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Blacks judging blacks for not fitting specific mold

When I was in Air Force Officers' Training School, we briefly hosted cadets from the Air Force Academy. We didn't get along well. Capping off the visit, we played a very strange baseball game. Both sides kept cheering, "Go Air Force!"

No matter how often we brought ourselves up short in confusion, neither team could divorce itself from an understanding that it, and only it, could represent the Air Force. Messianic and self-absorbed, we had yet to learn what the Air Force proper would teach us: respectful coexistence with other "zoomies" from strange disciplines whose worlds overlapped and conflicted with ours.

Now that the Republicans are in charge, Democrats will have to learn that same lesson. In particular, blacks have a turbulent period of cognitive dissonance ahead. With the nominations of Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice to the highest posts ever occupied by minorities, it's just become a whole lot trickier to be black. Whom are we supposed to cheer for and against now?

Black Republicans still nonplus other blacks, so the demands for their excommunication haven't yet found a rhythm. Thankfully, there's still time for us to think this through, because the black commentariat is only beginning to nibble at the conundrum that Powell and Rice present: family members to weep with pride over, but who won't use their power as the family directs.

"They're not the kind of champions that would be helpful, and they don't have a following," said Rep. Alcee Hastings, D-Fla.

Not helpful? Why? Because they aren't liberal Democrats? And why don't such superstars have followings among blacks? The point is what Hastings means, not what he says, because when it comes to intraracial whipcracking, it's all about the subtext.

Blacks legitimately lambaste America's use of racially coded discourse (for example, "urban," "underclass," "too stupid to mark a ballot correctly"). But now that Republican ideas will be coming from black faces, many blacks will respond with this same kind of encrypted talk.

"Unhelpful" _ traitorous.

"No following" _ not really black.

In other words, black Republicans are, oh, dear, Uncle Toms, a schoolyard taunt we refuse to outgrow that's meant to coerce conformity.

Though the clock ticks, murmurings about Rice are barely audible yet. This is due to ignorance, laziness and insecurity. There was some attention to a messy sex discrimination case at Stanford while she was provost there, and to her star turn at the Republican convention this summer, but her specialization in international affairs and defense issues has largely kept Rice off most blacks' radar screens.

Soon, though, she'll be skewered for her lack of interest in Africa and the Third World, her choice of Russian instead of Swahili or Creole, and her opposition to humanitarian intervention. All will be interpreted through the shopworn prism of her self-hatred and need for white approval.

Clausewitz, let alone Kissinger, is unlikely to come up. Colin and Condi may be free of overt white control, but the black Politburo calls dibs on the souls of black folks.

A sister needn't be large to feel its undertow.

Last year the magazine Black Issues in Higher Education ran a heartbroken letter from doctoral candidate Cheri Wilson, a Russian studies professor. Fluent in French, Russian, Spanish and written German, she pleaded for articles on "scholars of color (in) nonethnic studies" because they are "discouraged . . . by many scholars of color. " She'd spent months attempting to join an association of black women historians, only to be cold-shouldered because of her specialty. She finally forced her dues on them but was never further contacted. No newsletters, no conference announcements. Nothing. Her calls went unreturned.

"If a black, female graduate student cannot turn to the professional association earmarked for black women in her field, to whom can she turn?" she wrote. "I thought (this group) was for black women historians, not only black women who do African or African-American history."

It gets even more bleakly silly. Venting about a lifetime of black intimidation, Wilson can laugh now about her two turns in the Ms. Black U-Conn. pageant where, among other things, she recited Voltaire in French. "All they wanted to know was whether I'd been to Francophone Africa or Haiti like I'd been to Europe. Even my singing was too white."

Wilson, who lists Rice as a longtime role model, has given up on black associations. "At least the mainstream groups treat me like a scholar," she says with a sigh.

Not like a sister, though, something else she has in common with Rice. Sisterhood is something they've both learned to live without.

Powell, Rice and Wilson (who's only 30) are the wave of the future: blacks who believe that Americans marched and died to free them to follow their desires and talents wherever they lead _ that wherever they go, whatever they do when they get there, they'll still be black.

The rest of us need to learn what I did in 1985 on the humid baseball diamond at Lackland Air Force base: Either way, the team wins.

Debra Dickerson, an essayist and lawyer, is a senior fellow at the New America Foundation and author of the recently published An American Story.

Special to The Washington Post

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