An open letter to Condoleezza Rice

myersusg-dos1a-condyDear Professor Rice,

I will not be able to attend your sold-out performance at the Carlson Family Stage of the newly renovated Northrop Auditorium. The Carlson Foundation has been a very generous donor to the University of Minnesota. It has been very generous in its support of the Humphrey School of Public Affairs. I applaud them for their financial support of the Distinguished Carlson Lecture Series over the years. Previous Carlson Lectures honored the Dalai Lama, Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, General Colin Powell, Vice President Mondale and others with notable public achievements worthy of the mantle of human rights and civil rights advocated by the school’s name-sake, former Vice President and Minnesota Senator Hubert H. Humphrey.

Your visit is singular in that it has raised significant opposition from many quarters within and outside of the University because it is linked to the Humphrey School’s year-long celebration of the 50th Anniversary of the 1964 U.S. Civil Rights Act and because it comes at precisely the time when the Humphrey School has embarked on a new program of research and scholarship on international human rights. There will be the inevitable protests from students and faculty, opinion pieces in the local press opposing your visit, as well as the normal and expected teach-ins, counter-events and on-going debates.

But because I hold the endowed chair named after Roy Wilkins, one of the most prominent architects of the March on Washington, a major behind-the-scenes strategist for the passage of the Civil Rights Act that we celebrate this year, and a leader of the oldest and largest civil rights organization in America, I would be remiss if I failed to explain my absence.

Let me hasten to acknowledge that as one African American to another, born and bred before the March on Washington and the ensuing struggle to mobilize forces to end racial segregation and discrimination, I am proud of your significant achievements. Your pursuit of the Ph.D. and your pursuit of an academic career at a top research institution merged with a life of public service set an admirable standard that I hope other African Americans will follow. In a world where there is a persistent underrepresentation of blacks and other racial minority group members among recipients of Ph.Ds. and among tenured faculty, it is always reassuring to point to success stories such as yours.

I won’t be in the audience of your talk. It is not because I fail to support members of my own race, even when I disagree with them.

Nor, is the reason why I will not be there the result of your being paid what is by most standards an outrageously large sum of $150,000 for a one-hour talk on a topic that has been rehashed in the media and in your own writings over and over again.

And certainly, the reason for my absence is not related to any opposition to academic freedom or the right of the Carlson Foundation to invite whomever they please of whatever intellectual persuasion. I support academic freedom and the importance of bringing diverse voices to campus to speak on topics on which the speakers are experts.

I believe that it demeans you, as a distinguished academic, and others who have worked as hard as you have to suggest, as some of the organizers of this event do, that it is appropriate to link your engagement to the larger theme of the year-long celebration of the Civil Rights Act. The argument is that you are black and a woman and that even though you have expressed opposing views long held by the mainstream supporters of equal opportunity and fairness, and you are not an academic expert on the topic, your visit should be supported because, well, you are black and a woman! You should be offended.

I asked a colleague, “Would Condoleezza Rice have been invited to deliver the Carlson Lecture as a part of the Humphrey School’s yearlong celebration of the 1964 Civil Rights Act had she been white and a male?” I think it may be the norm for Schools of Public Affairs to want to invite former secretaries of state or former United States vice presidents or even presidents. It is the norm to invite controversial figures. But, I find it disingenuous that your visit is linked to our celebration of the civil rights movement under the ostensible banner that you provide a different perspective on civil rights and human rights. I fail to see how you are even qualified to speak on a topic that has received broad technical analysis from many disciplines and points of view. Your defenders say that you qualify because you are black and a woman and can offer a different perspective. I find that reasoning insulting.

The many titles of the Act deserve separate and prolonged debate and dialog: Title VII dealing with employment discrimination and which is the basis for much of my own research on earnings inequality could be the source of a day-long seminar with researchers and scholars across many disciplines offering widely differing views about its impacts. Title I dealing with voters rights, Title II dealing with discrimination in public places, Titles III and IV dealing with segregation, Title VI dealing discrimination in programs receiving federal assistance, all offer the appropriate academic opportunity for the kind of debate and discussion that merits investment of large amounts of funds at the Humphrey School. The same funds could be invested in graduate fellowships for students interested in studying the civil rights movement and undertaking careful policy analyses to evaluate the effectiveness of the plans and programs that you have publicly criticized. Your support for the Bush administration’s position in the Gratz vs. Bollinger case would have been more reasoned and more carefully nuanced had there been then a pool of talented policy analysts and policy researchers to rebut the narrow position taken by the Bush Administration’s Department of Justice.

