Many blacks find little to support in gulf crisis Critics don't see justification for waging war

December 17, 1990|By John Fairhall | John Fairhall,Evening Sun Staff

In his memorable way, Muhammad Ali said in 1966 that had no stake in the Vietnam War: "I ain't got no quarrel with the Viet Cong."

Today, many black Americans are saying much the same about Iraqis.

Surveys show that blacks support President Bush's Persian Gulf policy less than whites. And, increasingly, blacks in all walks of life are speaking out against his policy, voicing objections arising from their minority experience.

At Howard University, black students recently staged an anti-war rally and held a forum entitled, "No Iraqi Ever Called Me A Nigger," says Howard political science department chairman Ronald Walters.

Black critics share with white critics the major concern that Bush hasn't given the country adequate reason to go to war. But blacks typically link that issue to minority concerns.

"You can't separate black attitudes toward involvement in a war and the question of social justice in the U.S.," Walters says. "So a lot of that cynicism is not isolated, it's connected to their socioeconomic status."

Many blacks see Bush's Persian Gulf policy as an example of distorted foreign policy that makes war against Third World peoples while doing little to relieve their problems. Some worry it will divert billions of dollars from badly needed domestic programs.

"If it's oppression we're fighting," says Rep. Kweisi Mfume, D-7th, "then I don't recall anyone at the White House working to eliminate the oppression" in South Africa. "If it's fear of the nuclear bomb, then why did we court the Chinese who had the bomb and clearly violate human rights?"

"If it's to oppose terrorism," Mfume adds, "then why does Bush court President Assad" of Syria, identified by the U.S. government as a supporter of terrorist activities.

Seeing no justification for war, black critics look at the overall 20 percent minority makeup of the armed services -- it's 30 percent in the Army -- and fear blacks will suffer a disproportionate number of casualties. This is a legacy of Vietnam, blacks say, when many well-off white kids ducked war duty.

"One of the concerns I hear over and over is blacks are overrepresented in the ranks of those who are most vulnerable in the gulf," says Russell E. Owens, director of the national policy institute at the Joint Center for Political Studies.

Polls revealed soon after the crisis erupted in August that blacks were more ambivalent than whites about U.S. action against Iraq. An ABC News-Washington Post poll done in November found little change: While 62 percent of whites approved of Bush's handling of the crisis, only 45 percent of blacks approved.

Edwin Dorn, senior staff associate at the Brookings Institution, sees in the polls evidence of generalized black skepticism about government action.

"During the eighties in particular it became quite apparent to large numbers of blacks that what government giveth, government can easily taketh away, that those civil rights gains that were achieved as a result of presidential leadership can be turned around as a result of presidential leadership, and that produced a great deal of disaffection," Dorn says.

In that vein, critics bring up Bush's veto of the 1990 civil rights act and last week's U.S. Department of Education directive that distribution of scholarships earmarked for minorities violates civil rights laws.

Many black leaders, including the Rev. Jesse Jackson, applauded Bush's initial dispatch of troops to the gulf, when that was seen as a defensive move to protect Saudi Arabia. But they parted company with Bush when he continued the buildup and threatened war.

"I think if there had been an outright threat against the U.S., that's one thing," says the Rev. William Calhoun Sr., pastor of Trinity Baptist Church in Baltimore. "If we want to protect Saudi Arabia, I have no problems with that."

"But how much are we going to sacrifice for a royal family?" Calhoun asks.

Concern about the possibility of war spans a wide spectrum of the black community, black leaders say.

"I'm just not too keen on us playing nine-eleven for the world," says Baltimore city worker Joan Davenport, 38, referring to the idea of the U.S. acting as global cop.

"My biggest problem is with a family member over there and with African-American men fighting over there," she says. "We just seem to have problems over here we can't get reduced, jobs, housing. I don't want to personalize this, but do you think I can afford a house? No. But we're spending billions of dollars to send people over there."

Davenport was among several people interviewed recently at Mondawmin Mall in Baltimore. None would support war and all said they lacked a clear idea of what's at stake for the U.S.

"I'm sure they're not telling the public everything," says Tony Wilson, 38. He speculated that the Bush administration's actions might be motivated by "economic reasons" or have something to do with the Arab-Israeli conflict.

"It don't make no sense to me, over some gasoline," says Ulysses Cottrell, 74.

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