Belafonte's disappointing new song

October 25, 2002|By Clarence Page

WASHINGTON -- There's more than one sniper in the news these days.

Calling Secretary of State Colin Powell and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice "house slaves" on President Bush's plantation has brought Harry Belafonte more publicity than he's had since his "The Banana Boat Song" roared up the charts in 1957.

This time he did not sing, "Day-O!"

But a lot of the rest of us say, "Oh, no!"

As a liberal political activist, Mr. Belafonte has taken on many worthy causes over the years, but, alas, this time he missed the banana boat.

Name-calling is the last refuge of the intellectually bankrupt. In this case, it shows a certain moral bankruptcy, too.

The 75-year-old calypso star started this little drama in an interview earlier this month on San Diego station KFMB when he likened Mr. Powell to a plantation slave who abandoned his principles to "come into the house of the master."

"When Colin Powell dares to suggest something other than what the master wants to hear," Mr. Belafonte said, "he will be turned back out to pasture."

Right. And the same probably is true for Mr. Belafonte's employees, too.

He repeated his remarks in later interviews, including an appearance on CNN's Larry King Live, where Mr. Belafonte said he thought Ms. Rice was worse than Mr. Powell, because he had not heard from Ms. Rice "even the suggestion" of the more agreeable thoughts he'd heard from Mr. Powell.

Ms. Rice later shrugged that off. "If Harry Belafonte wants to disagree with my political views, that's fine," she said to CNN's Late Edition host Wolf Blitzer Sunday. "But I don't need Harry Belafonte to tell me what it means to be black."

No, she probably learned that when she was growing up in segregated Birmingham, Ala. She was 9 years old when haters bombed a black church there in 1963, killing one of her classmates and three other little girls.

It is both disappointing and revealing to hear Mr. Belafonte lapse into such mud-slinging now, against two of the country's most respected African-Americans, for committing an unusual sin: failure to think like Harry Belafonte.

It is disappointing because Mr. Powell has been the administration's most prominent voice for the very positions that Mr. Belafonte supports, judging by his Larry King interview. Thanks in part to Mr. Powell, Mr. Bush is talking less about unilateral "regime change" and more about multilateral negotiations, the United Nations and "coalition-building."

And Mr. Belafonte's barbs are revealing because they seem to be aimed at the success Mr. Powell and Ms. Rice have experienced in helping to make the Republican Party a more hospitable-looking place for black Americans. For critics such as Mr. Belafonte, our civil rights as African-Americans apparently cannot include the right to be complicated.

Yet complicated we are. A poll by the Washington-based Black America's Political Action Committee, a conservative-leaning group, found that Mr. Bush's approval rating among African-Americans rose to 41 percent in June from only 19 percent a year earlier.

Support for Mr. Powell remained very high among blacks -- up to 80 percent from 73 a year earlier -- as it does in other major polls among just about everybody. Ms. Rice's black approvals similarly rose from 17 percent to 40 percent. She's not as well-known as Mr. Powell, yet her approvals appear to be moving in the right direction.

Could Mr. Belafonte and other black Democrats fear discontent nipping at their party's heels? Frankly, I do not expect anything resembling a mass exodus of blacks to the Republican Party anytime soon. Since Barry Goldwater's 1964 campaign, Republican outreach to blacks tends to dry up by presidential election time, as Democratic outreach picks up.

That could change if Mr. Powell ran for president. His approvals tend to run higher than his president's. But a Powell campaign does not appear to be very likely very soon, either.

Nevertheless, if Democrats, black and otherwise, want to hold onto black votes, they need to produce more than colorful epithets. The party needs to compete for black votes the same way it competes for the votes of other constituencies.

Younger black voters, in particular, are looking for opportunities these days, regardless of which party offers them. That makes Mr. Powell and Ms. Rice scary to Democratic Party regulars. They show how opportunities can be found in both major parties for those who don't need somebody else to tell them how to be black.

Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper. His column appears Fridays in The Sun. He can be reached via e-mail at

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