I won’t be in the audience during your presentation. I hope that you will be challenged on your positions regarding the wars in Iraq and the determinants of black-white inequality. I hope someone asks you whether you were ever consulted about and agreed with positions taken by the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, strengthen via the 1964 Civil Rights Act but weakened during the Bush Administration. I hope you will be asked whether you agree with the position of Roger Clegg, the former deputy assistant attorney general for civil rights who now leads the Center for Equal Opportunity, the most prominent organization advocating the dismantlement of affirmative action in America. Of course, if you say that none of this is your area of expertise, I hope someone asks, “Then, why did you agree to speak knowing that the event is a part of the Humphrey School’s year-long celebration of the 1964 U.S. Civil Rights Act?”

You have made much of the fact that your father sought to protect his children from the brutal violence faced by those brave souls who fought the difficult fight to end segregation and to make discrimination illegal. You are quoted as saying that your father disagreed with the non-violent mantle of the civil rights movement and stood watch over your affluent neighborhood with a shotgun. It is a sign of filial loyalty to support one’s parents and I acknowledge the fact that you have consistently done so.

{loadposition articlead} As for me, I also admire my father just like you admire your father. He was one of two African Americans in the Officer Candidate School in Massachusetts, serving with former Republican Senator Edward Brooke, and then was assigned to an all-black ordinance unit in New Orleans before being shipped off to Okinawa servicing white troops. He objected to the fact that since there was no black officers club at the base in New Orleans, he was required to eat with the enlisted men because the white officers club was segregated. His objections almost caused him to be court martialed. He subsequently became the first African American to receive the Ph.D. in economics from Harvard University in 1949 but because of segregation he could not be hired at the University of Maryland, College Park and instead was hired at all-black Morgan State College. He fought the lonely battles – often jeopardizing his career – to redress racial discrimination not only through desegregation and anti-discrimination efforts but also through strengthening of black institutions themselves.

I will miss your talk because I will attend the 95th Birthday Celebration of the former president of the National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education – my dad and role model. I will miss your talk because the now Chairman of the Board of Minority Access, Inc. is still fighting for racial equality every day of his life. I will miss your talk because the person who introduced the long-lived White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) wants to raise money for the next generation of graduates of black colleges to attend places like the Humphrey School of Public Affairs to develop the tools and skills of policy analysis. I will miss your talk because I want to spend my time with someone who fought in the movement, who lived the movement, who regularly consulted with such stalwart leaders as Leon Sullivan, Parren and Clarence Mitchell, Dorothy Height, Julian Bond, and Joseph Lowery. My father instilled pride in his children and never denied them the right to dissent in the quest for equality. This standard of being willing to disagree even when everyone feels that it will result in funding losses or loss of supporters is a high standard that I live by.

I won’t be at your lecture because I will be attending a celebration for a hero who truly deserves to be honored during this 50th Anniversary of the U.S. Civil Rights Act. I hope that you will understand that by raising funds for minority scholarships we – both you and I – help to assure that there are future scholars and researchers who can help solve the problems of inequality. If you agree with this mandate, I invite you to expand your generous support for minority students and to donate all of the proceeds of your lecture to the Minnesota Office of the United Negro College Fund, the Minority Access Scholarship Fund and/or the Roy Wilkins Fellowship Fund at the University of Minnesota. If you agree to support minority fellowships in the area of human rights or civil rights at the University of Minnesota, moreover, I personally will commit myself to raising matching funds dollar for dollar from the Boule, the Alphas, the Kappas, the Deltas, the Ques, the Links, Jack and Jill and all of the other networking organizations that have benefitted from the foundations laid by our fathers. Even though we may disagree on how to remedy persistent problems of racial inequality, I hope we can agree on this: that training underserved minorities is one viable solution. I hope we can agree that those of us who have benefited from the sacrifices made by our fathers and who have succeeded in the aftermath of the Civil Rights Movement possess an obligation to support those less fortunate than us.

April 11, 2014
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