ATLANTA (AP) _ For a fleeting moment, James Bealer Jr. of Arkansas allowed himself to ponder the imponderable as retired Gen. Colin Powell wrapped up a speech to NAACP members.

Is America ready for a black president?

``I think he did a good job in his speech so I wondered if it might be time,'' Bealer, a drug treatment counselor in Drew county, said Tuesday. ``But I still think we might be about 10 years away. Something just tells me the time isn't just right.''

Perhaps it was Powell's forceful command of the audience, who greeted his message of black self-improvement and support of affirmative action with warm bursts of applause.

Perhaps it was Powell's highly publicized flirtation with a presidential run in 1996.

Or maybe it is just a yearning within black America to have one of its own seriously considered to lead the country.

Whatever the reason, Bealer wasn't the only one who mused about the possibility of Powell or perhaps some other black person reaching America's highest office. Many were less than enthusiastic about the chances.

``The undercurrent of racism in America is just too strong,'' said Tira Robinson, a computer programmer from Washington. ``I'd like to see it happen but America just isn't prepared for it.''

Others, like John L. Reed of Cape Cod, Mass., think that if any black can be elected, it just might be Powell, who he said has ``crossover appeal.''

``In music, it's called crossover appeal, which means both blacks and whites like it,'' Reed said. ``In politics, crossover appeal means his politics can work on both sides of the aisle.''

During a strident defense of affirmative action, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff told an audience of 3,500 that improving schools and strengthening homes should be the NAACP's highest priority.

``The choice before us is either getting back to the task of building all children or just keep building more jails,'' Powell said to waves of applause. ``But there is no point in creating opportunities if we bring up children who can't use the English language. If this generation of youth don't take advantage of those opportunities, what's the point?''

Denouncing today's youth culture, which he said at times appears to be devoted to little more than drugs and violence, Powell laced his address with tales of how the entire community took an active role in his rearing.

Touching on a broad range of topics and concluding with his vision for a new America, the message could have been mistaken for a political stump speech.

``I think he sounded very presidential up there,'' said Michael Portman, a teacher from Newark, N.J. ``Since he announced he was going Republican, I haven't ever been too big a fan of his. But I liked what he had to say today.''

But Portman said he wasn't sure enough white voters could select Powell.

``I know we have been elected mayor in a lot of cities but look what happens when we run for governor,'' Portman said. ``We only won that once. I think the higher the office, the more resistance there will be.''

But some like Betty Kimble of Denton, Texas, said the issue has less to do with whether America is ready for a black president and depends more on getting the right person for the job.

``America won't ever be ready for anything if you don't at least try,'' Kimble said. ``You have to start somewhere.''

Mary Johnson, a teacher from Gary, Indiana, wasn't so much worried about whether Powell would advocate for blacks as whether he would survive if elected president.

``I would love for him to run for office but I'd be scared to death,'' Johnson said. ``Look at what happened to Kennedy. A lot of us wanted him too.''