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."

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."

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.

"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."

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.)

"Why is my lawsuit all of a sudden frivolous?" Sharpton retorted.

"Because Jim Nicholson has done more to reach out to the black community, for the Republican Party, than [anyone] I can think of in the last 20 years. He should be rewarded for that, not penalized with a frivolous lawsuit."

"You have a candidate that is not serving the interests of black people," Sharpton claimed.

"You better tell the 27 percent of blacks and the 46 percent of Latinos that because he [George W. Bush] has a black and a Latino constituency."

"Yeah, he kills them," said Sharpton, alluding to the condemned men put to death under Bush's watch.

"Last time I checked," Innis scoffed, "Al Gore was in favor of the death penalty and Bill Clinton stopped his 1992 campaign to execute a retarded black man."


Uncle toms' dilemma or not, Niger Innis intends to spread the message that he is proof the Republican Party under George W. Bush welcomes blacks. Innis recalls that after listening to Bush's acceptance speech, he boarded a bus loaded with Texas, Utah, and Ohio delegates. "They were all white," he emphasizes. "It was so warm with enthusiasm that I said, 'Let's start a chant to kill some time while going back to the hotel.' I chanted, 'No more Gore!' Everybody joined in, 'No more Gore!' " Niger Innis is nobody's minstrel, but it's hard not to speculate about what white mischief his Republican audience might have been thinking. Former Manhattan borough president Percy Sutton once said: "They want a negro who doesn't mind being a puppet, so long as the flashlight is properly diverted from the strings."

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