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THE SUNDAY PROFILE : Debt of Honor : Constance Rice was raised to believe that she should advance the cause of racial and economic justice. Now, as counsel for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, she's doing it.

November 27, 1994|SCOTT SHIBUYA BROWN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Constance Rice has done the math dozens of times, for all sorts of equations. Even though her numbers tell the same story every time, for the benefit of a visitor she repeats them, setting the figures off like depth charges.

Example: African American children make up only 9% of the state's non-adult population but 40% of its juvenile prison population. Latinos make up another 39% of juvenile inmates.

Says Rice, her words heightened by a cool gaze and a quiet, almost droll delivery: "You might as well just put the crib in the cell."

And last year, she says later, pointing to a plastic drawing board with a blue scrawl of numbers, the Metropolitan Transit Authority spent as little as 38 cents in subsidies on each of its bus riders, who make up 94% of its customers. The more affluent Metrolink passengers--the other 6%--received upward of $30 per person.

"Third World buses for Third World people," Rice says.

To her mind, the MTA issue also neatly symbolizes the yawning chasm of race and class in Los Angeles, as well as government's attitude toward poorer citizens. As Western regional counsel for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, and in her role as a county Department of Water and Power commissioner, she is trying to bridge those often formidable divisions.

"There's no other place in the U.S. that presents any more complex problems," Rice says, sitting amid an agreeable clutter of books and documents in her Downtown LDF office. "This is where it's at. What happens in L.A. in civil and economic rights is going to tell us whether we keep our constitutional democracy."

Keeping that system alive and whole has kept Rice, 38, running for most of the last 20 years. From trying to win a stay of execution for a Death Row inmate to filing suit against powerful institutions, a sense of mission imbues her life. It is a commitment so serious that she steadfastly refuses to comment on her private life, arguing that it might affect public opinion and diminish her ability to represent her clients.

"When Connie speaks, people listen," says Lani Guinier, an early Rice mentor and ill-fated Clinton Administration nominee for assistant attorney general. "(Her work) is not just a legal exercise. It's a commitment to doing justice. She has a moral vision without being ideological."

DWP Commission President Dennis A. Tito agrees: "I couldn't think of a better person to lead (her) fight."

*

The emphasis on doing, and doing well, was imparted by her mother, a schoolteacher, and her father, an Air Force officer. "She'd work us so hard in the summer," Rice says of her mother, "that school was a break."

An itinerant military life allowed Rice an unusual perspective on race and class, she says. By her count, she attended four high schools, two middle schools and three grade schools, bouncing from Texas to North Carolina to California to London to Japan and back again. She finally graduated from a high school in San Antonio.

At each stop, Rice recalls, she and her two younger brothers would face several hurdles relating to their minority status in usually all-white schools.

The first was socialization: "You had to learn how to break the ice quickly and reach people," Rice says. "You were the ones to make people feel comfortable. You had to make white people feel comfortable."

The second involved guidance counselors' disinclination to place the Rice children in college-prep classes. That would prompt a calm visit from a determined Mrs. Rice, who would insist on advanced classes, a battle she always won. "We would have been tracked into mediocrity if not for her," Rice recalls. Her illiterate grandfather had been similarly strict, making sure that all 10 of his children went to college.

The Rices were also schooled in life's expectations, and that meant using their education to advance the cause of racial and economic justice. "It got passed on to us," Rice says, "that you had to be one of the people paying back, one of the people trying to open doors rather than resting on your laurels. I'm still paying back that debt."

Both of her brothers are now physicians, and crusaders in their work as well, Rice says half-jokingly. A cousin, Condoleezza Rice, became the provost at Stanford University after serving as President George Bush's special assistant for national security affairs.

When it came time for college, Constance Rice planned to major in communications at Northwestern University, in hopes of becoming a television newscaster. But her father brought home a Radcliffe application and made her fill it out. She sent it off and promptly forgot about it until receiving an acceptance notice. Only then did she learn she was bound for an academically rigorous women's college.

Upon arrival in Boston, though, a chagrined Rice discovered that she actually had been admitted to the newly co-ed Harvard. "I cried for two weeks because I didn't want to be there," she recalls. "I'm probably the only one in the history of Harvard to feel that way."

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