"In my military career," recalls Powell, "there was the suggestion was that I was being given favored treatment because I was black. The only trouble was I ran a pretty good brigade. And so, I don't worry about those kinds of statements. I never have. I've never let my color or racism be a problem for me. Let it be a problem for the racists, never for me, because if you let it become your problem then you're weakened and you start to doubt yourself."
For Powell, those people who spend their days ranting about how all blacks are victims have already given up. They have excused their own failures by placing responsibility for their own lives onto vaguely defined threats - white people, Republicans, you name it. Standing outside of society and simply pumping your fists in righteous indignation doesn't change a thing. It just makes it easy for those in control to label and dismiss you.
"The advice I give young people," says Powell, "is don't walk around with the color of your skin on your shoulder waiting for someone to knock it off. That's their problem. If they look at you that way or they want to discriminate against you or they hold the wrong attitudes against you, that's their problem. And what you have to do is perform and defeat their stereotype, defeat their belief, defeat the prejudice that they have - and you defeat that prejudice by performing. If you don't perform, then they'll hold that prejudice, but if you do perform and take advantage of all the opportunities you have, then there's nothing they can do to stop you."
The remark betrays an essential contradiction of his life: He is at once an implacable career soldier who has been conditioned to believe that success means moving forward, never giving an inch, asserting your will on your surroundings, and never sympathizing yourself into inaction. It is a very linear, very masculine way of thinking. But it is tempered by the fact of his skin color, which taught him that overcoming prejudice comes not from standing outside the dominant sphere of influence and pumping your fist in masculine defiance, but by entering the dominant sphere of influence, breaking down stereotypes through personal contact, and twisting cultural norms from within.
In politics, that means moving beyond the victim theology that the Democrats have plied black America with for the last 40 years. "Blacks will be best served if they are in all political parties in America. If they give their vote to one party, then their vote can be taken for granted." In life, it means never using the prejudice of another to justify inaction in your own life.
It is this rare mix of unyielding tenacity and furious ambition - lurking just beneath the diplomat's calm exterior - that primed the pump of Powell's ambition and hauled him toward greatness.
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