Black America and the Iraq War
— Malik Miah
One of the contradictions of the peace/antiwar movement to date is the following: The main ethnic group that opposed the U.S. war on Iraq was largely invisible in the protest marches and rallies.
An overwhelmingly majority of whites (some 90 percent of white males) supported the unprovoked invasion of Iraq. African-Americans by a small majority (according to all polls) didn't.
What explains this contradiction?
Behind A Seeming Contradiction
It's not because the antiwar coalitions have failed to reach out to the African American communities. International ANSWER (Act Now to Stop War and End Racism) in particular, which was formed soon after 9/11, has included issues of anti-racism and discrimination--the war at home on the working poor--in its slogans.
African Americans have been prominent on the speakers' platform in San Francisco, Washington, D.C., New York City and at other protests.
There have been demonstrations organized in predominantly Black communities in Harlem and Oakland. The turnouts have been modest as well, none reflecting the higher antiwar sentiments.
The lack of active participation is not new. During the anti-Vietnam war movement some 30 years ago a similar low Black participation took place.
Muhammad Ali said it best about racism at home as the primary concern, when he declared while refusing the draft: "No Vietnamese ever called me Nigger!"
I remember organizing a coalition of Blacks against the war in my hometown of Detroit in 1970. In contrast to the main antiwar mobilizations and protests organized against racism after the 1967 "riots," our actions were modest.
During a high school walkout in my senior year in 1969 against a racist campaign against a Black judge (George Crockett) and an antiwar protest occurring the same day, most Black students joined the antiracist protest. Few went to the antiwar demonstration even though most Black students opposed the war.
We never saw it as a "problem," since we knew we were against the racist war. Our number one concern was showing support for a "brother judge" under attack. Few white students understood this.
Why Whites Don't Get It
I for one always found it odd that the issue for white progressives was always, "Why aren't more Blacks joining the antiwar protests?" Instead I thought, "Why haven't more whites understood the centrality of racism in society?"
Even though I did see the Vietnam War as central and later made it a priority in my political work, I understood why most militant Blacks didn't see it as a "big problem" to focus on issues of racism.
I know from my own discussions with Black co-workers at United Airlines the discussions are still the same. Most opposed Bush's war but few joined the demonstrations in San Francisco or Oakland. When I asked why, they simply said they had other things to do.
Pushed further, many said they were more concerned about our jobs at United, the declining economy and racism at home. One woman mechanic specifically mentioned the Michigan affirmative action case and the backwardness of white co-workers on issues of racial discrimination.
Where Was the Peace Movement?
Consider what happened on April 1 as the bombs were dropping on Iraq. A big pro-affirmative action protest occurred in Washington, D.C., overwhelmingly of Black and Latino students. The Black students, including from Howard University, went to the U.S. Supreme Court in support of affirmative action. Many carried signs linking the war and racism.
But where were the antiwar coalitions at the protest? Why hadn't they mobilized for the actions? Weeks earlier hundreds of thousands (mostly white) had marched in the city.
The reality for most Blacks is because racism is very much alive, their efforts tend to focus on immediate issues that affect the broader Black population, even though they are also antiwar. The limited active response by whites to attacks on affirmative action seems to confirm that approach.
The liberal Black leaders of the traditional civil rights groups including the NAACP sense this consciousness too. Most opposed the war on Iraq. Many spoke at the protests. But their focus is on issues of double-digit unemployment, segregated schools and poor health care for the Black population.
African leaders also see the double standard of U.S. policy. Nelson Mandela, the historic and moral leader of Africa, called the U.S. war on Iraq an act of aggression. South Africa's current president Thabo Mbeki raised concern that countries in Africa could be put on Bush's rogue states hit list.
Many African-Americans are well aware that the U.S. government's foreign policy is hypocritical too, as it gives billions in aid to the state of Israel, blantantly financing illegal settlements and occupation, while attacking Palestinians and Arab countries as "terrorists" and failed states.
The distrust among Blacks also reflects a history as victims of American democracy first as slaves (85 years) and then victims of Jim Crow (90 years). Can gains won 35 years ago be reversed? It happened after the Civil War, codified in the infamous Supreme Court Jim Crow decision (Plessy v. Ferguson, 1896) upholding the legality of "separate but equal."
Recalling the experience and legacy of the most famous African American in U.S. history--Martin Luther King, Jr.--proves how gains can be eroded.
While King is known (especially among whites) for his steadfast opposition to legal segregation by building a massive nonviolent civil disobedience movement for Black equality, his last year of life indicated a political evolution that began threatening the status quo of entrenched white power.
He was becoming a leader against U.S. foreign policy that supported neocolonialism and oppression abroad, and institutional racial and class oppression at home.
Every April 4 in Memphis, where King was assassinated in 1968, a celebration of his life takes place. Here, unlike official Washington's celebration that is sanitized for white America, the real King is observed--the antiwar and antiracist King.
At a speech at the Riverside Church in New York in 1967 King said the Vietnam War was wrong, adding, "There comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but he must do it because conscience tells him it is right."
The FBI targeted King so that he was not just worried about being smeared by pro-war supporters but feared for his life.
King also launched the interracial poor people's movement that year, arguing that the government must not just end legal discrimination but take steps to end the poverty of all working people, especially African Americans.
He went to Memphis to support sanitation workers. Opposition to the Vietnam War and his campaign against poverty were flipsides of the same fight, he said.
Today's antiwar organizers must follow King's example. Institutional racism and neocolonial wars are evils that must be fought hand and hand.
The attacks on civil liberties by the Bush government (epitomized by the USA Patriot Act) make it even more urgent, since Attorney General Ashcroft clearly sees the antiwar and antiracist activists in the same way Hoover viewed King: as unpatriotic critics.
The challenge for the antiwar movement is to deepen its working class connections and its support among the African American communities by better understanding how Blacks see the issue of war and racism as integrally linked.
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ATC 104, May-June 2003