It is a sad, ironic testimony to the current complexities of racial
politics in America that African-Americans like Colin Powell and
Condeleeza Rice can attain unprecedented career advances in tandem
with the sweeping disenfranchisement of thousands of black voters.
The Bush victory enabled these two loyal Bush family (White) house
servants to become some of the most powerful blacks in the nation
at the expense of the rights of black voters and the ratification
of the theft by the Supreme Court. Now it appears the constitutional
mandate of equal protection requires that the rights of some voters
(guess who?) be ignored in order to protect the rights of others.
The NAACP and other civil rights
groups have conducted hearings in Florida that
document outrageous instances of voter disenfranchisement. Haitians
were denied translators to help them decipher confusing ballots. Roadblocks
turned prospective voters away from access roads to the polls. Black
men were singled out for criminal background checks as they headed
to polling stations. This is all in addition to the highly publicized
chicanery and technological "glitches" that excluded some 185,000
Florida ballots, in an election in which record numbers of African-Americans
voted (and many more tried).
However, some of the most deep-seated aspects of black disenfranchisement
in the state are structural and predate the recent election debacle.
Some 400,000 black men in Florida are permanently barred from voting
because of a 19th century law disenfranchising those with a felony
conviction. This 1868 law dates back to after passage of the 15th
Amendment, which gave black men the franchise. A century later the
targets are the same, and the law is working the way it was intended.
Given the flagrant racism that permeated the election and its aftermath,
it was a strategic move when, just days after Gore's concession,
a smiling Dubya proudly announced his diverse senior nominees, nudging
first Rice (for national security adviser) and then Powell (for
secretary of state) before the cameras to sing his praises. Even
before the Supreme Court handed victory to Bush, he had indicated
that these two would be some of his first appointments. This is
no coincidence; it is another example of what the Republicans really
mean by "colorblindness." Colorblindness means that we should all
pretend that race played no role in selecting high-ranking black
people to speak for a regime whose commitments to racial justice
are seriously suspect at best.
Consistent with this strategy, on December 20 Bush met with a national
group of religious leaders, a third of them African-American, to
further deflect attention away from the persistent and persuasive
allegations of racism. Eugene Rivers, a Boston-based minister who
describes himself as an independent, emerged from that meeting to
criticize Jesse Jackson for challenging the fairness of the election.
Although trying to authenticate more conservative blacks to speak
for the race is old news, the choices of Powell and Rice do represent
a shift in the way in which racism manifests itself. These nominations
would have been inconceivable a generation ago. But the black community
has changed, and the face of racism has too. There is a greater
tolerance of phenotype diversity, as long as there is conformity
in terms of ideology and loyalty. Indeed, such symbolic integration
at the top can be valuable as long as the black symbols remain faithful
promoters of the party line.
For example, while Powell differs with Bush on affirmative action,
which the general benefited from, he is obviously still willing
to be a team player to advance his own career interests. This is
Bush's version of affirmative action--or "affirmative access," as
he calls it--brown faces at the top as long as they go along with
the silencing of black sentiments at the bottom.
The pioneer for this new style racism was Supreme Court Justice
Clarence Thomas, one of the strongest supporters of the conservative
opinion in the Florida decision. What all three of these black conservatives
show us is the limits of representation at the top. Despite their
backgrounds, they have conveniently forgotten the struggles from
which they benefited. Thomas was the product of impoverished southern
farmers. Powell came from a working-class immigrant family. And
Rice, born the year of the Brown v. Board of Education decision,
was a classmate of one of the children killed in the 16th Street
Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama by white vigilantes.
Yet all three have twisted and reconfigured those experiences to
justify current positions that would ignore the brutal forms of
discrimination and oppression facing the masses of black folk without
access to the privileges and power that they now enjoy.
In the end, neither Clarence Thomas, Colin Powell nor Condoleeza
Rice can disguise the sentiments of the overwhelming majority of
African-Americans. Ninety percent of the black electorate voted
against George Bush in this election. They did so with good reason,
given that his policy objectives portend even deeper retrenchment
in the areas of civil rights enforcement, economic justice and other
areas of concern to black communities all over the country. "If
Bush intends to hold out a conciliatory hand to the black community,"
says Fran Beal, a civil rights activist and leader of the Black
Radical Congress, "he needs to first condemn the blatant disenfranchisement
of tens of thousands of black and Haitian people and rigorously
move to enforce the Voting Rights Act of 1965."
The Republicans hoped to dampen the outrage of African-Americans
with jobs for black elites and Booker T. Washington-type access
to uncritical African-American leaders. But folk won't be fooled
Barbara Ransby is an assistant professor of African-American
Studies and History at University of Illinois, Chicago. Cheryl
I. Harris is a professor of law at the University of California,