WASHINGTON - Former Secretary of State Colin Powell was mildly critical Tuesday of Harvard University professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., whose angry response to a police officer touched off a national debate on race that involved President Barack Obama.
Powell, the first black chairman of the joint chiefs of staff and the first black secretary of state, made his comments in a television interview about the way Gates dealt with Sgt. James Crowley.
A white officer of the Cambridge, Massachusetts, police, Crowley responded July 16 to reports of a possible break-in by arresting the black professor at his home on a charge of disorderly conduct because of his demeanour toward the policeman. The charge was quickly dropped.
Gates "might have waited a while, come outside, talked to the officer, and that might have been the end of it," said Powell, one of the nation's most prominent African-Americans.
"I think he should have reflected on whether or not this was the time to make that big a deal," he said.
Powell said Gates was just home from China and New York and "all he wanted to do was get to bed."
When asked about the incident at a news conference, Obama said the police had acted stupidly in the incident. The president subsequently toned down his criticism but not his denunciation of racial profiling generally.
Powell said he was the target of racial profiling many times, and he sometimes got mad.
On one such occasion, he said, he tried to meet someone at Reagan National Airport "and nobody thought I could be the national security adviser to the president. I was just a black guy."
Asked how he dealt with the situation, Powell said, "You just suck it up. What are you going to do?"
"There is no African-American in this country who has not been exposed to this kind of situation," Powell said.
But, he said, "when you are faced with an officer trying to do his job and get to the bottom of something, this is not the time to get in an argument with him. I was taught that as a child."
"You don't argue with a police officer," Powell said.