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[Op-Ed] Colin Powell’s Advice

Posted July. 31, 2009 08:50,   


In the summer of 1957, Colin Powell joined the ROTC summer camp of City University of New York in Fort Bragg, North Carolina. After six weeks of training, he was named the best officer of a company. The best officer overall among camp participants was a Caucasian student from Cornell University. A day before leaving the camp, Powell was called before a white sergeant, who asked, “Do you want to know why you weren’t chosen as the best?” Powell said he did not want to know. The sergeant said, “Do you think ROTC instructors from southern states would return to their schools and tell others that the best officer was black?”

This was an example of the racial discrimination experienced by the first African American to serve as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (1989-93) and secretary of state (2001-04). After President Harry Truman in 1948 issued an executive order to guarantee equality of treatment and opportunity in the armed forces for all races, discrimination decreased a bit in the U.S. Army. Nevertheless, even African-American generals were banned from going to the same churches as whites or eating alongside them. In his autobiography, Powell said many African Americans asked themselves why they should fight for a nation that discriminated against them.

The recent arrest of black professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. of Harvard University has reignited debate over racism. Powell told CNN’s Larry King Live that Gates acted belligerent toward police. Gates was arrested after a neighbor reported to police that a man was breaking into the house, which was Gates’. U.S. President Barack Obama initially blamed police for “acting stupidly” but apologized soon after. He invited Gates and the arresting police officer to the White House for a drink.

The case shows racism has not disappeared in America despite the election of a black president. In this context, Powell has been considerate enough to urge African Americans to be patient and ask young blacks to cooperate with police. His message is that regardless of race or gender, those who are discriminated against should not feel victimized. In other words, resistance and confrontation cannot resolve problems. With this attitude, it is no coincidence that Powell, who grew up in the Harlem district of New York City and endured racism and discrimination, eventually emerged as a hero of the 1991 Gulf War.

Editorial Writer Chung Sung-hee (shchung@donga.com)