The Uncle Tom Dilemma

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

"I had no friendship with Rudy Giuliani," Clarke insists. "I was too pissed with him to begin with for all of the programs that I needed that weren't being funded. They say, 'She supports him; otherwise she couldn't get so much for her district.' I do the business I need to do to help my district, and I don't think that an everyday indictment and badgering of the mayor gets to the point. If he's a racist, he knows it. I don't have to remind him of that."

Una Clarke reflects the attitude of a black do-gooder who seems to be afflicted with Uncle Toms' Dilemma. But some of those same Democrats who criticized her for dealing with the Giuliani administration tried to enlist her help, and that of Congressman Edolphus Towns, in getting the mayor's support for a federally funded empowerment zone. "It was clear when [a well-known political operative] approached me that he had been sent by the Brooklyn Democratic machine. They thought that Ed Towns and myself had some strange relationship with the mayor,that somehow we could get him to sign on to the empowerment zone."

Clarke says that she talked often with Randy Levine, then deputy mayor for economic development, who was spearheading negotiations to bring Magic Johnson Theaters and other businesses to her district, which covers Crown Heights and Flatbush. "I had no direct contact with Rudy Giuliani. I had had an ongoing relationship with Randy Levine to make sure the capital dollars that I put into the budget for those projects would remain in the budget."

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.

In fact it was during a ceremony at City Hall, in which Magic Johnson appeared to announce the joint project with the Giuliani administration, that Clarke says she had one of her rare contacts with the mayor. While awaiting Giuliani's arrival, Clarke says she cornered Johnson in a room and chided him for insisting on staying out of the uproar surrounding the police shooting of Amadou Diallo. "I told him that I was as angry as everybody else over Diallo. I said that the daily demonstrations at One Police Plaza was an indication of how angry people are about the way the mayor is handling the affair." In walked Giuliani, Clarke remembers. She says that after she scolded him, too, about his nonchalance, Giuliani asked her for advice on how to calm the racial tensions in his city.

"He said he had held back for so long that nobody would talk to him," she says. "I said to him, 'You probably thought that the [protest] was a black thing, but tomorrow morning some 11 rabbis are going to go over there and get arrested. How will you then handle that?' "

Roy Innis says he knows what it feels like to be considered an Uncle Tom and to be forced to work within the strictures of ostracism. "I am technically a Democrat," acknowledges Innis, who was defeated by Major Owens in 1986 in a divisive Democratic primary in Brooklyn's 12th Congressional District. "For me to be politically viable in New York City, I have to remain, at least for the time being, a Democrat," adds the "Republicrat" (one who straddles the Republican and Democratic parties) whose organization accepts the support of Rudy Giuliani and the far-right National Rifle Association. "The media censors me now. Imagine how much more they would censor me if I were a Republican."

The question republicans hope will haunt African Americans on election day is, "Should we vote for the party of Colin Powell?" The answer must be a resounding "No!" says Reverend Al Sharpton, the leader of the National Action Network, who went to the Republican convention as a guest of conservative commentator Armstrong Williams and ended up protesting outside.

"I think there is nothing more dangerous than sweetened poison because you don't realize that you're drinking poison," Sharpton cracks. "In fact, you enjoy it until you're dead. I think that Colin Powell represents political sweet poison. There is no way that anyone who is that bright and that old could be so naive about what the Republicans really stand for. He's got to know that he's selling something that is not in the interest of black people."

Angry with Sharpton's Republican bashing, Niger Innis, the blunt-spoken "hip hop conservative" son of Roy Innis, who was a guest of Republican National Committee chairman Jim Nicholson, bumrushed Williams's syndicated radio show, which was broadcasting live with Sharpton from the convention center. "I thought that Armstrong was gonna take him on, but Armstrong did nothing of the kind and allowed Sharpton to rail against Jim Nicholson, against the Republican Party, and against our candidate," Innis recalls.

The young Republican stormed over to Sharpton and shouted, "How dare he come into my home and dis my leaders?" The spat evolved into a media sideshow. And this is how Innis remembers the shouting match between himself and Sharpton:

"When you gonna drop your frivolous lawsuit against Jim Nicholson?" asked Innis. (He was referring to a $30 million libel suit Sharpton filed in March against Nicholson and the Republican National Committee. Sharpton claims that Nicholson libeled him by saying he had incited protests and riots that led to deaths in Crown Heights in 1991 and Harlem in 1995. Nicholson's statements were published in The Washington Post on March 11 as a letter to the editor.)

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