Why aren't more blacks protesting the war?

April 08, 2003|By Earl Ofari Hutchinson

WITH THE attack on Iraq well under way, 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 opposed the war.

They have more reason than whites to condemn it. The Iraq attack could increase racial profiling; further erode civil liberties; 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 blacks in the streets shouting their outrage at President Bush?

The poll was taken in October. Then Iraq was barely a blip on the public's radar screen. The Bush administration had done little to sell the public on the need to dump Saddam Hussein. The poll also found that war worry took a distant back seat among blacks to concern about failing public schools, inadequate health care and crime.

By March, that had changed. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell had become a fixture on TV talk shows, at public forums, in Congress and at the United Nations, waving loads of documents purporting to show that Mr. Hussein had the means and intent to wipe out thousands.

Though Mr. Powell didn't convince Russia, France, China or singer-activist Harry Belafonte, Mr. 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 would support a military assault.

But Mr. Powell's charisma or popularity didn't persuade more blacks to back an attack. Blacks make up nearly one-third of Army enlistees. Anti-war activists say this is the precisely why blacks should be in the streets protesting. But this mixes myth with fact.

According to Pentagon 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 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, many blacks still flocked to the military in droves.

Many blacks then, as now, saw the anti-war movement as a "white folks thing" that was totally disconnected from their daily struggles against racism and survival. There was also resentment that white anti-war 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 killed, sometimes while still in uniform, when they returned 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 military is still regarded as a ticket out of the ghetto and a chance to learn skills, get a quality education and advance their career.

Then there's black ambivalence toward Mr. 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 Mr. Powell, they say he's in the wrong party and the wrong administration.

But blacks also are frightened of more terrorist attacks. In polls taken immediately after Sept. 11, a majority of blacks backed profiling and the carrying of identity cards, tighter security measures and shakedowns at airports. They were more willing than in the past to enlist in the armed forces.

With the lone exception of California Democrat Barbara Lee, the entire Congressional Black Caucus backed the war powers resolution that gave Mr. Bush a free hand to wage war against any person or country suspected of terrorist activity. Many issued public statements that sounded as bellicose as Mr. Bush's in demanding decisive military action against terrorism. In some polls, a near majority of blacks say that Mr. Bush is doing a good job in the fight against terrorism.

With the war on, thousands of Americans have taken to the streets shouting their protest. Though blacks still think the war is a bad thing, the pity is that most aren't in the streets with them.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He is the author of The Crisis in Black and Black (Middle Passage Press, 1998). He lives in Inglewood, Calif.

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