MAXWELL:  “Superblack,’ honorary white

9/24/1995 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


Most commentators, either because of ignorance or political correctness, are ignoring the less-benign reasons for Gen. Colin Powell’s wide appeal among white people as a serious presidential candidate.

The comments of Washington Post editorial writer E.J. Dionne Jr. are typical: “Powell’s appeal is that he is a compelling human being who has lived an admirable life, overcome obstacles and demonstrated leadership. He exudes strength _ or, as they prefer in presidential politics, “character.’ ”

Dionne is right. But millions of other blacks are compelling human beings who live admirably, overcome obstacles, demonstrate leadership and exude strength and “character.” Yet white folk do not ask them to live rent-free at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

Dionne, along with others, simply has presented the safe, generic side of Colinmania, the side that does not distinguish Powell from other Beltway operatives.

The other side, the underside, shows that much of Powell’s allure is cloaked in the complex race psychology, the collective guilt, the double standards, the desire for atonement and the hypocrisy that define black-white relations.

Powell is, in fact, one of that rare breed of black men who has become an honorary white person.

And one of the most powerful sources of Powell’s acceptance is his fair skin. This truth will disturb many readers because it taps into an ugly strand of the American character most of us would rather ignore. Cox Newspapers columnist Howard Kleinberg expressed it best: “Racist white America always has had an easier time accepting a light-skinned black than a dark-skinned one.”

Whites who believe that they like Powell the man should ponder Kleinberg’s words, and they should consider yet another source of their adulation: Powell is the offspring of poor Jamaican immigrants who came to America of their own volition, who succeeded in the mythic tradition of Ellis Island.

Would these same whites adore Powell if he were an equally successful, American-bred, dark-skinned homeboy from the Mississippi Delta, whose parents had been on welfare?

Another reason that many white people like the idea of a Powell candidacy is that it would give them a ready-made chance to prove that they are not racists. And although Powell supports affirmative action, many right-wing whites will support him. Sadly, Powell’s presence gives these hypocrites and their strident and phony arguments against affirmative action an undeserved reprieve.

In a literal sense, he gives all reluctant bigots something palpably black that they can support, a specific name on a ballot. Symbolically, however, Powell is one of those Ralph Ellison ectoplasms whom hypocritical whites refer to when they say: “Why, some of my best friends are black.”

Ultimately, Powell’s “sensible centrism” notwithstanding, he appeals to white America because he is the quintessential “superblack,” the ideal my grandparents and other older blacks wanted their grandchildren to become: “If you want to make it, you have to be better than white people. You have to be the best.”

If any black person is to enjoy broad white appeal, he cannot be, say, a Ronald Reagan, a Jimmy Carter, a George Bush, a Dan Quayle, a Phil Gramm, a Bob Dole, a Patrick Buchanan, a Bill Clinton.

In other words, a successful black cannot be average or merely competent. He must be larger than life _ a Moses come down from Mount Sinai, a Horatio Alger wowing Wall Street. He must be a Colin Luther Powell, the nation’s youngest chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the first black to hold that position.

Powell already is etched in white people’s fantasies of what a “good” black can and should be. He is, as Chicago Tribune columnist Clarence Page writes, a flesh-and-blood affirmation “that the American dream and its fabled meritocracy still work, that all of us, regardless of race, creed or even gender, can get our just rewards by playing by the rules.”

Page is right, of course. But because Powell is a superblack, his uniqueness prevents him from being a black Everyman. If he becomes president, whites can respect him while simultaneously despising the rest of the black race.

And, unfortunately, this former four-star general flies too high above radar to be an accessible role model for most troubled young black males who can benefit from his example.

Nonetheless, Colinmania is authentic. Few men of any stripe in U.S. military history have been promoted as quickly as Powell. And few things enamored him to whites more than the moments when he held the world rapt and pointed his baton during the televised Persian Gulf war briefings and explained, in vintage GI minimalism, the nation’s mission: “Our strategy in going after this (Saddam Hussein’s) army is very simple. First we are going to cut it off, and then we are going to kill it.”

This was the stuff of legend. The setting was a perfect stage for heromaking. It was complete with the high adventure of lightning-fast aircraft, mega-guns, massive tanks and Americans stalking the evil enemy _ all commanded by a superblack.

If he does not open too many veins during the next several months, Powell will remain an enigmatic figure, as most superheroes are. As the nation’s first superblack, his personal capital will rise and his mystique will grow, teasing the imaginations and consciences of white Americans seeking atonement.

Bill Maxwell is an editorial writer and columnist for the Times.