Colin Powell, The Art Institute of Chicago, and opportunity in America

Former US Secretary of State Colin Powell waves before arrival of President Barack Obama at Benjamin Banneker Academic High School in Washington, D.C. on Oct. 17, 2016. | AFP via Getty Images/Yuri Gripas

General Colin Powell passed away earlier this week at the age of 84.  Powell was a great American. I did not always agree with the general, but I always admired him. I am confident most Americans, whatever their political leanings, agree with me in that assessment.

A native New Yorker, born and raised in modest means by Jamaican immigrant parents, Colin Powell chose a military career in the Army defending his country. His brilliant military career was crowned by his service as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (1989-93), having previously served as National Security Advisor to President George H. W. Bush (1987-1989). He later served as Secretary of State under President George W. Bush (2001-2005). Not only was Colin Powell the first African American to serve in these three positions, but he is also still the only person of any ethnicity to have served in all three of these highly prestigious positions.

Powell’s career would have simply been unimaginable prior to the Civil Rights Revolution of the mid-20th century. His life and service symbolize the tremendous progress we have made as a nation in overcoming the racism that is indeed an ugly part of the American experience.

In his 1995 autobiography (My American Journey), General Powell wrote, “We live in a remarkable country where ordinary people of whatever background or origin can do extraordinary things. We sometimes forget.”  Powell reminds us of our uniqueness as a country and that we have made tremendous strides toward achieving Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream of a society where everyone is judged, not by their skin pigmentation but by the content of their character.

Yet, in spite of looking at inspiring and illustrious examples such as Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice (Powell’s successor as Secretary of State), not to mention President Barack Obama (2009-2017) and Vice-President Kamala Harris (2021-present), too many Americans of the progressivist persuasion insist that America is still plagued by systemic racism, that we have made little progress. The narrative of the left is well summarized by The Wall Street Journal, “racism became ‘systemic,’ Jim Crow segregation gave way to a ‘new Jim Crow’ of disguised white supremacy, and the color-blind ideal is itself suspect.”  If that is true, how do you explain the illustrious careers of the people mentioned above, plus the first black Secretary of Defense, Lloyd J. Austin, III (2021-present).

If America’s racism is so systemic, how do you explain Black senators elected from Georgia and South Carolina (occupying the seat formerly held by the notorious segregationist Strom Thurmond?

Colin Powell reported an exchange he witnessed between Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew and President Reagan. The president was explaining how successful so many immigrant children were in their new country, the United States. The president then asked Prime Minister Yew if he thought American children would be as successful in foreign countries.  According to General Powell, Prime Minister Yew replied, “Mr. President…you don’t understand. It’s not reversible. There is no other place where you can take a foreigner and plop them in and…five years later out pops an American of hyphenated background who can go as far as his talents will take him. It can’t happen anywhere else.” 

The central truth of Prime Minister Yew’s observation is perhaps the best explanation why so many people (the majority of them people of color) risk life and limb to come from other countries to try to join the American dream every year.

When progressives seek to deny the remarkable and undeniable progress we have collectively made as a nation, they do great harm to our society. We should appreciate the great progress we have made and use it to inspire all of us to continue forward, pressing ever closer to the fulfillment of Dr. King’s dream.

The progressionist argument that we are condemned to perpetual “white racism” and we should enforce artificial equality (euphemistically labeled “equity” because true equality by merit cannot be achieved) does severe damage to our society and there are many, many victims, the majority of them of minority ethnicities.

Just a few days ago, the prestigious Art Institute of Chicago fired all their voluntary docents because they were overwhelmingly white women. In the interest of diversity, the Art Institute’s supervisors “cut off their nose to spite their face.”

This short-sighted move flushed down the drain decades of experience and expertise in pursuit of what? Why not instead begin to diversify the docent membership and use the current docents to train the new recruits?

Who are the losers in this terrible decision? Yes, the docents are victims of reverse racism (fired for being white) and cast aside like yesterday’s newspaper and separated from an institution they obviously love.

However, the big losers are the underprivileged and underserved children these docents were exposing to the great treasures housed at Chicago’s Art Institute (a truly magnificent institution).

One such child wrote a letter to The Wall Street Journal.  Ms. Lauren Arnold recounted her experience. She explained, “I owe my entire career as an art historian to the docents of the Art Institute of Chicago.”

She identified herself as a public school student from “Chicago’s slums.” She doesn’t reveal her ethnicity, and that really doesn’t matter. She was from a background of limited means and horizons and these “highly educated” volunteers, “mostly white women of privilege” changed this 12-year-old girl’s life.

As she explained, her 7th-grade class from Chicago’s South Side went on a field trip to the Art Institute of Chicago. Her parents never exposed her to art museums. They told her museums “are for rich people.”

The docent gave her a different message. As they toured the magnificent galleries, the docent informed them: “You live in Chicago, so this is your art. This building, and everything in it belongs to you…All of this beauty belongs to you.”

Ms. Arnold said her docent was akin to “an intellectual wizard, pointing me toward a life beyond my childhood schooling” and opened her mind and heart to “one aspect of our civilizational past and made us heirs of the beauty of humanist culture.”

Praise God that our society was able to raise this young woman’s horizons, it changed her life, and we all benefited from her opportunity to develop her full God-given potential.

Too many young people like her are slipping through the cracks and we are being denied the benefit of their natural gifts and abilities. 

This loss is a human tragedy and a national disgrace. We need to do far more to help these young people, whatever their ethnicity, to escape the limitations of their underperforming schools, and to reach their full potential. We do not do that by telling them they are victims of a racist system, that white people are their enemies, and the “system” is rigged against them.

To tell such young people, whatever their ethnicity, they cannot succeed because of prejudice, is, in reality, to engage what former President George W. Bush called “the soft bigotry of low expectations” and it produces a criminal waste of God-given talent.

Dr. Richard Land, BA (Princeton, magna cum laude); D.Phil. (Oxford); Th.M (New Orleans Seminary). Dr. Land served as President of Southern Evangelical Seminary from July 2013 until July 2021. Upon his retirement, he was honored as President Emeritus and he continues to serve as an Adjunct Professor of Theology & Ethics. Dr. Land previously served as President of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (1988-2013) where he was also honored as President Emeritus upon his retirement. Dr. Land has also served as an Executive Editor and columnist for The Christian Post since 2011.

Dr. Land explores many timely and critical topics in his daily radio feature, “Bringing Every Thought Captive,” and in his weekly column for CP.

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