Ugly Stereotypes

Susan Rice: Just Another ‘Incompetent’ Black Woman

Sophia Nelson on the ugly stereotypes at play in the GOP’s attacks on Susan Rice.

Henny Ray Abram, AFP / Getty Images

If I didn’t know any better, I’d think it was the summer of 2008 again, when the angry white men of Fox News and conservative talk radio were attacking an accomplished, smart, well-educated black woman for not being “patriotic” and “loving her country.”

Only this time, the punching bag is not First Lady Michelle Obama. It’s U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice. For weeks now, we have watched GOP senators from John McCain to Lindsey Graham to Susan Collins go after Rice like she is some kind of rabid apologist for Muslim extremists, or on the side of those who intentionally set out to kill our Libyan ambassador and several U.S. military and State Department personnel in Benghazi.

Rice has either “misled the country,” Graham said on Face the Nation this month, or is “incompetent.” Her response to the crisis was “not very bright,” McCain said separately.

Ambassador Rice is a well-credentialed, experienced, senior-ranking diplomat in the United States government. Last month, she was called upon by her commander in chief and her Secretary of state to go on the Sunday talk shows and give the best explanation of the intelligence that had been reported to the White House up to that point about the “possible causes” of the uprising in Benghazi, which resulted in the murder of four United States citizens. She did her duty within the limitations of what she knew and the intel that was provided by our CIA.

So the question is: why has the GOP’s bloodlust been aimed so tightly at Susan Rice and her comments of that day? Why must she be labeled a liar, or a conspirator, the one to answer for the terrible tragedy in Libya? Why not go after the proper person in the chain of command, Hilary Rodham Clinton? (In my opinion, I have always been a bit annoyed at the fact that Clinton did not herself make the rounds on the Sunday shows that weekend—or better yet, why not Vice President Joe Biden?) Why all this anger and investigation now into Ambassador Rice’s every decision, dating back to 1998 when she was assistant secretary of State under President Bill Clinton? Did I miss a memo? Has she been nominated for a new job yet in the second Obama administration?

Sorry folks, it just doesn’t add up.

I have a plausible explanation for all of this rancor, but many of you won’t like it. The fact is that stereotypes die hard, particularly when they are about accomplished black women in America. Ambassador Rice, like Michelle Obama and millions of other well-educated professional black women, catch hell everyday in corporate America, whether they be in industry, government, entertainment, journalism, or academia. It is a fact borne out in countless studies, surveys, books (mine included), and reports: black women are the hardest demographic to retain and advance, and the most likely to file EEOC complaints or allege other problems of race and gender bias.

The problem for us as black women is that we never really know if it is our gender or race. How could we? We have the unique burden of being both black and female. Unlike our white female counterparts, we are not white. And unlike our black male counterparts, we are not male. They each have one “advantage,” while we have neither.

Some of you are saying, well wait, what about Oprah, Condi Rice, Sam’s Club CEO Rosalind Brewer, Ursula Burns at Xerox, or Dr. Beverly Tatum, president of Spelman College? These are all accomplished black women who rose to the top of their game. Yes, they have. But if you were to ask each of these women about their journey, I promise you they could tell you horror stories of the unconscious bias, prejudice, marginalization, and at times dehumanization of them as people. They just had to swallow, smile, and keep pressing. I know. I experienced it painfully as a young lawyer in a big law firm, and at times it rears its ugly head even now in my career as a journalist and author. I have just learned to grin and bear it, and not allow it to distract me.

My point is this: Be clear that Susan Rice is being attacked in part, if not in full, because she is an easy target for the GOP and media. Her race and her gender make her an easy target. Black women are still viewed as less than. We are still viewed as not quite good enough, regardless of our credentials. Calling her “incompetent” is just another way of saying, “Look at that ‘affirmative action baby.’ She doesn’t deserve to be where she is.” It’s like calling our first lady “angry,” a charge she had to deflect this year on CBS This Morning.

Don’t you know? Hasn’t America learned yet that these are “code words” for people of color, to make them less than? It’s how they cut us down to size, regardless of the power of our credentials, education and background.

As I like to say, stereotypes aren’t funny when they follow you everywhere. Ambassador Rice is no one’s victim, you can be sure. She is smart, intelligent, qualified, and more than up to the job of being secretary of state should Obama see fit to nominate her. But make no mistake, my fellow Americans. This attack on Ambassador Susan Rice is at best what we lawyers call “unconscious bias” on the GOP’s part. At worst, it smacks of stereotyping, race-baiting, and gender bias of the most insidious kind.