March 11, 2004
c.2004 Newhouse News Service
(UNDATED) Black America’s long honeymoon with Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice may be nearing an end.
For the three years of the Bush presidency, Powell and, to a lesser degree, Rice have been enshrined in the pantheon of African-American heroes, modern-day Black History Month stalwarts right beside the likes of Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth.
Powell is the first black secretary of state in American history, arguably the most powerful black person in the world. And Rice is the second black (after Powell) and first woman to serve as national security adviser to the president.
With their appointments, President Bush guaranteed his place on any time line of African-American history, and Powell and Rice became a source of pride even for many blacks with no love for the Republican administration they serve.
But, over the course of the last seven weeks, the relationship between Powell and Rice and black America has begun to look increasingly star-crossed.
First, in late January there was the revelation by David Kay, the Bush administration’s chief weapons inspector, that Iraq apparently had not, after all, possessed weapons of mass destruction. Those alleged weapons had been the primary justification for the invasion of Iraq, a war that polls indicated most African-Americans opposed in any case.
And then at the end of February came the crisis in Haiti and what leading members of the Congressional Black Caucus have come to view as a U.S.-backed coup to remove the elected president of that black nation.
Suddenly, it seemed, there were signs everywhere that the bloom was most definitely off the rose.
There is no recent polling with a large enough sample of blacks to gauge the current standing of Powell and Rice among African-Americans. But experts in black opinion like David Bositis, who directs the surveys conducted by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies in Washington, and University of Maryland political scientist Ronald Walters, a frequent guest on black talk radio, have no doubt that the image of Powell and Rice among blacks has suffered in recent days.
“Are these two conspirators (Powell and Rice) fit to speak at any black gathering, ever again in life?” The Black Commentator, a popular African-American Web site, asked in a recent posting. “Who in the black community will debase their organizations with the presence of such `role models’?”
“It’s clearly a turning point for Powell,” said Angela Dillard, a professor of intellectual history and politics at New York University, who was startled the other day when she called her aunt back in Detroit _ “who has an uncanny ability to track these things” _ and got an earful about what she felt was Powell’s deceit on Iraq, and now Haiti.
Dillard recalled hearing Powell speak at the Detroit NAACP’s huge annual dinner back in the 1990s. “His pitch was perfect. He radiated a kind of integrity that was hard to resist. Even if you didn’t agree with him, you had to respect him,” she recalled. “That’s what he’s losing, that’s been tarnished.”
Randall Robinson, who has been at the forefront of the anti-apartheid and reparations movements in America and is very close to Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the deposed president of Haiti, dispenses with the nuance. “In a sentence,” said Robinson, who now lives on the Caribbean island of St. Kitts, “I think Colin Powell is arguably the worst thing that has happened to the contemporary black world. He’s the Trojan horse.”
Like others, Robinson said for Rice to fall from grace would be less notable because she was a less formidable presence in the black community to begin with.
Unlike Powell, her swift and recent rise to national prominence came after a relatively cloistered career in the halls of academe, in corporate boardrooms and as confidante and adviser to both presidents Bush. If she was the first black woman to serve as national security adviser, she was also likely the first black woman to have an oil tanker named for her.Ø
“Rice is perceived as very cold and distant and only black by accident,” said Bill Fletcher, in a harsh but not atypical appraisal of Rice from the black left. Fletcher succeeded Robinson as president of TransAfrica Forum, the Washington-based organization that analyzes the influence of U.S. foreign policy on the black world.
Amid their furious criticism of U.S. policy in Haiti, prominent members of the Congressional Black Caucus like Maxine Waters of Los Angeles, John Conyers of Detroit and Charles Rangel of Harlem pointedly chose to accept Aristide’s claims that he was forced out of office by the United States, and not Powell’s counterclaim that the charge was “absurd.”
Before Iraq, before Haiti, both Powell and Rice were viewed so positively that their numbers had almost no place to go but down. The marvel may be that they remained as popular as they did with black Americans for as long as they did considering their central roles in an administration that is the least popular among blacks of any in modern times.
