Colin Powell’s affirmative action stance also defined him as a black Republican

Colin Powell’s career in the military and public service involved overcoming obstacles as a black man in America.

And in 2003, he jumped into the fray on affirmative action. As the country’s first black secretary of state, he spoke of Grutter vs. Bollinger, a landmark Supreme Court case involving the University of Michigan law school and racial preference in admissions. In doing so, he broke ranks with the White House and then President George W. Bush.

“I strongly believe in affirmative action,” Powell said at the time on CBS News. program “Facing the nation”. He then echoed those feelings on CNN.

“I wish it was possible for everything to be race neutral in this country, but I’m afraid we are not yet at this point where things are race neutral,” he said. “I think race should be one factor, among many other facts, in determining the makeup of a university’s student body.”

It was not the first time that Powell, who died Monday at the age of 84, spoke of affirmative action, notes Andra Gillespie, professor of political science at Emory University in Atlanta. He was consistent in his beliefs, although some conservatives and other detractors have used the term as an affront to him, claiming that the four-star general had only progressed in his career through affirmative action.

At the Republican National Convention in 2000, “Powell gave a speech urging the party to moderate its positions on race, and he spoke of affirmative action, ”Gillespie said.

“We need to understand the cynicism that exists in the black community, the kind of cynicism that is created when, for example, some members of our party miss no opportunity to strongly and loudly condemn the affirmative action that has helped a few thousand black children get an education, ”Powell told the audience.

“But hardly a whimper is heard about affirmative action for lobbyists who charge our federal tax codes with preferences for special interests,” he added.

“He took a courageous stand,” Gillespie said. “He did it at a time when the GOP was turning right on race issues.”

Gillespie described Powell’s passing as “the end of an era” for a certain cohort of black Republicans in the manner of the late Massachusetts Senator Edward Brooke III, elected in 1966; and Arthur Fletcher, a black Republican sometimes referred to as “the father of affirmative action” who served as Assistant Secretary of Labor in the administration of President Richard Nixon.

“They were ideological moderates, pro-civil rights,” Gillespie said. “Their role was to lobby for the party’s civil rights board, and this was welcomed and encouraged,” she said, by moderates such as the so-called Rockefeller Republicans.

To understand Powell’s ideology, one must consider his uniquely American history, says Chad Williams, president of African and African American studies at Brandeis University in Massachusetts.

Powell was born to Jamaican immigrants in Harlem in the 1930s.

He attended public schools and graduated from City College of New York in 1958. While in school, he joined the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps and received a second lieutenant commission upon graduation. After basic training at Fort Benning, Georgia, he began a military career that took him to operational and command missions in the United States, Germany, Vietnam and South Korea.

He had been a member of the White House in 1972, worked as an executive assistant in the energy and defense departments during the administration of President Jimmy Carter, was Senior Military Assistant to the Secretary of Defense to President Ronald Reagan , Caspar Weinberger, and was Reagan’s National Security Advisor from 1987 to 1989.

These leadership roles culminated in his appointment as the first black officer to hold the country’s highest military post. President George HW Bush announced that he had appointed General Powell chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in 1989. Later in Bush’s presidency, Powell became the architect of Operation Desert Shield, which moved US and international forces to the Middle East to launch Operation Desert Storm. The military operation canceled the invasion of Kuwait and defeated the Iraqi army.

“When I learned of Powell’s passing it immediately reminded me of what DuBois called the ‘double conscience’ of the African American experience,” said Williams, who spoke to NBC News and also explored these themes in a trial for The conversation.

As DuBois put it in an 1897 article and later in his classic 1903 book ‘The Souls of Black Folk’, this’ special feeling ‘is unique to African Americans:’ You feel your duality – an American, a black ; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled efforts; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose only stubborn strength keeps it from being torn apart. “

This concept, according to Williams, aptly describes Powell “as a soldier, a professional soldier and a politician”.

“At first glance, Colin Powell’s life would seem to disprove DuBois’s formulation. He was someone many people could cite as an example of how it is possible to be both black and full-fledged American, which DuBois saw as a lingering tension, ”he writes. “There is a story that Powell used the military to transcend race and become one of the most powerful men in the land. In this sense, it was the ultimate American success story.

Yet, said Williams, there is a danger in this narrative. “Colin Powell’s story was exceptional, but he was not the avatar of a post-racial color blind America.”

Indeed, many academics and experts cite how Powell – at one point billed as a potential Republican presidential candidate – crossed party lines to endorse Barack Obama’s presidential campaign in 2008. And later, his public repudiation of him. the presidency of Donald Trump, which alienated him from the GOP. he loved.

“He always categorized himself as being ready to make up his own mind and he often reflected on ways, especially when it came to social issues, that his positions did not align with the Republican Party,” said historian Betsy Loren Plumb.

“His reasoned approach to politics – his willingness to face and accept harsh realities, as he states in his biography, My American background – led to this ideological independence. He noted that he himself benefited from positive action. There was a historic imbalance in access and opportunity and it was right, in Powell’s mind, that these imbalances be corrected. His background as a black man has endowed him with the ability to assess the situation expertly and honestly. He lived through these harsh realities.

Kay Coles James has served and advised four presidential administrations. She is now the first black woman to be president of the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank.

“We go back a long way,” she said of her professional interaction with Powell and forming a friendship.

“What a profound impact he has had on this country and so many lives as a mentor and role model for young people,” she said. “One of his most enduring legacies is that he is a credible black Republican conservative. We don’t have many, ”she said. “One who has earned the respect of all.”

In 2003, Powell presented to the United Nations Security Council what he said at the time as proof that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction. This turned out to be wrong, which Powell admitted to tarnishing his legacy. The US-led invasion of Iraq led to decades of chaos and violence there, and wider destabilization in the Middle East.

As prominent black Republicans, James and Powell have had many conversations. But when asked if they had ever discussed affirmative action, she replied, “we haven’t.”

People need to “tread lightly” and define the terms around affirmative action, she noted. “Those same words mean so many things to so many different people. “

James prefers to define the problem not as affirmative action, but as “affirmative access,” which means: do people of color have equal access to competition?

She posits that Powell’s legacy is the model for this. “No one should dare to question his accomplishments. Yes, he was the first African American to break down many barriers. But you can’t say he checked an “African American” box. It was because of his knowledge, skills and abilities.

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