Where Are The Black Cindy Sheehans?
The moving sight of aggrieved mother Cindy Sheehan camped out in front of President Bush's ranch touched a national nerve. Sheehan is a white mom that lost a son. And who wouldn't be compassionate and sensitive to her loss? But there are plenty of black moms that have lost sons in Iraq, and few have followed Sheehan's example and publicly and dramatically raised their voices in protest.
Though polls show that more blacks than whites oppose the war, and black Congressperson Maxine Waters has hammered Bush on Iraq, there has been no mass move by blacks to publicly join the antiwar chorus. Few blacks showed up at the peace vigils that Sheehan's one-woman protest stirred nationally in August. With the arguable exception of an antiwar march in Harlem on the second anniversary of the Iraq invasion, the faces of the antiwar protestors have looked like Sheehan's.
That's been the case in the countless protests mounted against America's wars, and that includes the Vietnam War protests. The widely held but false notion was that blacks died in much bigger numbers than whites in Vietnam. Though many blacks openly denounced the war as racist, in which blacks were used as cannon fodder to kill other colored people, many blacks still flocked to the military in droves. They reviled the antiwar movement as a white movement that had little to do with their fight against job discrimination, failing public schools, and police abuse.
The reasons for this aren't hard to find. In the case of Iraq, blacks have not died disproportionately in the war. They are more likely to be in administrative and support positions than in front-line elite combat units such as the Special Forces and the Green Berets.
The much publicized and controversial capture of Shoshana Johnson, an African-American woman who served in a supply unit, in the early days of Iraq combat gave a public face to the dangers that black women in the military. The army, however, stood their peril on its head. It repackaged Johnson's capture and confinement as a heroic act under fire, gave her a hero's welcome upon her return home, and trotted her around on a well-publicized national tour to tell her tale of courage.
This did not stir a rush by blacks to military recruitment centers; in fact, the number of black enlistments have since plunged. But that has less to do with a spike up in black opposition to the military than the legitimate fear blacks have of being killed in battle. Also, more college-bound blacks have greater job and career choices than in decades past.
Despite the risks of being killed on the battlefront, the staggeringly high levels of unemployment for young black males, poor education, and continued fringe job discrimination make the army's relentless "be all you can be" pitch irresistible to many poor, young blacks. They see the army as their one, maybe only, chance to learn skills, get a quality education, receive top medical care, or earn a pension, among other benefits.
ROTC programs have been dumped from or chased off numerous major university campuses. Yet they have expanded at black colleges. A significant number of army ROTC commissions received by blacks are awarded at nearly two dozen black colleges. Blacks hold more management and executive positions in the army that give them command and decision-making power over whites than in any other government agency, let alone the corporate world. Former Secretary of State Colin Powell and the vast array of black generals, and thousands of commissioned and NCOs are walking advertisements for the glories of military life.
Then there's the deep and unshakeable rally-'round-the-flag patriotism that always stirs many blacks in times of war and crisis. Combat has often been seen as a chance to prove their patriotism and loyalty, and to strike a big blow against racism. If they proved their mettle in battle things would get better for them at home.
That sentiment spilled out at a recent panel discussion on the military in Los Angeles featuring current and former black army vets. The panelists fervently hoped that the war would end as quickly as possible. Yet they strongly expressed the belief that when duty called, and in this case that meant the call of the military, they had to answer it. As one panelist said, "I may not agree with Bush, but he's still my commander-in-chief."
Americans watch Sheehan brave taunts, insults, and a fierce scramble by Bush and Vice-President Dick Cheney to counter the widespread notion that the Iraq war is a no-win folly. That included many black moms who, like her, do not believe in the war or Bush. Yet, few have joined Sheehan in her impassioned protest or are likely to -- at least for the moment.