Colin Powell, "linked fate" and his quixotic effort to get GOP to face racial intolerance
Colin Powell, the nation's first black Secretary of State, a former head of the joint chiefs of staff and a longtime Republican who was once considered a strong candidate to become the first black president, just threw down the gauntlet in his own party.
Since announcing his support for Democrat Barack Obama in 2008, Powell has long attempted to challenge the more extreme elements of his own party, particularly when it comes to issues of race.
He's on record supporting the idea of Affirmative Action and has spoken plainly about the way in which some Republicans barely disguise racial code words used to belittle the nation's first black president.
But on Sunday's edition of NBC's Meet the Press, he spoke more plainly than ever, accusing his own party of harboring a "dark vein of intolerance" in which some GOP-ers "still sort of look down on minorities."
In talking about my new book Race-Baiter, I have used Powell as an example of a dynamic at least one academic has called "linked fate." It's the idea that members of groups, particularly ethnic and cultural minorities, sometimes take positions and actions focused on the welfare of their entire group, not themselves individually. They see their fate and the fate of their family linked to the fate of their group in society.
In fact, this notion explains a lot of public clashes, from women who would never personally consider an abortion defending other women's right to choose that option, to Latinos who are American citizens paying close attention to each party's actions on immigration.
Powell could probably have become a powerhouse political force in the GOP by embracing its more extreme elements and joining in the demonization of President Obama. But he has consistently struck a more moderate tone, refusing to veer rightward with the Republican party, most recently defending the president's choice of Chuck Hagel as his nominee for Defense Secretary.
But in criticizing the way some Republicans talk about race, he criticized Sarah Palin for referencing the phrase "shuckin' and jivin'" in reference to Obama, and GOP force John Sununu for calling Obama "lazy" in his first debate performance last year (Powell didn't, however, mention Sununu's assertion that the former Bush administration official endorsed Obama for president in 2012 because both men are black. Sununu later apologized for the statement.)
The reaction of some conservatives was predictable. Bernard Goldberg, a former CBS News correspondent who has made a career of alleging liberal bias in mainstream media, accused Powell of "playing the race card." The Wall Street Journal noticed that Powell overlooked Hagel's comments about the impact of the "Jewish lobby" in Congress and wondered how he would feel if the candidate has referred to the "African American" lobby (seems to me, when people talk about civil rights groups like the NAACP, that's exactly what they mean, but I digress).
But what interests me about Powell's statement is that it also crosses a line I also describe in Race-Baiter, in which a black Republican is talking about race in a different way than many of his fellow party members.
By contrast, Herman Cain, who had a burst of popularity during the GOP primary, has often downplayed the notion that racism and prejudice holds most black people back these days, shrugging off allegations of racism against extreme elements of the Republican party. At least some of Cain's popularity seems to stem from that notion -- he is a black man who sees race the way many white Republicans see race, which is different than the way many people of color do.
Opinion polls show it: Racial minorities believe institutional racism is still a problem; they don't believe the average black or brown person has the same shot at jobs and resources in society as the average white person. But the GOP seems to stand for the notion that such racism is a problem, at most, in isolated cases.
Chris Cillizza of the Washington Post touched on this in an interesting column titled "Colin Powell's (overlooked) call to action on race," citing an August 2012 poll which showed that when asked why black people vote overwhlemingly for Democrats, Republicans' leading answer was that black people wanted welfare or handouts from the government.
Independents said black people were supportive of entitlement programs, health care and welfare. Democrats answered it was the issue of poverty and helping the little guy.
But Republicans trying to understand why black people don't vote for their party should see these results in a different way. First, Cillizza didn't note something important about the leading GOP answer: It was insulting.
Implying that more than 90 percent of black people would vote with one party over a desire to collect welfare -- which I, for example, have never collected in my life -- belittles their views in a seriously disrespectful fashion.
Second, the results obscure a larger question: Do you believe in institutional racism (and classism)?
If you do, welfare programs, and Affirmative Action and health care programs are all necessary, just to make the same opportunities available to all.
And if you are a political party which denies that notion, even when a bulk of black people believe in it, then you are never going to have much success attracting that group as voters. Even someone like Colin Powell, a Republican who seems to see his fate linked to the fate of African Americans across the country.
While considering that, look below to see conservative pundit Ann Coulter's words on race and the murder rate, broadcast on Fox News' Hannity Monday night: "“If you compare white populations, we have the same murder rate as Belgium,” Coulter said. “So perhaps it’s not a gun problem, it’s a demographic problem.”
Can't really imagine why conservatives have a tough time getting votes from people of color.