Black lawmakers should stand firm as voices of dissent

October 08, 2001|By Clarence Lusane

WASHINGTON - In the wake of the tragedies of Terror Tuesday, the Congressional Black Caucus faces perhaps its biggest challenge ever.

In its 30-year history, the caucus has generally stood to the left of center even in times of national crisis.

Most members did not support Republican wars in Grenada, Panama or the Persian Gulf, and were either silent about or critical of President Bill Clinton's campaign in Somalia and continual bombings of Iraq.

But this is a different situation, and an all-engulfing patriotism is in the air. Focused on a domestic agenda that calls for addressing U.S. inequalities and racism, the Congressional Black Caucus must now try to navigate in an atmosphere that calls for maximum national unity.

Only one black member of Congress - in fact, only one member of the House and Senate - voted against the resolution giving the Bush administration carte blanche to wage war any way it sees fit. Rep. Barbara Lee, whose district covers Berkeley and Oakland, Calif., says she is "convinced that military action will not prevent further acts of international terrorism against the United States."

Her vote of conscience brought thousands of e-mails, faxes and letters of condemnation, death threats and around-the-clock plainclothes security. Yet, she notes, in recent days the tone of the responses has shifted and the majority of comments are now favorable.

Two other black members of Congress, Michigan Reps. John Conyers and Carolyn Kilpatrick, missed the vote; all the other black members supported the resolution.

Mr. Conyers, a progressive thorn in President Bush's side, is from Detroit, the city that boasts the largest Arab and Arab-American population in the United States.

Writing in the Washington Post, he expressed his concerns regarding the danger to civil liberties in a wave of rushed anti-terrorist legislation. He argued that even in this time of emergency, Congress "must ensure accountability and oversight." He also called for tough hate-crime legislation, especially given the assaults on people who are or are thought to be Middle Eastern or Muslim.

Although she voted for the resolution, Rep. Cynthia McKinney, D-Ga., has issued a number of statements reflecting her concerns that "the language of this resolution could result in dangerous foreign policy."

Despite the shifting climate, the caucus must steadfastly address the pressing social, political and economic concerns still facing millions in the United States and elsewhere.

And, in light of Sept. 11, it should tackle the threat to our civil liberties, the dangers of all-out war, the economic fallout that has already begun and the racial assaults that are escalating.

This is no time to be cowed by Mr. Bush's "wanted: dead or alive" rhetoric.

The economic recession, well on its way before Sept. 11, has suddenly and stunningly made a great leap forward.

As always, it will be unevenly felt. The Congressional Black Caucus must make it a priority to help out the poor and those who are losing their jobs.

The caucus should also ensure that the issue of a genuine peace process in the Middle East is not compromised as the new political imperative becomes anti-terrorism rather than social justice. In fact, the Congressional Black Caucus should make the link between the two.

In response to those who would accuse it of being unpatriotic, it can explain that analyzing why the attacks might have happened is not the same as excusing what happened.

It will take a great deal of courage and electoral risk to raise needed points of dissent. But the Congressional Black Caucus should stand firm on principle. It should be a constituency that represents a view of justice embodying both the ending of terrorism and the maintenance of democracy and human rights.

Clarence Lusane is an assistant professor in the School of International Service at American University in Washington. He can be reached at pmproj@progressive.org or by writing to Progressive Media Project, 409 East Main St., Madison, Wis. 53703.

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