Jonathan Tilove

My Life As A Race Writer

The strange paradox of Colin Powell

October 23, 1994 

By Jonathan Tilove 

Richard Wheeler is 66, white, a retired power plant manager, a Reagan Democrat. He is wearing an NRA cap and he lives in Brunswick, a small town in Frederick County, Md., just down the Potomac River from where John Brown failed to spark a slave revolt, and not much farther from Antietam, scene of the bloodiest day’s battle in the war that ultimately freed the slaves.

Now, a century and a third later, Wheeler thinks America is ready to elect a black man president, if that black man is Gen. Colin Powell.

“With a man of his stature, you don’t see color,” says Wheeler.

Lord Nickens, 82, black, a retired biochemical research technician who led the Frederick County NAACP for more than 20 years, shares Wheeler’s confidence in Powell, but not his faith in white America.

“”We’re still living under the stigma of slavery,” says Nickens. “”Colin Powell would be a good candidate and make a good president, but I don’t know whether America right now is completely ready to forget that man is black and look at him as a human being rather than as another Negro. I hate to say this, but white America is not ready to honor a black man as president.”

This then is the paradox of Colin Powell. Even as his appeal transcends race – and he is being actively promoted by admirers as a dream candidate for president – he cannot avoid the issue of race or escape its tangled web of alternate experiences, perceptions and suspicions, its thick weave of doubt, hope and fear.

Powell’s unique attraction is that he appeals to very different people for very different reasons. It may also prove his undoing, as those who share an enthusiasm for him learn over time that they do so for different and even inimical reasons. 

Simply put, Powell transcends race because he simultaneously inspires black pride and relieves white guilt. He is, depending on the eyes of the beholder, the black man who has triumphed over racism, or the black man who has stopped complaining about racism long enough to get the job done.

The danger is that the more each race knows about why the other likes Powell, the less either may like him.

And know they will. Precisely because of the unprecedented breadth of his appeal, a Powell presidential candidacy would be pushed, prodded and picked apart for racial meaning like none before it. No matter how race-neutral its origin or intent, a Powell campaign would become a high-wire act across the gaping racial divide that has made it impossible for a black leader to long maintain equally strong black and white support without eventually alienating one or the other.

There are coalitions too broad to hold. With everyone from Pat Robertson to Jesse Jackson pumping Powell’s potential, his is shaky even before his baptism in deep-water politics, before his immersion in issues from abortion to gun control, before he feels the first tug of the treacherous undertow of race.

Until now, Powell’s sensational military career has been the ideal armor against the snares of race. It enabled him, as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to exercise more official authority than any black person in American history without ever having to appear, like virtually every other black leader in this nation’s history, as first and foremost a champion of the black community.

At the same time, the military is a well-trod and time-honored career path for black Americans. It has proven itself by far the most integrated and fairest sphere of American life. Here Powell could do honor to the black community simply through his success. No further racial advocacy was necessary or appropriate. His military career also meant that he could gain favor with white conservatives, that he could be linked to and lionized by the likes of Ronald Reagan and George Bush, without ever having to embrace their social policy conservatism, that to many in the black community has, since the 1960s, carried with it a taint of racism.

If Powell is no Jesse Jackson, he is also no Clarence Thomas.

Rather, he occupies a place in the American psyche near Bill Cosby and O.J. Simpson, before he became the best-liked American ever accused of murder. Indeed, Powell has made history by becoming the first black man beyond the realms of entertainment and sports to achieve in his lifetime that sort of superstar crossover appeal.

Polls find him the most respected figure in American politics. A June Newsweek poll ranked him second to Billy Graham as a national role model. He led the Ebony readers’ poll this fall as the man best suited to lead black America into the 21st century.

Powell has not revealed his party affiliation or indicated his interest in the presidency and is not now granting interviews. Yet one survey after another has found him the most popular candidate the Republican Party could field in 1996, creaming Clinton by carrying the white vote and winning what for a Republican would be an extraordinary 30 percent of the black vote.

“”We’ve never been here before,” says Arthur Fletcher, a black Republican and member of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights who is part of an effort to draft Powell in 1996.

But is this Powell euphoria for real or ephemeral?

Here Powell and his potential candidacy hold a mirror to one’s own assessment of race relations in America.

“”This is real feel-good stuff,” says Queens College political scientist Andrew Hacker, the white author of Two Nations: Black and White, Separate, Hostile and Unequal.

