Colin Powell for President?

Colin Powell is looking pretty good as a third party candidate right now; if he doesn't screw up significantly between now and November 1996, he probably has my vote.

But, sad to say, much of the appeal right now is based not on what General Powell believes and communicates, but on what we do not know about him. He is not entirely a blank outline for our projections; we know that he is pro-choice, for example. But, by entering the arena from outside party politics, he comes in clean, without a lot of the information we would have if we tagged him as an old-time Democrat or Republican.

Each of these tags would tell us little about what he believes but a lot about his ties and to whom he is beholden. In fact, if he adopts the Republican mantle, rather than running as an independent, I probably would not vote for him. This would not be because he became a bad person by accepting the Republican nomination; in realpolitik terms, becoming the Republican candidate is probably the most sensible thing he can do to win the election in '96. But he would have accepted the obligations involved in being a Republican, which means pandering to Jesse Helms and Pat Robertson, and I cannot follow even an otherwise honest man that far.

So, right now, General Powell's main appeal is that he is an outline, like a shape in a Rorschach test, in which we see what we want to see. This also means that he is at the top of his wave, because the unfortunate corrollary is that the more we learn, the less we may like him. A year before the 1992 election, I was pretty sure I would vote for Ross Perot, for the same reasons I like General Powell now; but between then and the election Mr. Perot proved himself an idiot, and I am afraid General Powell will do the same.

The phenomenon of Colin Powell teaches us another interesting lesson, about race, racism, and diversity in the United States. I think the majority of American racist impulses, conscious and unconscious, have shifted in the last thirty-five years from skin color to cultural identity. Beginning with Harry Belafonte and Sidney Poitier, and represented by Danny Glover, Morgan Freeman and James Earl Jones today, we have developed a cultural icon of the kind, reliable, completely mainstream black man, whom we would value as partner, mayor, police chief. General Powell fits squarely in this tradition.

The enemies of multiculturalism have set up a straw man: the liberal who believes that there is no U.S. culture, that the nation should be a necklace of entirely disparate jewels, not necessarily sharing the same language, let alone the same values. There may be people who think this way, but in reality, diversity in America appears to be patterned on what I call the "Star Fleet" model, as taught by the original Star Trek and its successors. In the privacy of their quarters or on the holodeck, Star Fleet personnel may practice Klingon or American Indian rites, but on the bridge, they all wear the same uniform and think the same way. General Powell is the perfect Star Fleet officer. We do not require that he be white, just that he confine his cultural black identity to his home and maybe to a few enjoyable references in his speech--just like Danny Glover in the Lethal Weapon movies.

The U.S. may once have permitted only "cookie cutter" assimilation; it has relaxed enough to permit "Star Fleet" assimilation. But it still requires that a minority member, particularly a black person, make substantial compromises and overlook, or swallow, hatred. Comparisons between Jewish and black experience are dangerous, because the Jews have undergone nothing in this country remotely as hateful and deadly as black people have. Jews are white people in the eyes of almost all Americans (there are a few, like the author of The Turner Diaries and his militia followers, who do not think this way.) But I will make the comparison because it is based on the only personal experience I have. Orthodox Jews tear their garment at a funeral, as I believe the Torah commands. Assimilated Jews discreetly wear a torn ribbon pinned to their clothes: a nice example of an unthreatening cultural expression which does not interfere with a mainstream U.S. identity. As someone secure in his Jewish identity, I have remained friends with at least two people who, forgetting I was Jewish, blurted out comments apropos of others, like "He Jewed him" or "Don't be a cheap Jew". These people are still friends of mine in large part because they have good hearts and I could forgive unconscious racist remnants, which reside in everyone. But it is also likely that I swallow this because I wish to remain mainstream. If there is a part of me that wants to howl to the sky, how must a black person feel in this country?

Colin Powell comes from the most successfully integrated U.S. institution, the Army. But even for him, being black in the U.S. cannot have been a picnic; I am certain he has had to overlook and swallow far more than the occasional prejudice I have seen in my life. We respect him because he has overcome the racism of others, of primitive Southerners, of whom we do not approve; but we respect him equally because, like Danny Glover, he has come into our living rooms and overcome our own racism, made us feel comfortable and not threatened by him.

The antithesis of Colin Powell is Mumia Abu-Jamal. A black man, he is on death row after a trial that represented the extreme of procedural unfairness. A convicted cop killer, it is impossible to say for sure that Mr. Abu-Jamal is guilty, because our vaunted "due process" was suspended in his case. And it was clearly suspended because, unlike Mr. Powell, he simply would not compromise with American racism. He would not moderate his appearance, his dress or his beliefs in exchange for a ticket to the mainstream. As a member of the Black Panthers, and later as a radio journalist covering the Move bombing in Philadelphia, he uncompromisingly identified racism wherever he saw it and would not shut up.

Writing of the beatings, torture and occasional murder of prisoners by guards in Pennsylvania's maximum security prisons, Mr. Abu-Jamal says in his book Live From Death Row, (Addison-Wesley 1995), p. 105:

But all [prisoners] found out how fragile the very system that stole their very freedom was when the state committed crimes against them. All found out that words like 'justice,' 'law,' 'civil rights,' and, yes, 'crime' have different and elastic meanings depending on whose rights were violated, who committed what crimes against whom, and whether one works for the system or against it.

For those people, almost a million at last count, who wear the label 'prisoner' around their necks, there is no law, there is no justice, there are no rights.

Mumia Abu-Jamal's world is real; it co-exists with Colin Powell's like two conflicting realities in a Philip K. Dick novel. The true test of a Colin Powell presidency will be whether abuses of justice like Mr. Abu-Jamal's trial will become less likely to happen. I am afraid nothing will change.