A Nice Black Fellow Whites Could Vote for

September 15, 1995|By CLARENCE PAGE

WASHINGTON — Washington. -- Colin Powell is a long way from running for president, but he already has made presidential campaign history. He has turned his race, which is black, into a political advantage.

This startling conclusion appears to be supported by early national polling and focus groups. For example, Paul Sniderman, a Stanford University political scientist, says his polling on racial attitudes for the National Science Foundation has found that Mr. Powell's race, in some polls, actually ''magnifies his political strength.''

He explained that, across the ideological spectrum, whites who encounter an individual black person like Mr. Powell whose character refutes negative racial stereotypes tend to respond ''even more positively'' toward him or her.

At the same time, polls show Mr. Powell winning higher approval ratings from whites than from blacks. U.S. News & World Report, for example, found 73 percent of whites had a favorable view of him, compared to 57 percent of blacks.

What gives? I think white, middle-of-the-road Americans see in Mr. Powell a middle-of-the-road black candidate they feel comfortable voting for, and they are simply thrilled about it.

For years I have heard white voters say they would be delighted to vote for a black candidate, as long as it was not the black candidate who happened to be on the ballot at the time. In 1984 and 1988, that meant Jesse Jackson, who happened to be running for president in those years. So, whom would they vote for? Well, maybe somebody like that nice Doug Wilder fellow in Virginia, they would say, especially after Mr. Wilder became the nation's first black governor since Reconstruction.

When Mr. Wilder took them up on it and ran for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1992, the fire quickly went out. As soon as white New Hampshire voters in focus groups saw that he was black, Mr. Wilder's advisers told me later, their initially positive feelings toward him cooled.

Mr. Powell has not had that problem. We met him not as a black politician, but as a talented, top adviser to Presidents Reagan and Bush and a hero of Desert Storm. Even angry white males can appreciate him.

The more Americans learned about his ghetto-to-Desert Storm story, the more they liked him. If Mr. Powell makes it to the White House, according to this popular view, it would help confirm that the American dream and its fabled meritocracy still works, that all of us, regardless of race, creed or even gender can get our just rewards for playing by the rules.

I think it was also Mr. Powell's good fortune to emerge into the political limelight at the right time to capitalize on a deeply felt American yearning for ''positive'' black role models. We Americans may think we are too hip for ''Ozzie and Harriet'' or ''Father Knows Best.'' Yet those same Americans made ''The Cosby Show,'' which is only a 1950s-style family sitcom with an all-black cast, into the highest rated show in prime time. Corn? We love it.

Small wonder, then, that Mr. Powell is doing nothing to discourage comparisons between himself and that paragon of 1950s values, Dwight D. Eisenhower.

As he travels about on his book-promotion tour, dropping little leaves here and there like a political stripteaser revealing his beliefs in dribs and drabs, his views sound carefully crafted to steer right down the middle of the road. He prefers adoption to abortion, but defends a woman's right to choose. He likes affirmative action, except when it calls for ''quotas.'' He supports the right to own a gun, but also believes some controls are necessary.

None of these views will please extremists of the right or the left, but look at the polls: Most Americans (except the barroom blowhards) would express their beliefs on these touchy issues the same way Mr. Powell would. Most would put themselves right smack dab in the middle of what Mr. Powell calls ''the sensible center.''

His thinner support from blacks may be attributable to some of the same factors that make him popular with centrist whites: his associations with Presidents Reagan and Bush and his refusal to commit himself to strong civil-rights or anti-poverty positions.

But, if Mr. Powell actually does enter next year's presidential race, I predict his white and black approval figures will converge. Whites will fall away as his campaign gets more serious while a number of blacks will climb aboard when they see a ''brother'' under attack.

No, we Americans are not out of the racial woods yet. But maybe a President Powell could help show us the way. As they used to say in his old Bronx neighborhood, he couldn't hurt.

And that's more than you can say about some of the other folks who are running.

Clarence Page is a syndicated columnist.

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