In the last national political survey by the Joint Center in the fall of 2002, Powell was viewed positively by 73 percent of blacks and an astounding 89 percent of the general population. There was a time in the 1990s when it appeared that Powell could have been on the national ticket of either party, if he only wanted to be.
Meanwhile, in the 2002 survey, Rice was viewed positively by blacks by a margin of 41 to 12 percent, and by a slightly larger margin among the general population. But two-fifths of all respondents did not know her well enough to rate her, reflecting the fact that, despite its importance, the position of national security adviser remains an obscure one to many Americans, especially in this administration.
“Now Powell was different,” said Fletcher. “He started off with millions of people having invested great hopes in him.”
Throughout his service in the Reagan and both Bush administrations, Powell has managed to project an image of dignity and cool, of being a proud and accomplished black man devoted to the betterment of black America, a kind of national mentor and role model.
At the 2000 Republican convention, he lectured the party on the rightness of affirmative action. For many blacks, and whites as well, Powell as secretary of state was and still is the voice of reason in an administration in which, in this view, he is usually overruled but soldiers loyally on out of duty and honor.
“I have been a fan (of Powell’s) for years, and still am,” said Roger Wilkins, a longtime civil rights hand who finds most of the Bush administration’s policies, foreign and domestic, “deeply offensive.”
“All the black people I know, and most of them share to a substantial degree my political views, admire him and we think that his presence at that level of American life is good for the country, good for black people and good for white people,” said Wilkins, a professor of history and American culture at George Mason University and publisher of the NAACP magazine The Crisis.
“Given who these people are,” said Wilkins of the Bush administration, “anybody else they might have chosen would have probably scared me to death.”
There are, of course, African-Americans who vote Republican and admire Powell and Rice and U.S. policy in Iraq and Haiti without hesitation. Mychal Massie, who counts himself among them and writes a column for the conservative WorldNetDaily.com, acknowledges that “the vitriol and animus” directed at Powell and Rice by activists on the left who do not consider them “black enough” takes its toll. “I personally find that an affront and offensive,” said Massey, who lives outside Philadelphia.
“But it does have a negative effect on the young people who are buying into this and instead of saying, `Here is someone I can emulate,’ are saying, `Here’s a sellout.”’
Last October, Harry Belafonte in a radio interview compared Powell’s role in the Bush administration to that of a house slave. He was roundly criticized by mainstream black opinion-makers like columnists Clarence Page of the Chicago Tribune and Colbert King of The Washington Post and by Henry Louis Gates, head of Afro-American studies at Harvard University, who opens his new book of interviews with prominent black Americans _ “America Behind the Color Line” _ with Powell’s chapter.
But that was before David Kay revealed that Iraq apparently did not possess the weapons of mass destruction that Powell told the United Nations in February 2003 they most certainly did. It was a bravura performance, in which Powell put his surpassing credibility on the line, essentially closing the deal for war with Iraq, if not with the world community, then with the American public.
Now, in retrospect, said Ronald Taylor, who owns Stellar Coffee on Martin Luther King Boulevard in Portland, Ore., “people are very frustrated,” and Belafonte’s words ring true. “He said what most people in the African-American community feel.”
But to Glen Ford, who with fellow journalist Peter Gamble is The Black Commentator, Powell is neither a pawn nor an innocent, but rather “one of the most intelligent careerists alive.”
“He has created the illusion that he is always at a distance from the administration,” said Ford, who is based in Jersey City, N.J. “Now in the black community that has allowed wishful thinkers to imagine that Colin Powell would do the right thing were it not for these white people who are undermining him at every turn.”
But, said Ford, that illusion was frayed by Iraq, and, for both Powell and Rice, completely shattered by their obvious involvement in what has transpired in Haiti. They have “crossed a line,” he said, and their standing in black America will never be the same.
But, he acknowledged, that doesn’t mean they may not linger in Black History Month displays for some time to come.
“It takes a lot to pull an icon down in the black community because we have so few,” said Ford. “If Michael Jackson can draw on reservoirs of black empathy with his beleaguered position, then anybody can.”