“”It is very necessary for white Americans, whether liberal or conservative, to have several black people they can point to with effusive approval because what it says is, “Hey, I’m not a bigot, I don’t make generalizations about black males, this is someone I would just love to have as my neighbor in suburbia,’ ” says Hacker. But ultimately, he says, Powell is no more than a “supertoken.”

Powell’s appeal to whites is no doubt enhanced by his status as a light-skinned Episcopalian who does not speak in the cadences of the black church and whose military experience is the absolute antithesis of the demonized stereotype of the lawless and undisciplined black man who white America has grown to fear.

“”He’s not black, is he,” June Main, a middle-aged white woman, says cheerfully as she races between volunteer duties at the hospital thrift store and the old ladies’ home in Frederick, Md. Main knows what she is saying. She means that while Powell is black, he does not carry the negative baggage of a black man in America.

But, she notes, even that would not be enough for some of her friends. “”I have friends who would not vote for him because he is black,” she says. “”They wouldn’t admit it, but they wouldn’t.”

And Sut Jhally, who teaches communications at the University of Massachusetts, thinks perfidy lurks in the hearts of some whites who embrace Powell too readily.

“Colin Powell functions very much like Bill Cosby. America has a long history of racial guilt but they can look at Colin Powell, see a black person and feel some connection without feeling guilty,” says Jhally, the coauthor of the book, Enlightened Racism: The Cosby Show, Audiences, and the Myth of the American Dream.

Jhally, who is originally from India, argues that ultimately Powell, like Cosby, liberates whites from worrying about racism. Smart, capable blacks like Cosby and Powell are making it, they figure, and if other blacks aren’t, it’s their own fault. And, Jhally warns Powell, “”the closer Cosby got to black problems in real life, the less white viewers were inclined to invite him back into their homes.”

To others, though, there is in America a genuine yearning for healing and a shared sense that Colin Powell‘s story is the story of America as it ought to be.

“”What would be really incandescent about this would be if people saw that here was a chance, a possibility to make common ground again, that you could have somebody who could affirm what blacks and whites believe in and value in common,” says Stanford University political scientist Paul Sniderman, co-author of The Scar of Race, which offered an in-depth survey and analysis of American racial attitudes.

Sniderman, who is white, thinks that many Americans who would not normally vote Republican would find the prospect of electing the first black president irresistible.

Charles J. Kelly Jr., a white Republican and old Eisenhower hand who is now an investment banker in Washington, D.C., hopes so.

“”We need to find the things that unite us rather than things that divide us,” says Kelly, who has organized a draft Powell effort. “Powell is a providentially provided figure for that purpose.”

But, in a matter of no small irony, there is actually a second and separate draft Powell effort that was organized recently by Fletcher and other black Republicans.

“”It will be a test of conscience, a test for the Republican Party, a test for the white community,” says Burrell L. Haselrig Jr., a Largo, Md., construction contractor who is chairing that draft committee. “”Will they vote for a black man to be president?”

Yet even among the tiny band of black Republicans, there are mixed feelings about Powell.

“”I don’t know anything about him except that he was in the military and he was well-liked,” says Florence Rice, a 75-year-old consumer activist from Harlem, who on a re-cent noonday joined Haselrig in picketing the Republican National Committee in Washington, D.C., for its lack of black representation. But, Rice reasons, “”when all white people like a black man, I got to question it.”

“”Whoever feeds you,” she explains, “”that’s who you take care of.”

Not far away, at Howard University, there are similarly mixed feelings about Powell.

Last spring, Powell gave a masterful commencement address at the campus, which had been wracked by controversy surrounding appearances by the Nation of Islam’s Khal lid Muhammad. Powell’s speech neither put down nor pandered to the students, and was well-received by blacks and whites alike.

“”He was flowing, he was cool,” says Martin Hamlette, a 20-year-old economics major from Plainfield, N.J., who is impressed by Powell‘s success but thinks that in the black community, “”the thing that he was successful at may be held against him.”

It’s one thing to be in the military, agrees Tyrone Rodgers, a 22-year-old psychology major from St. Louis, who served under Powell in Desert Storm. But to rise that high, Rodgers says, “”he had to have sacrificed some of his self.”

But this reserve toward Powell from some blacks could prove crucial to his hopes. Howard political scientist Ronald Walters says that it would not be good for Powell to attract much more than 40 percent of the black vote. Any more might scare off whites.

Walters’ experience advising Jesse Jackson in his campaigns taught him well, he says: “”You can’t be perceived as the black candidate and be effective.”

Written by jonathantilove

July 31, 2022 at 7:56 pm

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