Features » January 31, 2008
Where is the Dream? (cont’d)
The black leadership’s complicity in this defeat contributes to cynicism among black voters, many of whom have opted out of the political process because they cannot count on their leaders to represent their interests. On WVON, a black radio station, many callers expressed frustration over leaders who had “sold-out” community interests. They demanded that their aldermen vote for the living wage and challenged community leaders to support them. As frontline victims of the war, both economically and militarily, African Americans have a right to question the priorities of their leaders. Why is it that black leaders can mobilize on behalf of the world’s wealthiest corporation and not against the Iraq War? If the white antiwar movement is so inhospitable, what is preventing black leaders from holding rallies of their own in black communities?
A look at protest directed against members of Congress illustrates this point. For five days in March 2006, activists camped out at Democratic Rep. Rahm Emmanuel’s Chicago office to press him to cut war funding. Earlier in the month several activists had set up an encampment at former Republican Rep. Dennis Hastert’s office in Batavia, a few miles outside Chicago, to pressure him. This stands in sharp contrast to the relative absence of pressure on Reps. Jesse Jackson Jr., Danny Davis and Bobby Rush and reflects, in part, the lack of visible, organized activism around the war in black communities.
Many black leaders are involved in the peace movement. In Chicago Rev. Calvin Morris of the Community Renewal Society, Rev. Jeremiah Wright of Trinity United Church of Christ, and Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr. have been visibly present in antiwar organizing. The weakness of antiwar organizing in black communities then, is not only a leadership question, but indicates a broader problem of community disorganization and disengagement. High rates of incarceration, joblessness, school dropouts, student indebtedness and family disorganization, present a formidable challenge to political organizers.
With the Iraq War siphoning $10 billion per month from critical domestic programs, the black community needs a much stronger presence in the campaign to bring it to an end. Furthermore, this financial hemorrhaging is contributing to economic anxiety among workers, an anxiety that is fueling much of the backlash against immigrant workers. Although, thankfully, the African-American community has so far resisted appeals by anti-immigrant forces to join their movement, the continued downturn in the economy presents the risk of potentially destructive tensions between blacks and immigrants. It is therefore imperative for black leadership to appreciate the fierce urgency of ending this war. Doing so removes a serious impediment to addressing the problems that plague black communities, and sets the stage for building politically important coalitions with immigrant communities.
The fact that supermajorities of African Americans oppose the war presents a unique opportunity for a new black leadership to emerge, one that could also challenge American foreign policy or America’s role in the world. In a sense, Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) symbolizes this possibility.
But, for the most part, antiwar African Americans, including those who are now declining to enlist in the military, lack leaders willing to champion their cause. Indeed, black antiwar sentiment has reached new levels, as indicated in a 58 percent drop in enlistment since 2000, as reported in the Boston Globe.
Sadly, because of the leadership vacuum, what should be a fertile moment for organizing is slipping away. Many black activists may want to engage in antiwar protest, but object to working with white antiwar forces. For their part, whites in the peace movement need to do a better job of creating a more welcoming, multiracial environment. However, this situation cannot be the excuse to not oppose a war that has killed thousands of Americans and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis. If mainline peace groups are not receptive, black leaders can borrow a page from the Tuskegee Airmen and do their own thing.
It is time to recall, and to revive, the pioneering leadership of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. who eloquently warned against the perils of war: “A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.” But King was also clear about the importance of linking issues, of working in coalitions and of broadening our gaze from the local to the international. Black communities are hungry for this type of leadership.
James Thindwa is a member of In These Times' Board of Directors and a labor and community activist.