Not Our Fight?

Why blacks are skeptical of war

Salim Muwakkil

A variety of national polls have revealed that African-Americans are as much as three times more likely than whites to oppose U.S. military action in Iraq. A Gallup poll released March 28, for example, found that 68 percent of black Americans opposed the war, while only 20 percent of whites did. Other polls found similar divides.

These strikingly disparate views surprise some, given the paucity of black faces at the major anti-war protests. They also are surprising, given the disproportionately large numbers of African-Americans who serve in the armed forces. Black recruits make up 22 percent of enlisted personnel in all branches of the armed forces, nearly double their representation in the population. Half of all enlisted women in the Army are black, while 38 percent are white.

Many African-Americans are attracted to the military because it provides opportunities sorely lacking in civilian life. In fact, the U.S. military is among the most desegregated institutions in American life. Cynics may argue that this is so because the armed forces need cannon fodder, but the reasons are more complicated and perhaps less malign.

According to a Defense Department report, African-Americans in the armed forces earn an average of $32,000 per year, compared with the average African-American salary in the private sector of $27,900. What’s more, the military is a strong supporter of affirmative action and has even offered a legal brief to the Supreme Court in its latest deliberation on the matter.

And yet despite African-Americans’ disproportionate presence in the military (or perhaps because of it), the black community is not gung ho for military action. “It has to do with black folks’ tradition of opposition to war,” explains Ronald Walters, a professor of political science at the University of Maryland. “We join the services and take part in war, but we often are opposed to it for moral reasons.”

African-American views on the Iraq conflict confirm that tradition. “All the way through the debate on the war, blacks have been less supportive,” Carroll Doherty, of the Washington-based Pew Research Center, told Newsday. “It’s such an interesting finding, and I think a lot of people put their own interpretation on it.”

The tradition of war opposition is amplified by African-Americans’ antipathy for President George W. Bush and the right-wing regime he fronts; they don’t trust an administration that has turned its back on some of the black community’s most essential issues. African-Americans routinely are told that the government has insufficient funds to improve their relatively dismal state of housing, health care and education, yet it seems to easily find the funds to conduct an illegal invasion of Iraq and the subsequent reconstruction.

This is an historical pattern of duplicity that is familiar to African-Americans. From the early days of the republic, when a Constitution extolling freedom tolerated slavery, blacks have learned to be suspicious of American leadership. Those suspicions have been vindicated through centuries of brutal and dismissive treatment from white leadership.

Bush has a particularly heavy onus to overcome because of the fiasco of the 2000 elections. While most Americans may have put Bush’s dubious ascension behind them, many African-Americans still view him as an illegitimate president. Although the events of September 11, 2001 have somewhat softened African-Americans’ negative views of Bush, the president remains widely unpopular in the black community. “This is George Bush’s war, and African-Americans neither trust nor like George Bush,” says David Bositis, senior political analyst at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies.

The Congressional Black Caucus has also been in the front lines of opposition to the Iraqi invasion. Thirty-four of the 38 caucus members last year voted against giving Bush the authority to go to war, and since the invasion, many still express opposition, though they are careful to note support for American troops.

Rep. Charles Rangel (D-New York) has been one of the caucus’ most vocal opponents of war. He also has been pushing a bill that would restore the draft, a maneuver that is widely seen as an attempt to embarrass pro-war legislators for supporting a conflict in which few of their children will have to fight. Rangel argues that the country’s minorities and poor will bear the brunt of U.S. belligerence.

Rep. Barbara Lee (D-California) is also a vocal critic of U.S. military action in the region. In fact, she was way out in front of the pack, as the only House member to vote against a 2001 resolution authorizing President Bush to use force against anyone associated with the 9/11 attacks.

Some commentators have interpreted blacks’ lack of enthusiasm for war as a lack of patriotism. This is an old accusation, and it has roots in the Revolutionary War, when thousands of enslaved Africans escaped bondage and joined the British army. These escapees were derided as traitors by the rebellious colonies, although the British “enemy” offered them freedom from slavery. The Continental leadership failed to understand how their repressive treatment of African-Americans did little to fuel black patriotism. And yet despite those perverse incentives, thousands of black men eventually joined the Continental army to fight the British—although with considerable ambivalence.

The incentives today are not quite so perverse, but African-Americans still remain skeptical of U.S. military adventure.

Salim Muwakkil is a senior editor of In These Times, where he has worked since 1983. He is the host of The Salim Muwakkil show on WVON, Chicago’s historic black radio station, and he wrote the text for the book HAROLD: Photographs from the Harold Washington Years.
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