Jewish World Review Nov. 5, 2002 / 30 Mar-Cheshvan 5763
We reserve right to be complicated
My recent chiding of singer Harry Belafonte for calling Secretary of State Colin Powell and National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice "house slaves" produced a robust response from readers.
Some praised my even-handedness. "You're a liberal," one reader said, "but still fair." Some others denounced me as "another house slave, too," who has lost touch with "the community."
I deny the allegation and the alligators. I further urge them to reexamine their concept of "community." A "community" is a group of people who share values and interests but they do not have to agree on everything. We can have unity, as I have heard the Rev. Jesse Jackson rhyme, without demanding uniformity.
As Powell and Rice said in response to Belafonte's jabs, it is fine to disagree politically, but the slavery comparison is a cheap shot. It also demeans Belafonte, after a lifetime of stellar achievements in show business and human rights activism. Name-calling, after all, is the last refuge of a mouth that is running on empty.
Fortunately, most black Americans show a greater respect for diversity than my critics do, judging by the latest national opinion poll from the Washington-based Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a leading research center on black issues.
Among other results, it finds Secretary of State Powell to be more popular among African Americans than Jesse Jackson, and almost as popular as Bill Clinton.
Powell drew a 73 percent approval rating among blacks, higher than anyone else on the survey except former President Clinton, who received a commanding 81 percent. Indeed, Clinton remains as popular among blacks as he is despised among conservative whites.
By contrast, Jackson's approval rating fell to 60 percent from 83 percent in a similar survey taken two years ago, before the January, 2001, revelations of his out-of-wedlock child knocked Jackson's public image back on its heels.
As for the general population, Belafonte might find some solace in this: Powell still tends to receive higher approvals from whites, where his figures are astronomical (89 percent approve, while only 5 percent disapprove), than from blacks, where his popularity is merely amazing (73 percent approve, 14 percent disapprove).
(The poll, which can be found at www.jointcenter.org, surveyed 850 African Americans plus another 850 Americans whose racial makeup proportionally reflected the general population from mid-September to mid-October.)
If Belafonte's term is appropriate, this is the first case of a "house slave" who has higher approval ratings than the "master." Bush scored an anemic 50.8 percent among blacks polled and his 72.8 percent approval in the general population still fell about 16 points lower than Powell's.
Much was made in some news accounts of how the survey showed a drop-off to 63 percent among survey respondents who identified themselves as Democrats. That's down from 74 percent two years ago. Ten percent identified themselves as Republicans, which is up from 4 percent two years ago. That's not much. Besides, political independence was strongest among blacks who were under age 36 and are less than half as likely to vote as their elders over age 50.
And it does not help the cause of political diversity that the Republican Party seems to have cut back in its publicly stated commitment to minority outreach. It has few blacks on the horizon to replace outgoing Oklahoma Rep. J.C. Watts as the only black Republican in Congress. Only nine black Republicans ran for Congress this year, with six receiving the party's nomination. That's down from a high of 24 who ran in 2000 and the lowest since 1990, according to the Washington Times.
Powell is popular among blacks precisely because his views tend to be more liberal than his party's platform, survey director David Bositis observed. It seems to me that the Bush administration benefits from having Powell's views in the White House mix. So, does the rest of the country-and the world.
As they toil at the never-ending task of helping the rest of the world to get along, Powell and Rice seem to be helping many Americans to build badly needed bridges between each other. I hope they help us black folks to get along with each other, too.
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