Joe Conason's Journal

What does Condi Rice really think about affirmative action? It's not clear she herself knows.

Published January 21, 2003 5:26PM (EST)

The conscience of Condi
If anyone understands what Condoleezza Rice really believes about affirmative action, diversity and the attitudes of white Republicans, please tell me. (It would also be fascinating to know her opinion about "legacy" admissions, which she no doubt must have contemplated during her years teaching at Stanford.)

The national security advisor's views only became more opaque when she discussed these politically difficult topics with Tim Russert on "Meet the Press" last Sunday. She did contradict whichever anonymous staffer had told the Washington Post that she encouraged the president to formulate a position against Michigan's race-conscious admissions standard. But Rice also said she feels that her boss has "come out in exactly the right place here." And she added, "I am fully supportive of what he has done" -- meaning that she supports his decision to file a brief against Michigan.

Yet when Russert asked whether she agrees with Colin Powell -- who said he hopes Michigan wins and the administration loses in court -- the national security advisor didn't answer directly. She offered blather. The host persisted.

MR. RUSSERT: But you disagree with General Powell?
DR. RICE: But let me be very clear. The question of how best to diversify a class of college applicants or in graduate school is one of the most important and, indeed, one of the most emotional that we have as a country, and the reason that I issued a statement about race as a factor is that the impression left by the Washington Post story was one that was actually at odds both with what I believe and also at odds with practices in which I had engaged as Stanford's provost, and I had to set the record straight.
MR. RUSSERT: But it's also at odds with the president's brief.
DR. RICE: No, it's not at odds. The president's brief is silent on this matter, and I think it's wholly appropriate for the president, as opposed to a former university administrator -- it is wholly appropriate and I think best for the president to remain silent on this and to leave to the courts the question of the limits of the Constitution in the pursuit of diversity.
MR. RUSSERT: But do you agree with Gen. Powell that you hope the University of Michigan wins?
DR. RICE: We will see what the courts do. I happen to think personally that there are problems with the Michigan case, with the Michigan program. Diversity is extremely important. It is important to take race into consideration if you must -- if race-neutral means do not work -- if you must take race into consideration, to do it in a way that looks at the total person, that does not assume certain things about a person's race just because of the color of their skin.

What does all that actually mean? Rice admitted that she was the beneficiary of affirmative action programs at Stanford, where she rose from teaching fellow to provost, the university's second-in-command -- with no visible qualifications for that administrative job. (She is quoted to that effect in the recent biography of her, reviewed here.)

In the controversy over racial preferences that erupted angrily during her tenure at Stanford, Rice never publicly objected to the use of racial and ethnic criteria to achieve diversity in faculty hiring and student admissions, though she did argue that tenure decisions should be based solely on merit. Conservative objections to Stanford's diversity efforts are outlined here in a 1996 alumni magazine article, published in the middle of Rice's six years as provost. Though those two angry alums were kind enough to leave her name out of it, there is no doubt that from the time she arrived at Stanford in 1981 until she left in 1999, the university operated under rules that were anything but "race-neutral."

Rice has spoken quite thoughtfully on such topics in the past. More than once, she has said she doesn't know whether she would have gotten as far if she were white and male. She doesn't parrot conservative cant about political correctness ("I think it's one of those phrases that oversimplifies what is a very complicated problem") or multiculturalism ("There's no place in the world for monoculturalism. I would like to think a student leaving Stanford appreciates Duke Ellington and Beethoven with the same fervor. I don't see culture as a prison where you are born and have to stay"). When she speaks out in support of the president's position in the Michigan case, perhaps she should explain more clearly what kind of standards and procedures are acceptable to achieve the "extremely important" goal of diversity.
[9:25 a.m. PST, Jan. 21, 2003]

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