Colin Powell’s decision not to run for the Republican nomination both surprised and disappointed me. It also prompted a search for a satisfactory explanation. I began with the Washington Post’s account of Powell’s withdrawal, which helped me place Powell’s missing will to power in a context that reveals something larger about the character of key segments of today’s black bourgeoisie: a weak power-seeking impulse.
Powell embodies a set of character traits first described by Franklin Frazier 43 years ago in his Black Bourgeoisie. For Frazier, the black elite self-image revolved around a “form-deferring persona,” an intense and even neurotic attention to the appearance of things. Elite commitment in the black upper class is fulfilled through deference to family, church, social status, and consumerist patterns. It is not found in power seeking. For Frazier, this amounted to a defect in the character of the black elite, rooted in historically established racism.
Since Frazier’s critique, there has been an important shift toward power seeking among American blacks; in the past 30 years a fully fledged black political class has evolved along with a broad class of professionals and business people. Indeed, Powell and his cohort of African-Americans in the armed forces officer corps (12 per cent of the officer corps today) have contributed to a growth spurt in black power seeking.
None the less, deference to form and anxiety about public life continue to play a large part among the black bourgeoisie. So it was the chance of a quantum leap in power seeking that excited me (and many other members of the black intelligentsia) about the prospect of Powell mounting a fullscale presidential campaign with a real possibility of success.
What impact would a Powell campaign have had on black politics in this schizophrenic country, that is Negrophobic and pluralistic at the same time? Clearly it would have given a boost to biracial politics (African-American candidates appealing to white and other non-black constituencies) but without precluding the continuation of some aspects of a black ethnic bloc. The crucial feature of the Million Man march which the media did not highlight was the overwhelming prominence on the march of the new black middle class and its occupational associations: black lawyers, dentists, engineers, computer scientists, doctors, scholars, money managers, corporate managers, among many others. The new biracial politics associated with the Powell phenomenon should be viewed as complementary to…