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Rice's Actions Would Mean More Than a Milestone

By Donna Britt
Friday, January 21, 2005; Page B01

Condoleezza Rice, a friend who's close to her tells me, enjoys buying shoes.

Who knew? I only know that if she'd been buying them Wednesday night at the Mall at Prince George's -- a notion that's admittedly a stretch -- Rice might have impulsively done what several shoppers did: pop into a poetry reading at Karibu Books.

Settling into a folding chair, she might have heard a brown-skinned poet, whose locks sprouted like graceful vines from her head, intone, "Surely Colin Powell and Condi Rice are not worse than Booker T. and Stepin Fetchit. And my people survived."

If Rice had remained -- and Condi is nobody's wimp -- she would have heard another dreadlocked, sinewy-voiced poet explain why the array of blooms at a flower stand mesmerized her: "We are engaged in a war," she read. "And I want to drag home any distraction I can carry."

Then there was the sweat-shirted scribe whose eyes glittered behind tiny glasses. "War," the man declared, "reduces everything to silence."

Not quite. The secretary of state nominee wasn't at Karibu's "Counter-Inaugural" poetry reading, but there was plenty of noise protesting the Iraqi conflict that she helped to engineer. Poets Esther Iverem (who formerly wrote for The Washington Post), Camille Dungy and E. Ethelbert Miller read their works from the 77-poem anthology "D.C. Poets Against the War" (Argonne House Press, second edition).

Listening as about 35 spectators -- equal numbers of them female and male, black and white -- nodded at the poets' bewilderment and outrage, I remembered a colleague's recent question:

"How do you reconcile your feelings about President Bush's policies with his again having assembled a diverse Cabinet?" Indeed, Bush named a woman as his new White House counsel, and he nominated a female education secretary and Latino candidates for attorney general and Commerce secretary -- and, I suspect, the real reason for the question -- famed two-fer Rice.

What, I wondered, is there to reconcile? Any acknowledgment of diversity in a nation that always was diverse -- but whose governmental bodies were for generations overwhelmingly white and male -- is laudable. It's a good thing that President Bush sees past skin color and gender in ways that other presidents have not, recognizing and elevating women and minorities whom he trusts.

But minority members' mere attainment of lofty positions isn't necessarily cause for celebration. Such reflexive cheering is hard to avoid among groups that have been so historically denied that every "first" is a feat, which explains why such announcements as the first black astronaut and the first female vice presidential candidate were major, heartening news.

In a recent letter to the editor in this newspaper, Dorothy Height, the much-loved and hugely respected chair of the National Council of Negro Women, writes that Rice's appointment represents "a time for women of color to smile. Our nation finally will put forward a face that reflects the hopes of generations of black women to sit at the table of national and global affairs and participate as equals."

Who could question Height's recognition of the symbolic importance of Rice's once-unimaginable nomination? If, as expected, Rice is confirmed as the nation's first black woman secretary of state, she is ensured a place in history.

But is that alone reason enough for black women -- for anyone -- to applaud? Once an administration official -- or a physician or a bus driver -- gets the job, competence is all that matters. Those whose praise is based primarily on a recipient's skin color come uncomfortably close to those whose doubt and denigration derive mostly from that characteristic.

Either way, the humanity of the person in question becomes less significant than the shade of his or her skin.

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