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On Colin Powell and White America

I have always found it interesting to see how enamored White America is with Colin Powell. At first I thought his popularity was a legitimate result of his role in the Gulf war. But the more I think about it the more I begin to realize that many Whites praise Colin Powell not just because of his leadership in the U.S. military but also because he provides them with a rather painless vehicle to address America’s racial divide. By supporting the General and saying he would make a great President Whites may actually think that they are performing a sort of reparations and absolving America of its racist history.

When I appeared on MSNBC earlier this year a host asked me why was Alan Keyes’ campaign relatively unpopular among Blacks in comparison to a potential campaign of Colin Powell. I immediately responded that Keyes problem wasn’t so much that Blacks didn’t like him (I actually think quite a few do, once they hear him), it was that Blacks saw through to the fact that the Republican party didn’t really respect him. If Blacks were able to see that Keyes was an opinion leader inside of the Republican Party and that the party leadership actually listened to him he could eventually do pretty well among Blacks. Then I said that Keyes also does not have what Powell has and that is authority in another sphere of American life. General Powell is a war hero and he transfers that popularity from the military into the political domain. Keyes has no such authority to borrow from. I added that in this regard Powell could be like General Eisenhower was this century and General Harrison was last century. They were two war heroes who became president.

I bring that incident up because I have realized that the host and most White Americans don’t realize that General Powell is not looked at as a Black Leader within the Black Community and that this is important to consider when pondering White America’s fascination with Powell and the manner in which they would like to use him to “address” America’s racial divide. Many Whites don’t realize that there zealous support of Powell smacks of racism itself. Why does a Black Man have to be the U.S. military’s top General; a former Joint Chiefs of Staff; and the leader of a war effort before he can be so embraced by White America? Before he can be seen as a legitimate candidate for President? It proves to many that unless you are draped in the flag of the United States of America, this country will never accept you as its leader. The rush to hug Powell is rejected by many Blacks in the Black Community because of this fact alone. The “love” for Powell, at times, seems out of proportion with reality.

I always get this feeling when Gen. Powell appears on Meet The Press With Tim Russert. Russert oozes all over Powell and brings up the questions of Black fatherhood and Black on Black crime and the great success of Oprah Winfrey and Michael Jordan and what that says for Black advancement. And then eventually it comes to the question of Colin Powell running for President and what a great statement this would be for America. I think that Russert genuinely wants to believe that Powell is a Black leader within the Black Community by virtue of his acceptance from White America.

Even Minnesota Governor Jesse Ventura jumps into the act saying that only Colin Powell could convince him to break his pledge to serve a full four years as Governor of Minnesota – if the General were to ask Ventura to be his running mate.

In essence Blacks and Whites have two different views of Gen. Powell. Blacks see him as a great American military figure who is Black and Whites see him as a Black man who is a great American military figure and therefore he can become the symbol of all that Blacks say they can’t become in this country. Blacks pretty much accept the General for who he is while whites want to make him something that he is not. Whites do the same with Tiger Woods, Michael Jordan, Oprah Winfrey and Bill Cosby. They transfer the authority of these great individuals into the realm of race relations; making these figures address a problem that only spiritual growth and real education, political and economic initiatives can address. But instead of doing something about slavery and racism many Whites prefer to “hug” Colin Powell and run him for President as an “acceptable” Black. They prefer to laud Tiger Woods, (who doesn’t even think he is Black – calling himself a “Cablanasian”) express awe at Shaq’s dunks, applaud Whitney Houston’s singing and laugh at Bill Cosby jokes. They even think they are addressing racism when by praising the “oratorical” skills of J.C. Watts and Alan Keyes. As if that were a real compliment.

But they perform their best work with Colin Powell, by far.

I will never forget that on the night of the Million Man March, a few hours afterward, Minister Farrakhan appeared on Larry King Live. Larry King raised the fact that although Minister Farrakhan had invited Colin Powell to come to the Million Man March (the two had a phone conversation weeks prior to the March, where Minister Farrakhan invited the General to “speak to his troops” – that fact alone shocked the hell out of white people who didn’t think Powell, the acceptable Black, would be on speaking terms with Min. Farrakhan, the unacceptable Black) Powell earlier in the day had decided to attend a book signing in New York where he was captured on camera as saying that he would not attend the Million Man March because his attendance would have “legitimized” Minister Farrakhan. Minister Farrakhan, in response, told Larry King that he had a 40-year record of working on behalf of the Black Community and that if there were anybody that needed legitimacy among Blacks it was Colin Powell who has no such track record of work on behalf of Black causes. Larry King couldn’t respond. And neither can White America when challenged as to why they reject leaders that Blacks love in favor of those who Blacks hardly even know.

Think about this the next time you see America’s political establishment and white men in particular, sing Colin Powell’s praises. Far from genuine, embracing Powell allows some in this country to get around the responsibility they have to address the legacy of slavery and racism. Voting for Powell would allow them to do nothing to repair the damage of slavery. They would think that the symbolic value of their vote would be enough. It is in this regard that Colin Powell does us all a service by not running for President. If he did, White denial would reach its apex.

Cedric Muhammad

Thursday, June 1, 2000

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