Colin Powell’s (overlooked) call to action on race

January 14, 2013

Retired Gen. Colin Powell delivered a surprisingly blunt assessment of his party's relationship with minorities in an overlooked but fascinating portion of his interview on "Meet the Press" Sunday.


Retired Gen. Colin Powell

Asked by "MTP" moderator David Gregory to both diagnose what ails the Republican party and justify his ties to it -- given that he endorsed President Obama in 2008 and 2012 -- Powell responded this way:

"There’s also a dark -- a dark vein of intolerance in some parts of the Party. What I do mean by that? I mean by that is they still sort of look down on minorities. How can I evidence that? When I see a former governor say that the president is shuckin’ and jivin’, that’s a racial era slave term. When I see another former governor after the president’s first debate where he didn’t do very well, says that the president was lazy. He didn’t say he was slow, he was tired, he didn’t do well, he said he was lazy. Now, it may not mean anything to most Americans but to those of us who are African-Americans, the second word is shiftless and then there’s a third word that goes along with it. Birther, the whole Birther Movement. Why do senior Republican leaders tolerate this kind of discussion within the Party?"

Powell is referring to former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, who said that President Obama was "shucking and jiving" in giving answers to the attacks in Benghazi, Libya, and former New Hampshire Gov. John Sununu, who referred to Obama as "lazy" following the first presidential debate. (Worth noting: Obama told Barbara Walters in 2011 that "there's a laziness in me.")

What Powell is alleging -- in short that a strain of racial intolerance exists within the GOP that makes it more difficult for the party to transform itself to fit into the changed demographic reality in the country -- is a very serious accusation that Republicans have long dismissed as an unfair charge leveled primarily by Democrats.

But, is he right?

Trying to use data to analyze the data on racial attitudes within the Republican party is very difficult. A Washington Post poll conducted in August 2012 sheds some light. Asked why African American tended to vote overwhelmingly for Democrats, by far the leading reason offered by Republicans was that blacks were "government dependents/wanted something for nothing/welfare". (The question was open-ended with answers being grouped afterward for similarity.)  Among independents asked the same question, the first choice was because black voters were "supportive of welfare/entitlements/health care" while the most commonly mentioned reason among self-identified Democrats was "issue of poverty/help poor/represent little guy."

To be clear, believing that most black voters are Democrats because they are dependent on the government should not be directly equated to racial intolerance. But, the difference in how Republicans view African Americans' loyalty to Democrats as opposed to how Independents and Democrats view it is striking.

The question going forward is how (and whether) Republicans will respond to Powell's assertions. So far, there has been little reaction, with most people in the political world focused heavily on Powell's strong endorsement of Chuck Hagel to be the next secretary of Defense.

Even if Republican leaders want to dismiss Powell as a former Republican or a RINO (Republican In Name Only), they should also be mindful that simply having the perception out there that the party has a "dark vein of intolerance" within it is a major problem as the GOP tries to expand its voting coalition outward.

Powell is not exactly a reactionary or someone who says things without thinking of their impact first. (Few secretaries of State are.) That means he knew what he was doing. And what was it that he was doing? Attempting to wake his party leaders up to what he believes is a major unaddressed problem when it comes to race within the GOP.

Do any elected Republican officials follow suit? Do they dispute Powell's characterization of the party? Do they even acknowledge Powell's remarks?  It's all part of how the GOP sees itself now and where its leaders believe the party needs to -- and can -- go.

Chris Cillizza writes “The Fix,” a politics blog for the Washington Post. He also covers the White House.
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Sean Sullivan · January 14, 2013