News & Politics

Blacks Missing In Iraq Attack Protests

Though many blacks do not agree with the war on Iraq, they are notably absent from anti-war protests.
With the attack on Iraq a done deal, much continues to be made of a poll by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies that found that far more blacks than whites and Latinos oppose a war. They have even more reason than whites to condemn it. The Iraq attack could increase racial profiling, further erode civil liberties protections, slash billions from spending on education, health care, HIV/AIDS, and drug treatment programs, and derail the fight against police abuse.

So why aren't they in the streets shouting their outrage at Bush? The Joint Center's poll was taken back in October. At the time, Iraq was barely a blip on the public's radarscope. The Bush administration had done little to sell the public on the need to dump Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. The poll also found that war worry took a distant back seat among blacks to concern with failing public schools, inadequate health care, and crime.

By March that had changed. Secretary of State Colin Powell had become a fixture on TV talk shows, at public forums, in Congress, and at the U.N. waving loads of documents purporting to show that Hussein had the means and intent to wipe out thousands. Though Powell didn't convince Russia, France, or China, or singer-activist Harry Belafonte to bandwagon Bush war policy, Powell was credible and convincing to many blacks. Polls show that he remains much admired by a big majority of blacks; a February poll by the Pew Research Center found that nearly half of blacks support the military assault.

But Powell's charisma or popularity alone didn't convince more blacks to back an attack. Blacks make up nearly one out of three army enlistees. Antiwar activists say this is the precisely why blacks should be in the streets protesting. But this mixes myth with fact. According to Department of Defense figures, blacks are more likely to be in administrative and support positions than in front line fighting positions, and are less likely to die in combat than whites. This was true in the World War II and the Korean War. In the 1991 Gulf War whites, not blacks, died in disproportionate numbers in the fighting.

The Vietnam War was the lone exception. Black casualties were disproportionately higher than those of whites, and though many blacks openly denounced the war as a racist war against poor, oppressed colored people, blacks still flocked to the military in droves. Many blacks then, as now, saw the antiwar movement as a "white folks thing" that was totally disconnected from their daily struggles against racism and survival. There was also resentment that white antiwar organizers made little or no effort to get more blacks into the streets.

But even if they had made the effort, and more blacks than whites had died in all of America's wars, blacks would still rush to the military. Rally round the flag patriotism has always been intense among blacks in times of war and crisis in America. During the segregation era, war gave blacks a chance to prove their patriotism and loyalty, and strike a big blow against racism. Blacks still suffered Jim Crow segregation, were beaten and even murdered, sometimes while still in uniform when they got back from fighting America's wars. Yet they still believed that things would get better. Though war is no longer a racial litmus test for blacks, the army is still regarded as their ticket out of the ghetto and a chance to learn skills, get a quality education, and to advance their career.

Then there's black ambivalence toward Bush. Many blacks still revile him for what they regard as his grand theft of the Florida vote that landed him in the White House. And though they personally like Powell, they say he's in the wrong party, and the wrong administration. But blacks also are scared stiff of more terrorist attacks. In polls taken immediately after the September 11 attacks, a majority of blacks backed profiling and the carrying of identity cards, tighter security measures and shakedowns at airports, and were more willing than in the past to enlist and serve in the armed forces. With the lone exception of California Democrat Barbara Lee, the entire Congressional Black Caucus backed Bush's war powers resolution that gave him a free hand to wage war against any person or country suspected of terrorist activity. Many issued public statements that sounded every bit as bellicose as Bush in demanding decisive military action against terrorism. In some polls a near majority of blacks say that Bush is doing a good job in the fight against terrorism.

With the war on, millions again will and should be in the streets shouting their protest. Though blacks still think the war is a bad thing, the pity is that most won't be in the streets with them.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst.
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