Dear Gen. Powell,
I saw your speech at the Republican Convention last week. Like many
Americans, I was touched by it. Providing leadership means insisting
that we look squarely at social problems — especially those that result
from explicit failures or inattention. Your willingness to take the
Republican Party to task for its cold shoulder to black America
exemplified that kind of leadership.
As you know, liberal political and journalistic commentary on your
appearance and on the Republican Convention called it a “minstrel show”
referencing numerous blacks and Hispanics who appeared on stage. In
certain respects that commentary is accurate. The Republican Party — as
you said pointedly — does not have a genuine record of concern for
minorities. The convention was packaged to offer compassionate window
dressing for what has been a largely anti-compassionate political
machine. But I suspect that what is most agonizing for the liberal
commentators is that you, in particular, were on that stage.
Why does that upset them so? Because someone of your stature cannot
easily be reduced to a “minstrel” or to window dressing. And so you
violate a basic axiom of American politics — that black leadership
properly belongs in the Democratic Party and only in the Democratic
Though the public criticism of you for defying the conventional
wisdom is muted in comparison to what some other black leaders (myself
included) have endured for the crime of political incorrectness, the
message is still the same. Ironically, America has made more progress in
being able to accept us as doctors, lawyers, businesspeople and generals
than it has in being able to accept us as anything other than Democrats.
You alluded, in your address, to some of the rifts that are
increasingly apparent between black America and the Democratic Party.
When you call for experimentation with school voucher programs, for
example, you are responsive to what the clear majority of black and
Hispanic parents want for their kids.
But the Democrats, in thrall to the anti-voucher teachers unions and
their tremendous vote getting capacity, are unable to take the steps
that will so obviously benefit poor and minority youth. Instead, the
Democrats continue to offer forms of under-financed and
over-bureaucratized welfare statism, including a public school system
which is under-performing for all American kids, and devastatingly so
for black kids. The traditional Democratic Party coalition has become a
brake on — not an accelerator for — black progress. The crisis in
education is only one example.
You have presumably chosen to become a Republican as your way of
acknowledging that political fact of life. Many in the black community
respect that, though many — because of the Republican Party’s
anti-black history and continued embrace of its own set of special
interests, both citizen and corporate — still hope that someday you
will become an independent.
On this score, I was especially struck by your insistence that
Republican minority outreach be authentic. “It must be a sustained
effort,” you said. “It must be every day. It must be for real. The party
must listen to and speak with all leaders of the black community,
regardless of political affiliation or philosophy.” And all of this must
occur, you emphasized, “not just during an election year campaign.”
As a black leader whose philosophy and political independence goes
against the grain of both the Republican and Democratic parties, your
admonition against partisan sectarianism is welcome. Will you now take
it upon yourself to reach out — not only to the black Democrat, but to
the black independent and the vast, vast majority of black Americans who
do not participate in politics at all? I hope so.
America’s young people — for whom you and I share a passionate
concern — increasingly identify with neither political party. Polls show that 44 percent of African American youth between the ages of 18 and 29 consider themselves politically independent. Your voice can make a huge difference to them
and for them if you include the full range of political diversity in
your efforts to “show the rest of the world the beauty and potential of