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Powell IV Jonathan Tilove on Newhouse News Service

Interview With Jonathan Tilove on Newhouse News Service Radio

Secretary Colin L. Powell
Washington, DC
December 17, 2004

(11:35 a.m. EST)

MR. TILOVE: Hi, this is Jonathan Tilove. I'm a reporter with Newhouse and write about race, and was writing a story timed to your departure from Secretaryship.

About sort of the racial meaning of Colin Powell and you're a historic and racially transcendent figure. I don't think there's been anyone quite like you. And in talking to people and reading what people have written, it sort of looks like a Rorschach test. People bring their own thinking about race to what they see in you, so for some it's proof that the American dream is colorblind and we've moved beyond race; race is irrelevant. For others, it's a matter of pride in what you've achieved as an African-American.

And I'm wondering, as you think about your legacy, though it's not complete, obviously, in terms of race, what you'd like people to take from your story and your example.

SECRETARY POWELL: You see, you keep -- by your questioning, you keep putting me into your portfolio, which is a racial portfolio.


SECRETARY POWELL: And I have always just gone about my life as an American who's trying to do the best he can at whatever opportunities presented themselves. Oh, by the way, I'm black.

MR. TILOVE: Right, right.

SECRETARY POWELL: And so, I refuse to get caught up in this "What does all of this mean to you and what is your racial legacy as you finish as Secretary of State?"

MR. TILOVE: Right.

SECRETARY POWELL: I want to be measured as Secretary of State, not as the black Secretary of State.

MR. TILOVE: Right.

SECRETARY POWELL: And so I have always just tried to talk to audiences. And one of your questions, for example, had to do with my appearance at my high school when I was back there in '04. And what I was saying to those kids is, "Don't let anybody say to you that, gee, you could be another Colin Powell," because that is a racial identity. Why can't they be a Norm Schwarzkopf? Rather than just be the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, why don't they aspire to be the actual commander in the field?

And so the whole point of that story was to say, "I'm delighted to be back in my high school, delighted to be here with you, and I'm glad that you some are you are going to be inspired by this and some of you may even be told by your teachers or parents, gee, you could be another Colin Powell." And I want them to think not just as "I can be like that black guy." "I could be like that white guy."


SECRETARY POWELL: Because that's the intent of that story.

MR. TILOVE: Maybe it's what I do for a living that misread that a little bit, because I was looking and saying, well, why wouldn't someone who was born the son of a prominent figure be as good a role model as someone who came from the same neighborhood? But what you're saying is they shouldn't even be --

SECRETARY POWELL: What I'm saying is that they should not allow themselves to be compartmented in any way because they were poor or because they were Puerto Rican or Dominican or black or Caribbean or whatever. And this -- it's a story I tell youngsters everywhere -- variations of that story.

Now, we have come so far in this country that nobody is going to give you the same kind of -- let me say it a different way. You can't use your race any longer, and you shouldn't use your race any longer to compartment yourself or to provide yourself with excuses. And guess what. Nobody else will accept, increasingly, other folks will not accept your race or your original station in life as an excuse. And so what you have to do is prepare yourselves, prepare yourself, get all the education you can, and don't let anybody constrain you by your race or other ethnic -- ethnicity; and don't constrain yourself because so many opportunities have been opened.

And it isn't just Colin Powell. You can go to Stan O'Neill at Merrill Lynch, you can go to Dick Parsons, you can go to Rod Paige, a fellow cabinet officer of mine, or to Alphonso Jackson, another fellow cabinet officer of mine or to Condi Rice. And in all fields of American economic, social, political and business endeavor, there are minorities, blacks at the very top. And I'm no longer a transcendent figure, as you say; there are so many others out there. And I'm delighted for it.

MR. TILOVE: So, in some respect, you're putting that role out of business?

SECRETARY POWELL: I hope so. I will always be black and I'm, you know, never going to get away from that. And a lot of people will always see me, first and foremost, as a black person. Increasingly, though, people do not put black behind my name when describing me, as they used to --

MR. TILOVE: Right.

SECRETARY POWELL: -- 20 years ago.

MR. TILOVE: Right.

SECRETARY POWELL: Because it's -- you know, I'm a big boy and I can stand on my own feet without using my race either to give me an advantage or to protect me from abuse. And I can assure you, few people use my race any longer to protect me from abuse.

MR. TILOVE: But is there something, just in terms of, whether it's black or white, or being Italian or Jewish, whatever else that has a sense of community and, you know, I guess brotherhood, I mean --

SECRETARY POWELL: Yes, I am very -- I go into black communities. I was on the board of Howard University, an all black school, a historically black school, and now all black, for the most part. I've participated -- I was on the board of the United Negro College Fund. So there are still many blacks who are in positions or in situations of poverty and distress, where they are not yet benefiting from what this society has to offer because of a whole host of historical and social and economic reasons, and reasons of neighborhood and reasons of housing.

