Colin Powell’s Racial Identity

James Mann, an author whom I have blurbed several books for on the pages of the Oregon Catalyst over the years, has penned an extraordinary history of American foreign policy through the friendship and falling out of Dick Cheney and Colin Powell. The Great Rift is like a duet biography with American security issues in the background.

Mann has an interesting passage highlighting General Powell’s racial self-image.

In the mid-1990s, in an interview with the African American historian Henry Louis Gates Jr., Powell explained concisely the way he handled the issue of race. “One, I don’t shove it in their face, you know? I don’t bring any stereotypes or threatening visage to their presence,” he said. “Two, I can overcome any stereotypes or reservations they have, because I perform well. Third thing is, I ain’t that black.”

That phrase, “I ain’t that black,” seemed at first to be simply a lighthearted reference to skin color. On other occasions, though, Powell gave the words a broader cultural meaning: He stood apart from many American blacks because of his Jamaican background. Blacks in Jamaica, he explained, “were also brought from Africa as slaves, but they lived under a British system, where slavery was different—and was abolished earlier. And the British provided education and a civil service in which ex-slaves could advance. That didn’t exist in this country, where blacks were systematically deprived of every opportunity, of education, of any suggestion they could be anything more than second-class people.”

The General may be on to something here. The progressive narrative about race in this country may miss the nuanced difference between the descendants of Caribbean slaves and those of the southern United States. Who looked at Powell and treated him differently because his ancestors were Jamaicans than they would have if his ancestors were from Alabama? His complexion signals African descent but not the path his forefathers took in the African diaspora. Assertions of systemic racism cannot explain why the life outcomes are different for some black Americans when compared to others.

Eric Shierman lives in Salem and is the author of We were winning when I was there.