The Uncle Tom Dilemma

Are Blacks Like Colin Powell Asking African Americans to Sell Out?

No African American has enjoyed as intimate a relationship with white America as retired general Colin Powell. Whites who have never met Powell have come to view this son of Jamaican immigrants as a superpatriot, citing the influence he's wielded with several presidents and his military victories. Indeed, Powell looms large, dominating the political scene, stripping away the mythology of the "incompetent negro" while his conservative boosters romance the notion that he has the temperament and personality to become the first black president. "He is what white people want all black people to be: a black man who accepts the system and who will defend the system to the death," says one political strategist who recently had a falling-out with Powell. Yet for all that Americans know about Colin Powell, he remains something of an enigma to his race.

Until his appearance at the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia, the ultimate insider had earned the animus of the black community because of his symbolic bond with the party they love to hate. Powell, some say, has become "the most dangerous black man" in America. But the images presented of him are often in conflict. Is this the same Powell who is rethinking racism by supporting affirmative action, and who calls for an end to the prison-industrial complex? Is this the same Powell who has been one of the "many distinguished guests" invited to dine at the home of George W. Bush, the "compassionate conservative," who runs the nation's busiest execution chamber?

Hanging with Bush and stumping for the presidential hopeful in his campaign of bogus inclusiveness is enough to convince some blacks that Colin Powell suffers from "Uncle Toms' Dilemma," a syndrome that has plagued black leaders for generations and alienates the people they profess to advocate for. What's a black man in Powell's position to do?

It was sad to imagine the militarist pulling a Trojan elephant through Harlem.
illustration: Patrick Arrasmith
It was sad to imagine the militarist pulling a Trojan elephant through Harlem.

During his speech at the convention, Powell, while defending affirmative action, denounced welfare millionaires and challenged his party to make a renewed and lasting commitment to racial unity, education, and aid to the poor. Whites who admired this American icon had never seen him express such determination. But to some blacks, Powell was the star performer in a Republican, made-for-TV minstrel show, a reincarnated Stepin Fetchit with a face that lacked real fierceness. A visage that should have been murky with passion and rage appeared to be pandering. It was sad imagining the American militarist pulling a Trojan elephant through Harlem. Had he won another battle for Bush? Whom had he hoodwinked?

Powell's job, his detractors claim, was to create the impression among blacks that the Republican Party is trying to move from the far right toward the center. That strategy, others fear, might work—if Powell were the presidential nominee.

Consider this exchange between Jack Ford of ABC News and some African American residents in the Germantown section of Philadelphia after Powell spoke.

FORD: Before listening to Colin Powell's speech, were any of you planning on voting for George Bush? Anybody?
GROUP: [In unison] No.
FORD: Anybody now saying, "You know what? Now I'm going to vote for George Bush."
GROUP: [In unison] No.
FORD: Did he change your mind about the Republican Party?
WOMAN: No. If . . . if Colin Powell was running for president, I probably would vote Republican. But I don't think Bush has quite the same idea.
FORD: Were there any issues that you would have liked to have heard about tonight that were not addressed?
WOMAN: A lot of . . . a significant number of minorities, one-third of black children in this country live in poverty. Why is that? It's not because parents don't value their success or their education. There are very real issues he did not touch on.
MAN: I would have at least mentioned the name of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. or Malcolm X or some of the other persons who have fought and really given their lives for this nation.
FORD: The Republican Party has said that they want to reach out to people of color, people like yourselves. Did anything Colin Powell said tonight convince you that that is absolutely true?
WOMAN: I have no problem with them using someone who looks like me, who is more inclined to get my attention, who I am probably more prone to feel good about to start. But what's the next step? And I think that's the test.

Blacks who are intrigued by Powell's appeal have begun to argue that he is ideologically a Democrat entangled in catch-22 politics. "Colin Powell is not a Republican," contends a prominent Harlem businessman, a Democrat who voted for George Bush in 1992. "He has some pretty good views on social issues, but he has to be in favor of affirmative action because he is a product of it. There was no reason to skip over all those white boys to make him chairman of the joint chiefs of staff other than the fact that he is black. He's no smarter than most of them.

"What you have to understand about Powell is that he was plucked from obscurity by a right-wing administration," the businessman adds. "So now he feels he has an obligation to repay the Republicans, even though he might not agree with anything these people stand for. But it's the whole slave thing; the master does you a favor, so you owe him your life."

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