Perils of the Bootstrap

On the same day National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice defended the Bush administration’s policies before the 9/11 Commission, Lieutenant-General Ricardo Sanchez briefed reporters on the deteriorating situation in Iraq. An African American and a Mexican American, both from humble backgrounds, took center stage to defend the actions of a group of privileged white men whose commitment to telling the truth has proven to be negligible.

Condi Rice was born in 1954 in the Jim Crow South. Birmingham, Alabama, was at the center of the civil rights storm, and Rice recalls that as a child she heard the explosion that killed four innocent girls at the 16th St. Baptist Church in 1963.

Her preacher father and music teacher mother taught her that the only way to beat racism was to outperform the racists. She excelled in school, graduated from the University of Denver Phi Beta Kappa, and earned her doctorate in international studies in 1981. She immediately took a teaching position at Stanford University and rose rapidly to the position of Provost.

By the late 1980s she was serving in the first Bush administration’s National Security Council and on multiple corporate boards including Chevron.

Rick Sanchez was raised two miles from the Mexican border in Rio Grande City in Starr County, Texas, which today remains the poorest county in the United States. The son of a single-parent family, his uneducated mother once made him spend the day picking cotton as she had done so that he would learn the value of hard labor. In 1973, he defied the odds and graduated from Texas A&I University and entered the Army quickly rising through the ranks.

The bootstraps theory of success argues that in the United States anyone can make it. Despite structural obstacles and glass ceilings for poor people and people of color, the individual can rise above them and become whatever he or she desires. “Self-improvement” and single-mindedness will get you where you want to go. The promise of “Horatio Alger” knows no limitations of gender, race or economic status.

Now their bootstraps have placed Rice and Sanchez in the international spotlight. Like another bootstraps prodigy, Colin Powell, who boldly presented the world with a series of half-truths and distortions in his speech last year at the United Nations, Rice has been caught in several “misstatements.” She now claims she misspoke when she said no one ever expected terrorists to hijack commercial airliners and use them as weapons.

For his part, Sanchez was defending this week’s siege of the Iraqi city of Fallujah in which hundreds of innocent civilians were slaughtered by American firepower. Sounding like U.S. generals in Vietnam who painted a rosy picture in the face of increasing chaos, Sanchez dismissed the Vietnam analogy. “A new dawn is approaching,” he told disbelieving reporters who saw only an explosion of violence and devastation.

When “making it in the white man’s world” is one’s primary objective, too often scant attention is paid to which “white men” one wishes to please. In the case of Condi Rice and Rick Sanchez, hard work, talent, and personal choices have put them in the position of fronting for the most arrogant, dishonest, and aggressive group of white men this nation has seen in quite a long time.

As the old Spanish adage reminds us: “Dime con quien andas y te diré quién eres” (“Tell me whom you run with and I’ll tell you who you are”).

JORGE MARISCAL teaches Chicano/a Studies at the University of California, San Diego. He can be reached at: