.)
QUESTION: (Inaudible) Barack (inaudible) speech about race -- did you listen to it?
SECRETARY RICE: I did and, you know, I think it was important that he gave it for a whole host of reasons. But look, I'm not going to talk about the politics. What I'm talking about is how -- you asked me about Dr. King and race in America. And I'm telling you that there is a paradox for this country and a contradiction of this country and we still haven't resolved it. But what I would like understood as a black American is that black Americans loved and had faith in this country even when this country didn't love and have faith in them, and that's our legacy.
My grandmother and my great-grandmother, and my father, who endured terrible humiliations growing up -- and my father in Baton Rouge, Louisiana; and my mother's family in Birmingham, Alabama-- still loved this country. And I've often spoken of the Civil Rights Movement as the second founding of America, because finally we started to overcome this birth defect. But if anybody believes that black Americans love this country any less than white Americans do, they ought to go and talk to people who live under very tough circumstances, sometimes doing menial labor and doing tough jobs, and really all they want is the American dream. All they're focused on is is their kid going to be well educated enough to go to college and have a better life than they had. And one of the things that attracted me to George W. Bush, one of the primary things, it was not actually foreign policy, it was No Child Left Behind. Because when he talked about the soft bigotry of low expectations, I know what that feels like.
And so to my mind, where our understanding of and conversation of race has got to go. And I mean now, race. Black Americans aren't immigrants. We may call ourselves African Americans, but we're not immigrants. We don't mimic the immigrant story. Where this conversation has got to go is that black Americans and white Americans founded this country together and I think we've always wanted the same thing. And it's been now a very hard and long struggle to begin to get to the place that we can all pursue the same thing.
QUESTION: Madame Secretary, I know you have to go. I just want to ask one last question. What does the future hold for you? You say you don't do politics now, but if you could change the things you've just talked about -- race in American, economics, opportunity -- would you do politics?
QUESTION: And would you consider vice president? (Laughter.)
SECRETARY RICE: Not interested. I’ve been at this, as you’ve kindly said, a long time. It's time for new blood. But look, I will go back to -- first of all, back East -- back West of the Mississippi -- which is where I’m from. There's a reason I'm an educator. There's a reason that the first thing that I would describe myself as is an educator. Because I believe that really is the basis on which we finally bring these two streams together: those of us who were fortunate enough to have parents and grandparents who set us on that path so that I became Secretary of State and my cousin became executive vice president of a major drug manufacturer, and people who are still struggling. And the difference is my parents and my grandparents were able to educate us.
I have worked hard on matters of providing educational opportunity for underprivileged kids. I started a program in East Palo Alto, California, that's -- in 1992. It an after-school and summer academy, called the Center for a New Generation. And the whole idea is that they should have limitless horizons and they shouldn't let anybody tell them what they're going to be, and somebody has an obligation to provide them that set of opportunities. But I'll tell you, the more I've been in the national security realm and in the foreign policy realm, I also recognize that it is absolutely essential for the health of our country as a whole because -- and for our role in the world. Because if our people are not educated and don't have opportunity and can't compete in a globalizing world where we're not going to be able to protect, I think that we will turn inward and we'll turn protectionist and we'll turn fearful. But if it really is the case that Americans can compete and can be educated and can be retrained, if necessary, when that job goes away to do the next job, then we're going to continue to be the leader on free trade and we're going to continue to be an open economy and we're going to continue to welcome people here from other countries, and we're not going to be fearful and we're not going to turn xenophobic. And so I consider the state of education to also be a key national security problem for us, maybe the most important national security problem.
I'll end with a little story, because it goes back to why, you know, why my family was educated and just says something about race --
QUESTION: Can I just follow up?
SECRETARY RICE: Yes.
QUESTION: Do you think that -- you mentioned No Child Left Behind, do you think that turned out the way it was supposed to?
SECRETARY RICE: I think it’s had enormous impact, I really do. And I hope -- you know, I hope it can continue. But look, you can't tell if a child is succeeding unless you measure, and then somebody has to be held accountable if children aren't learning. If you don't hold somebody accountable that children aren't learning, you must believe that they can't learn. And so, I think, the program has had real impact.
But I want to just close with this little story because -- maybe some of you’ve heard it. But -- my grandfather, my father's father, was a sharecropper's son in Ewtah, Alabama -- E-w-t-a-h, Alabama. And for some reason, he decided he wanted to get book learning. And so he would ask people who came through where could a colored man go to college. And they said, well, there's Stillman College, which is a little Presbyterian school about 60 miles from here, but you're going to have to pay to go there. So he saved up his cotton and he got enough money from his cotton to go to Stillman. He made his way to Stillman. He made it through his first year of school. And then the second year they said, okay, now where's your tuition for the second year? And he said, well, I’ve paid with all the cotton I had. And they said -- he said, but -- well, how are those boys going to school? They said, well, you know, they have what's called a scholarship. He said -- and if you wanted to be a Presbyterian minister, then you could have a scholarship too. And my grandfather said, oh, you know, that's exactly what I plan to do. (Laughter.)
And so I always say, my family has been Presbyterian and college
QUESTION: Madame Secretary, thank you so much.
SECRETARY RICE: Thank you very much.