The Uncle Tom Dilemma

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

Criticism of Powell comes from an unlikely source. "My main problem with Powell's [embrace of] affirmative action is that he has refused, in two major speeches in the last four years, to define what he means by affirmative action," says conservative black activist Roy Innis, who heads the Congress of Racial Equality, and who listened to Powell's speech from the convention floor. "I hope he doesn't mean that stuff they had here in New York, the sergeants' exam for the police department, where whites had to pass with 75 percent, Hispanics with 68 and a half, and blacks with 65. I hope he doesn't mean that. My big beef with him is that if you're gonna push affirmative action, you gotta make sure it's not one of those inferiority things."

Still, some black political observers believe that what Powell really is asking of African Americans is not to sell out but to buy into the notion of a new Republican Party. To illustrate this trend, one Democratic Party insider, who spoke on condition of anonymity, recalls the story of a friend who boasted that he was cunning enough to take advantage of "pork and milk" programs that were made available to him under successive Republican administrations. This friend was a member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee during the '60s, and "one of the most left-wing negroes I've ever known," but in the early '70s, during the Nixon administration, he became a Republican.

This year, shortly after the Republican convention, the Democrat ran into his old friend, who had become a millionaire. "I asked him, 'What's going on with you, man? You used to be way on the left.' He said, 'I still am, but I have a family to feed. I can make more money as a smart negro Republican than I'll ever make with the Democrats.' " The political chameleon left the "proud Democrat" wincing from the broadside and wondering what's become of the African American middle class. "You mean all the money for high-profile, smart black people is in the Republican Party?" the Democrat asks with chagrin. "That means that so-called 'Bush Democrats' have made a conscious decision to abandon the interests of their own people."

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.

The politics of "I'm-gittin'-mine" is deeply rooted in the Uncle Tom Dilemma. In the June issue of The New African, an Atlanta-based scholarly journal of "opinion, analysis, and prescription," editor Louis Clayton Jones, a retired civil rights lawyer, attempts to define the vexing problem. "[It is] the dilemma faced by every relatively intelligent Negro who chooses a career in government or in a profession . . . in which one's living is made in the implementation and facilitation of the programs, policies, and practices of an economic, political, educational, criminal justice, and cultural model—the effects of which are the decimation of one's race," asserts Jones. "The dilemma is compounded when the relatively conscious Negro, who understands the dilemma, learns that his or her 'success,' in the view of the oppressed and the oppressor, is defined by the skill with which the Negro adapts to the oppressive system and masters its subtleties and peculiarities."

Jones argues that the number of "relatively conscious" middle-income African Americans is rapidly declining while "the black poor sink deeper and deeper into a miasma of illiteracy, criminality, incurable disease, and hopelessness" that is ignored by elected officials, community advocates, and legal defenders who are trapped in the "dilemma of black bourgeois egocentrism."


But wealthy black entrepreneurs like Philadelphia's Kenneth Gamble insist they are conscious of racial oppression, and would work with any political party that acknowledges their call for help. Gamble invited Newt Gingrich to tour Universal Community Homes, a redevelopment project in what had been a run-down neighborhood near South Broad Street. "Most African American communities across America are devastated," said Gamble. "This is a plan to revitalize and bring the spirit back into the African American community. We not only invited Mr. Gingrich, we invited everyone from the Republican Party in Philadelphia to come and see. This situation has taken a long time to address."

When reporters pressed Gamble about his relationship with the man some say is the architect of the "Contract on Black America," Gamble replied, "I am honored to have him. I like his enthusiasm." Some defiant protesters, who were demonstrating in the banned Kensington Welfare Rights Union march toward the convention center, spotted Gingrich and heckled him as he retreated into the fenced courtyard of Gamble's Universal Center for Employment Training.

Linking some black activist Democrats to Republicans and their controversial policies can tarnish their careers. During a raucous televised debate last Tuesday on NY1, Representative Major R. Owens, who is fending off a challenge from Councilmember Una Clarke in central Brooklyn's 11th Congressional District, suggested that Clarke is a clandestine Giuliani supporter. Owens referred to "your good friend, the mayor." In an interview with the Voice, Clarke blamed Owens and the Coalition for Community Empowerment—Brooklyn's black political machine, which tried to dissuade Clarke from running against the eight-term incumbent—for spreading "that noxious thing in the air." Owens charged that it wasn't until Giuliani was in office that Clarke "started putting distance between herself and her political family," the Coalition.

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