He is not a man known for mincing his words or carefully crafting statements to ease the dialogue. Rather, he is recognized for forcefully articulating his position while maintaining a measure of grace.
Attired in a finely tailored jacket and gray pants, Randall Robinson could be mistaken for a corporate officer, but in reality he is an infantry soldier fighting for the moral high ground in the chaotic world of global politics. As a guest speaker at a luncheon hosted by the Black Women's Forum recently at a Los Angeles hotel, when Robinson stepped from the podium, he was immediately thronged by smartly dressed women grasping for special recognition.
He was here to attend several book-signing events to celebrate the publication of his memoir, "Defending the Spirit: A Black Life in America" (Dutton), in which he details his efforts to transform what he regards as the more odious aspects of American foreign policy.
Robinson's autobiography makes abundantly clear that race has been a defining factor in his life. "Though it is no longer fashionable to say it, I am obsessively black," he writes. "Race is an overarching aspect of my identity. America has made me this way. Or, more accurately, white Americans have made me this way." Robinson acknowledges the progress that has occurred between the races, but he notes in his hotel room, "Still, across the board, blacks are underrepresented in all the categories in the workplace, and our income gap has not significantly closed."
His title makes reference to his struggle to make America accountable for its foreign policy sins in Africa and the Caribbean. "Our policies have done incalculable damage, and have been hurtful and mean-spirited over the last 40 years," he explains.
Yet, some important aspects of Robinson's life are noticeably absent, such as the demise of his first marriage. "In doing a memoir, I realized I could tell what I want to tell and not tell what I don't want to tell," he says. He writes about how bravely his brother, Max Robinson, the ABC news anchor, faced his battle with AIDS, which he eventually lost.
As the president and founder of TransAfrica, the Washington, D.C.-based lobbying group, Robinson has garnered a formidable reputation as a global policy warrior. Considering that Trans-Africa operates on a modest budget of $600,000, with only five employees and a mailing list of 10,000, its reach and influence are impressive.
The organization burst onto the scene when it challenged the Reagan administration's "constructive engagement" policy toward the white-controlled South African government. Its efforts sparked a divestment campaign and the overturning of a presidential veto and, some argue, contributed to the fall of apartheid.
However, it's been more than a decade since the fire-breathing days of the "Free South Africa" movement, and, in some foreign policy corners, Robinson's strategies are still viewed as the actions of an "angry man." In 1994, to dramatize the plight of the Haitian boat people and the Clinton administration's reparation policy, Robinson put his own health at risk and launched a 27-day fast. Eventually, the Haitians were granted political refugee status.
Some analysts today question the organization's ability to influence future American policy in the increasingly complex world of global politics. A good example is the crisis in Nigeria, which, USC political science professor C.R.D. Halisi notes, presents a heady challenge. "With Nigeria, he (Robinson) ran into the Abache regime, which is black-on-black oppression, and the government is very savvy and has the money to undercut his campaign."
Robinson readily acknowledges that fighting the powerful military regime has been daunting. "Nigeria has oil, and because it is a strategically important material to Western economies, it has been difficult to turn around this situation." Robinson is annoyed with certain members of the African American community who have been reluctant to criticize the black government. "Obviously the Congressional Black Caucus and a range of people have been harsh," but he specifically takes to task the National Newspaper Publishers, Louis Farrakhan, Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun (D-Ill.) and the Rev. Henry Lyons of the National Baptist Convention for lending legitimacy to the regime. He also places blame on the media's disinterest in African nations without significant white populations.
Robinson was born 56 years ago in a Richmond, Va., home filled with books. His schoolteacher mother became a full-time housewife, and the support of four children and a wife fell upon Randall's father. Robinson recalls his father, Maxie, working three jobs (as a teacher, coach and recreation director) from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., but never earning more than $11,000 a year.
Despite this, Randall's father taught his children the importance of the larger world. "He read ceaselessly and watched all the Sunday talking-head policy programs and had an indelible impact on us," Robinson says.
Except for a few ugly encounters when he escorted his mother downtown to a department store, Robinson remembers the two races lived in separate worlds. "I grew up in the South never meeting a white person. I saw them, but I never met them until I was grown." He would not sit next to a white student until 1967, when at the age of 26 he enrolled in Harvard Law School.
At Harvard, he became involved in lobbying the university to divest its South African stocks. That brought him in contact with Charles Diggs, who was then serving as chairman of the House subcommittee on Africa.
Robinson joined Diggs' staff, but his affiliations with Diggs ended in 1976, when the congressman was forced to resign (he was later imprisoned for payroll violations). "Diggs made a major mistake and paid dearly for it. But at the same time, he made enormous contributions to the civil rights movement and sparked in Congress the original interest in Africa," Robinson remembers. Before Diggs' political demise, Robinson was assigned by the Congressional Black Caucus to develop a position paper challenging Secretary of State Henry Kissinger's southern Africa policy. The establishment of TransAfrica grew out of that effort.
A quarter of a century later, Robinson still has disdain for a number of policy titans he opposed, particularly Kissinger. "I can't think of any living Western policy leader who is responsible for more deaths in the world than Henry Kissinger, and that includes in Cambodia and land mines in Angola and Mozambique."
In Washington, Robinson is both an insider and an outsider, especially in a political climate that has turned away from the liberal agenda. In his book, Robinson takes to task selected members of the black leadership who, he believes, have forgotten their mission. In an already famous phrase, he warns them about catching "Vernon Jordan disease," which he defines as a "degenerative condition among blacks in Privilege that results in a loss of any memory of what they came to Privilege to accomplish."
At the top of TransAfrica's current agenda is an effort to halt what Robinson sees as America's post-Cold War strategy to recolonize Africa. "The new IMF [International Monetary Fund] mantra is austerity, but the conditions they impose will result in African nations ending up owning very little of their own industries," he concludes.
There are signs that Robinson may be mellowing. Clearly he has grown weary of the ceaseless need for fund-raising. He is confused by Nelson Mandela's decision to decline an invitation to be the honored guest at one of the organization's annual fund-raisers. Some speculated that the South African leader rejected the invitation because of his concern for retaining good relations with Western industrial leaders. Robinson contends there is no bad blood between them, but admits, "I was hurt."
Robinson lives in the Washington area with his wife, Hazel, and their 8-year-old daughter, Khalea. From a previous marriage, he has two adult children.
In the end, Robinson feels he has changed little since the inception of TransAfrica. "I'm probably as idealistic as when I started at 35," he says. "But as I wrote in my book, I realize, 'There is a time to come and there is a time to go.' "