What do Alberto Gonzalez, Condoleezza Rice, Colin Powell, Miguel Estrada, Linda Chavez, and Clarence Thomas have in common?
If you do not know, then you have not been paying attention.
They are high-profile people of color who are highly accomplished; they have reached the highest levels of government service, and their politics fall into line with the most conservative leaders of our country. The uniqueness of their positions is such that they cannot strictly be defined as tokens but when they sit in relation to their colleagues, you cannot miss them: Their black or brown faces are alone in their fields.
When you scan the Republican convention, you see black and Latino faces sprinkled lightly throughout the crowd but they do not belong to a latter-day Fannie Lou Hamer, Julian Bond, Bayard Rustin or anyone else who would pose a serious challenge to the white leaders of the party. Either you are for the GOP or against it; that is how it maintains its homogeneity.
I have some personal experience with this way of thinking. Some years ago, I was drawn into organizing for a peace march. Week after week, they hired more people. It was a youthful, creative group and the experience was very exhilarating except for one thing: Among more than one hundred staffers, only two of us were people of color. Many of the people of color that they approached responded that world peace was not high on their list of priorities nor was it a major concern for people of color in general, and they declined. The leaders of the peace march were completely baffled by this. Doesn't world peace benefit EVERYBODY?
As the hiring continued, the management took to posting a photo of the staff once a week. The only other minority member of the staff, a black woman, and I posted a small note under it: "What's wrong with this picture?" Then we watched as people stared at the photograph trying to discern the joke. Nobody figured it out. We knew that despite our expertise, our colors mattered but beyond the two of us, they did not know what to do, nor cared. Nor did they understand the priorities of non-white communities.
George W. Bush has surrounded himself with talented people of color but what does that say about his relationship with the organizations that represent their interests? When has he deigned to speak at an NAACP convention? Is he pro-affirmative action? Does he provide the funds needed by minority communities for health and education?
When he "speaks Spanish"-I've heard parrots with better accents-does he do so because he actually knows the language and has a warm connection with our cultures or has he been trained to say just enough to sprinkle in a stump speech?
One thing is sure: His appointments send his opponents into a tizzy. How can we reject a black Secretary of State? Two? A Latino attorney general?Take Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Her conservatism makes us cringe. Why, we ask ourselves, is this talented and brilliant woman a conservative? Is it because she has forgotten her roots as child in Birmingham, Alabama during segregation? She was eight when the four little girls were killed in the KKK bombing of a church. In a commencement address at Vanderbilt University in 2004 she said,
"I remember the bombing of that Sunday School at 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham in 1963. I did not see it happen, but I heard it happen, and I felt it happen, just a few blocks away at my father's church. It is a sound that I will never forget, that will forever reverberate in my ears. That bomb took the lives of four young girls, including my friend and playmate, Denise McNair. The crime was calculated to suck the hope out of young lives, bury their aspirations. But those fears were not propelled forward, those terrorists failed."
It was at her father's church! And she has not forgotten! So why does she ally herself with George W. Bush, a man who tries his best to be the good ol' boy that he idealizes and whose policies further degrade the already low standard of living for African Americans and other ethnic and racial minorities. Moreover, she is a staunch believer in the Right to Bear Arms. She claims that if gun registration had been required, her father would not have had any defense against the Ku Klux Klan. Yet she has also defended affirmative action to the president as did Colin Powell. She is complex but I still do not understand her conservatism.
Many African Americans want more than anything else to forget: To forget slavery, to forget Jim Crow, segregation, the KKK, the murdered civil rights leaders and workers. Does this determined amnesia account for her choices? Or is it the double burden that black and Latino history places on its best and brightest?
To be a high achiever requires a very high level of ego and individuality. It can also lead one to delude oneself into thinking that one's accomplishments were done without help from anyone else. It's the old bootstrap mentality: I made it on my own; so can you. If "they" think I made it to my high position in life BECAUSE I am black or Latina, it will be tainted. The world will not give me the respect I deserve.
The burden of history lies on our shoulders because those who excelled have a duty to our communities, because we did not achieve by ourselves. It is a burden and it cannot be escaped.
Then there is Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez whose fascist policies make one think that he got his legal training at the School of the Americas. His strong Roman Catholic upbringing would predispose him to conservative viewpoints. Sad to say, there is little in Latin culture that inculcates liberal ideas. Even the Leftist Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua denied legal abortions to women.
Those of us involved in solidarity work have allied ourselves with the Latin American Left for only it has taken on the trial and tribulations of the poor and disenfranchised. In the United States, we can be found working with the poor, with immigrants, or other community concerns. Gonzalez would not have been found among us.
A. Leon Higginbotham, a Federal Circuit Court judge who passed away in 1998, was a tireless worker for civil rights. In a now-famous letter to Clarence Thomas when he was nominated to serve on the United States Supreme Court, he wrote:
". . .you have often described yourself as a black conservative. I must confess that, other than their own self advancement, I am at a loss to understand what it is that the so-called black conservatives are so anxious to conserve. Now that you no longer have to be outspoken their behalf, perhaps you will recognize that in the past it was the white "conservatives" who screamed "segregation now, segregation forever!" It was primarily the conservatives. . .who stood in the way of almost every measure to ensure gender and racial advancement."
I wish I could present a solution but I cannot think of one. Just as we cannot force another to love us nor can we force all of our children to care and remember. Some of our prominent Latinos and African Americans will continue to distance themselves from their communities because to them, remembering causes negativity. They are lost to us; in a generation or two, their children will have no memory of our cultures.
To me, one who turns away is a member of the real nouveau riche, Jay Gatsbys with shaded pasts, trying to forget from whence they came. As a historian, I believe deeply that memory is life; that our identities are found in the memories of our peoples.
Where will our next Judge Higginbotham come from? Our next Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.? Our next Cesar Chavez? Our next Rosa Parks? They will come from our communities and our classrooms for it is our responsibility to teach not only the facts of our peoples but the love of our cultures. Our lives and theirs will be richer in the spirit than those who run away and do not look back.
Rosa Maria Pegueros (firstname.lastname@example.org) is an associate professor of Latin American History and Women's Studies at the University of Rhode Island.