So I am not one of those who go around saying, "Well, gee, look, I made it. Everybody can make it." You know, Horatio Alger is not yet out there for everybody.

MR. TILOVE: Right. And I think, you know, that's some of what I was hearing people saying, well, people point to what you have accomplished and then make assumptions about how far we've gone and --

SECRETARY POWELL: Well, we have gone far.

MR. TILOVE: Right.

SECRETARY POWELL: Because where I arrived in life, and where Condi and all of the other people I mentioned arrived in life, couldn't have happened if I had come along five or ten years earlier.

MR. TILOVE: Right.

SECRETARY POWELL: So a lot was done in the '50s and especially the '60s to break down the barriers that would have prevented me from ever getting the positions that I subsequently got. But I'm the first to say that I am honored that those folks back there fought to break down those barriers, but there are still barriers that exist. There are no longer legal barriers, but there are other barriers. Discrimination is still alive and well in this country, and that's why I spent a good part of my post-retirement period after leaving the Army working in those areas and working in those organizations that try to help these youngsters, whether it's what I did with America's Promise or Boys and Girls Clubs or Howard University or the United Negro College Fund or similar organizations.

And those of us who are successful Americans who happen to be black have an obligation not to say, "Well, I got mine. I'll see you guys later."

MR. TILOVE: And when you talk to, like, the high school students, do they get it better than I did in terms of what you were intending in your --

SECRETARY POWELL: I think so. Whether they are able to apply it because of their own circumstances remains to be seen, but I've spoken to lots of groups and I've adopted a school here in Washington where we spend a lot of time and energy putting this attitude into the hearts and minds of youngsters that you can achieve, and don't let your background or your ethnicity or your difficult home circumstances be a barrier because there are people who are successful who want to help you.

MR. TILOVE: And any advice? I mean, a figure who has come along and is arriving in Washington now is Barack Obama --


MR. TILOVE: -- who has been identified in some of the same ways that you've been. And I didn't know whether, as someone who has kind of been through the place of having to play a role that sometimes is placed upon you, whether there's advice you have for him about --

SECRETARY POWELL: No, he seems to be doing quite well without my advice. You know, this is not some up-from-bootstraps. He's a very successful lawyer. He's got a first class American education -- Harvard, if I'm not mistaken.


SECRETARY POWELL: And he's run for political office and he's now going to be a senator. So he knows how to handle this. He knows that every time he stands up there are people who are looking at him as a very successful American politician and there are also people who are looking at him as a black man. And he knows how to carry that and he's carrying it rather well.

But what we don't want to have happen is for us to be pigeonholed as a black person first.

The story I've told many times is, from my youth, is when one of my early commanders -- this is the late '50s -- thought I was doing rather well and he essentially said to me, you know, "You're the best black lieutenant I've ever seen." And I said, "Thank you very much" -- didn't complain, didn't argue, didn't protest -- and just walked away and silently said, "That's very flattering, but I intend to be the best lieutenant you've ever seen."

I don't know if I ever made that or not -- (laughter) -- but that was my story.

MR. TILOVE: But that was -- did he hear that or was that --



SECRETARY POWELL: No, I didn't want to embarrass him. He meant well by his comment.

MR. TILOVE: No, I understand.

SECRETARY POWELL: Yeah, he meant well by his comment. He thought he was complimenting me.

MR. TILOVE: Right.

SECRETARY POWELL: And in his life and world in 1959, he was being as kind as his background and circumstances permitted him to be.

MR. TILOVE: Right.

SECRETARY POWELL: He still saw me through that filter and through that stereotype. But nobody would ever walk up to me now and say, you're the best black Secretary of State we've ever seen.


MR. TILOVE: It wouldn't be (inaudible).

SECRETARY POWELL: No. Some might think so, but --

MR. TILOVE: But has your own thinking about, I mean, whether at times when you've caught yourself saying, I'm thinking differently about who I am and how I would receive a comment that I -- than 5 or 10 or 15 years ago?

SECRETARY POWELL: No, I really don't -- I don't spend time on this.

MR. TILOVE: Right.

SECRETARY POWELL: Because there are so many other things to spend time on.

MR. TILOVE: Right.

SECRETARY POWELL: And I find that if you hang on to this too much, if you start to wallow in it, it's not constructive. It's not helpful.

All right?

MR. TILOVE: Thank you very much.

SECRETARY POWELL: Good luck. Bye-bye.



Released on December 21, 2004


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