In an Oct. 9 radio interview, entertainer and activist Harry Belafonte compared Secretary of State Colin Powell to a plantation slave who curried the favor of his master, who in this instance is President George W. Bush.
“There’s a old saying in the days of slavery,” Belafonte said in the interview.
“There are those slaves who lived on the plantation, and there were those slaves who lived in the house. You got the privilege of living in the house if you served the master. Colin Powell was permitted to come into the house of the master.”
Indeed America is a plantation – white men dominate and control the majority of the wealth, while many African-Americans are still laboring in the field.
In July 2002, the National Urban League released its annual report, titled “The State of Black America 2002”, which has increased tension between the Bush administration and the African American community.
According to the report’s opening essay:
“Black Americans are still 700,000 jobs behind, $190 billion in income behind, $1 trillion in wealth behind, 3 million health plans behind, 2.7 million college degrees behind and 3 million homeowners behind [white Americans and the rest of the nation].”
It is the persistence of inequality that fuels the community’s expectations of people like Powell, that when one of them makes it into the “big house”– be it Corporate America or the White House – he will uplift those who are still struggling in the field.
When he does, he is a hero.
When he doesn’t, he is vilified as sell-out.
The question is, which one is Powell?
At the July 2000 Republican convention, Powell delivered a speech that focused on race issues, a speech described as unusual for a Republican facing a conservative crowd.
But Powell didn’t waver.
He spoke political-death words like support for affirmative action, and building more schools as an alternative to more prisons.
He challenged his party to become racially inclusive and to reach out to minority communities.
Yet despite the Bush administration’s talk of racial inclusion, its record on the issue has been a deep disappointment.
From Bush’s campaign stop at Bob Jones University, a university that until recently forbade its students from interracial dating, to his decision to boycott a United Nations conference on racism because the agenda included proposals for slavery and reparations, the Bush administration has continually come up short.
Bush opposes affirmative action, hate-crime legislation, and strict enforcement of civil rights laws, views that leave many feeling that his administration fails to address the political, social and economic disparities that plague African Americans.
The slight is particularly stinging when an African-American, who supposedly shares these concerns, sits in the White House.
For many reasons, Powell is a source of African American pride.
The former four-star general was the first African American to serve as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, making Powell the highest-ranking African-American solider in U.S. history.
And the charismatic moderate had to quell public excitement over a possible presidential bid in 1996 and 2000.
Powell is also a source of hope.
Based on his position, African Americans expect Powell to champion their cause and bring their issues to the national agenda.
And because he hasn’t, his loyalty is being called into question.
Powell called Belafonte’s comments “unfortunate”.
Some agree, while others say they are dead-on.
What is unfortunate is that Powell’s moderate conservatism and cross-party appeal hasn’t brought the inclusion that African Americans have been waiting for.
Kia Gregory can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org