A whiter shade of black

Colin Powell's popularity doesn't mean we've made progress on race issues
The media, having created the Colin Powell Bubble, are now having a wonderful time bouncing it around.

Recall, if you will, the heady spring of 1992, when all the polls showed that the leading contender for the presidency was H. Ross Perot, who at that point had made six appearances on national television.

I don't mean to rain on Powell's parade: I'd love it if he got in this race. I'm also rooting for Jesse Jackson, Ross Perot, Bill Bradley, Jerry Brown, and any other likely suspect to join in. My working motto is: "It is an honor to witness so much confusion."

But possible presidential candidates have the most unfortunate habit of becoming less attractive the minute they admit they want the office. It's our fault, of course, perverse creatures that we are.

The minute some poor patriot announces, we promptly sneer, "Oh, he's just another politician." He takes a stand, and we see it as "pandering" to the right or the left or the middle. Or we notice that he doesn't know what he's talking about. Or we pounce upon some slip of the tongue as evidence proving the fellow is a lint-head.

One dangerous consequence of the Powell Bubble is already in evidence.
With the smug self-complacency of the truly ignorant, some of the right-wing brethren are claiming that Powell's popularity "proves" either (A) how far we have come on race in this country, or (B) that race in this country is no longer an issue.

Oh. Dear. I hate to point out the obvious again, but Powell is not a very black man. I speak only of hue; he is what is known in some circles as a light 'n' bright.

As any black person and all of black literature can tell you, shades of skin color still make an enormous amount of difference in this country. To your serious racist, of course, all black people are black, skin tone notwithstanding. But the extent to which whiter shades of pale still make a difference is heartbreakingly clear to anyone who looks honestly.

Ever optimistic to the point of idiocy, I harbor hopes that a Powell candidacy will provide us with an opportunity for a thorough airing of race in America. I have enough confidence in American racism to be sure that Powell, at one or more points in his life, has been made to feel like dirt despite his brains, courage, honor, decency, credentials, degrees, medals, and accomplishments. If he can describe to us exactly what that feels like, it would do us a power of good.

Speaking as one of the most melanin-deprived persons around (some of us don't even tan), I am not about to touch the question of Powell's cultural blackness. T'ain't my place. But it will come up. It's an unfair burden on his candidacy, but it will be there.

I was amused to read recently that the Young Republicans of Texas A&M University have got their knickers in a twist over the dread possibility of having multiculturalism introduced into their academic world. I wonder what it is they are afraid of learning. That Wounded Knee was not a great victory? That George Armstrong Custer was a jackass? That Crazy Horse was only 35 when he was shot in the back while trying to surrender? Are they afraid that they cannot know such things and still love their country?

Imagine President Powell, with his well-known interest in the Buffalo Soldiers, coming to speak at A&M and having to explain who the Buffalo Soldiers were. (That reminds me: there's a tiny cemetery in the vast desert near Indian Hot Springs that Powell might want to visit. A handful of the Buffalo Soldiers sleep there in the baking heat under a pitiless sun.)

Setting aside such happy fantasies, the more pertinent question about a possible Powell candidacy is the politician problem. I know, I know--we are all sick to death of politicians, the very word is an insult, anyone who is not a politician has a leg up, and we'd all rather vote for our dentists, thank you.

But it is still useful in politics to have political skills: persuasion, consensus building (aka straddling), and even the dread compromise, that most loathed and most necessary of all political skills. And the people least likely to have political skills are those from the top of the corporate world, who can fire subordinates, and from the top of the military world, who can have subordinates thrown in the brig.

As many a baffled governor from Big Business has learned, you cannot fire the Legislature.

It is unclear how the paranoid right managed to conclude that liberals have some vested interest in ozone depletion. Bleeding-heart liberals actually worry about children; we really don't have a dog in this fight. It's the scientists who are upset about the hole in the ozone layer, which is now twice the size it was last year.

Some of this apparently stems from the vast scientific learning of radio host Rush Limbaugh, who has declared that if the polar ice caps melt, the seas won't rise because if ice melts in a glass, it doesn't increase the total volume of water in the glass. This would be true if the polar ice caps were just giant icebergs.

Unfortunately, the Antarctic ones are on land: thus, melting the polar ice caps has the effect of adding more water to the glass. On April 4, Limbaugh declared:

"For the longest time, I have been using innate intelligence guided by experience and my finely honed instincts to rebut and refute the silly notion that we are victims of global warming."

Why the Republican Party chooses to get its scientific advice from Limbaugh rather than the World Meteorological Organization is also unclear.

Molly Ivins is a columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Copyright 1995 Creators Syndicate, Inc.

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Molly Ivins