The reaction was sad – and sadly predictable. 

Colin Powell, retired general and veteran of combat and Republican administrations, endorses President Obama and not his party’s candidate  Mitt Romney. As he did in 2008, when he crossed party lines to favor Obama over John McCain, Powell runs down a long list of reasons why — from Romney’s “very, very strong neo-conservative views” to doubts about the candidate’s economic plans.

Former Secretary of State Colin Powell with President Obama. (AP file photo)

Instead of taking him at his word or believing the sincerity of the same criticisms others have made, a fellow Republican presumes to know the real reason. Romney adviser and former New Hampshire governor John Sununu – last heard questioning the American-ness of the president of the United States – attempted to explain the Powell endorsement on CNN. “When you take a look at Colin Powell, you have to wonder whether that’s an endorsement based on issues or whether he’s got a slightly different reason for preferring President Obama,” he said. When asked to explain, he went on, “Well, I think when you have somebody of your own race that you’re proud of being president of the United States, I applaud Colin for standing with him.” Talk about a back-handed compliment. 

Condescension drips from Sununu’s assertion that he is the true authority on what’s in Powell’s head and heart. Sununu, as he usually does, has since walked back his comments. But though the tone of his sentiments wasn’t as harsh as Rush Limbaugh’s judgment of Powell’s 2008 endorsement, Sununu’s reflex reaction was the same — to reduce two complex men to skin color. Sununu can disagree with Obama because of policy, but when Powell supports him, it has to be race.

The Republican Party — quick to accuse Democrats of playing identity politics and that old standby, the race card – insists its policies are all about individual rights and liberties. But only certain African Americans qualify as independent thinkers, Republicans such as Clarence Thomas, Allen West and Herman Cain. You earn extra points if you, as Cain did, call African Americans who vote Democratic “brainwashed,” or repeat West’s charge that those African Americans reside on a Democratic Party “plantation.” Veer from the party line, though, and respectable showings in GOP primary polls can’t save you, as Cain found out when he lightly criticized the racial epithet painted on a rock at a hunting camp used by Texas Gov. Rick Perry and faced push back from the same folks who had once lionized him.

If that’s what happens to Republicans, no wonder African-American Democrats stick with the party, a voting practice that – bluster aside — predated the black man on the ticket.

Despite former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s stirring speech at the Republican convention and her support of Romney, her days as loyal party player might be numbered since she refused to go along with the view that the Obama administration is engaged in a cover-up as it investigates the attack that killed the U.S. ambassador to Libya and three other Americans last month.

There was a time not that long ago when a substantial number of African Americans voted Republican. I was raised by black Republican parents who became increasingly uncomfortable when images of stereotypical welfare queens and government-dependent freeloaders became part of the GOP playbook. It’s a shift that won elections by depicting entire chunks of the population as both different from and less than, and harmed, they thought, any chance of the mutual respect between political opponents that makes democracy work.

The divisions and the stereotypes have only hardened since 2008, with polls showing more Americans harboring unfavorable opinions about black and Hispanic citizens. I’m not sure how my parents would cast their ballots if they were alive, but I’m sure they would expect people – whatever their political persuasion — to acknowledge their choices and their intelligence.

Republicans say they sincerely want to expand their base, a goal made politically urgent by America’s changing demographics. But how welcome is a welcome mat if it comes with a set of strict rules and insults if you step out of line?

For years, Powell has proven his loyalty to the GOP. He was once its poster general for a big tent. Now he is a pariah in the party he still claims, one of, he said, a “dying breed,” a moderate Republican who rejects views he sees as extreme.

Powell’s former chief of staff Col. Lawrence Wilkerson is explicit in his view that the Republican Party is “full of racists,” who only want President Obama out of office because he’s black. Years ago, Powell distanced himself from Wilkerson because of his criticism of the Bush administration, and I can’t imagine him using such language as he plots his own independent path.

But to dismiss Powell’s concerns about a party he thinks has gone too far and classify his Obama endorsement as just a case of race-based solidarity — a “brother” supporting one of his own – is another step back for the party of Lincoln looking to reclaim the voters and philosophy of inclusion it jettisoned along the way.

Mary C. Curtis, an award-winning multimedia journalist in Charlotte, N.C., has worked at The New York Times, Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter: @mcurtisnc3