Race and Class: Why Black Patriotism?

Against the Current, No. 97, March/April 2002

Malik Miah

BUSH’S “WAR ON terrorism” is leading to some complex and contradictory reactions among African Americans. Blacks, like an overwhelming majority of Americans, reacted to the heinous crime of September 11 with outrage and demands for revenge against those behind it. They backed President Bush’s new war on terrorism and joined in flag-waving and outer outward signs of patriotism that has become common place across the country.

African America is proud that two of Bush’s inner cabinet are African Americans: Secretary of State Colin Powell and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice. They may not agree with many of their rightist political views. But it is a fact that never in U.S. history have Blacks played such a central role as policymakers and thinkers in the world’s only super-power.

It shows in a perverted way that narrow nationalism can bring solidarity among a historically discriminated people to support individuals who clearly don’t reflect or support their best long-term interests. (It’s also why the Black Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, an arch reactionary on most civil rights issues, is still supported by the average Black American.)

Revealing Poll Results

Thus it wasn’t a surprise to me to see the results of a New York Times/CBS News poll in December. It found some 75% of Blacks supporting the government and Bush’s war on terrorism. Many African Americans who had never displayed the American flag wore it proudly or hung it from their homes.

As one young Black resident told the local press in San Francisco, “These [flag patches on his jacket and work shirt] are going to stay on there forever. I’m pro-country, pro-government.”

But the Times poll showed there remain a divide between whites (Caucasians) and African Americans even on the issue of patriotism and support to the government. The poll found that nearly three of every four Blacks approved of the performance of President Bush — who got only 8% of the Black voters in the November 2000 vote. Whites, on the other hand, backed Bush by 90%.

Another December poll by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press noted that 68% of U.S. minorities backed the Bush war on Afghanistan, whereas some 88% of whites did.

The ambivalence among Blacks is not a surprise. “It’s about a contradiction in their own lives — about the difference between feeling like Americans and at the same time, feeling like America hasn’t fully embraced them,” said Keith Woods of the Florida-based Poynter Institute. (San Francisco Chronicle, 2/3/02)

There are many reasons for the contradictory response to the so-called war on terrorism. The domestic side of the war is unsettling to many Americans, especially Blacks. They see the Justice Department attacks on civil liberties escalate, targeting Arab Americans and other immigrants for alleged visa violations or over-stay.

They see the racial profiling, particularly at airports. It’s a reminder to Blacks of what they’ve always faced.

While Blacks know that Rice and Powell aren’t tokens (as was the case many times in past governments), they also know that these individuals don’t really represent the common Black folk.

Rice and Powell are privileged and do not support the mainstream views in the community. Like Bush, they represent the interests of the haves, not the have-nots.

At the same time, most Blacks (as was seen after 9/11 in New York) are “glad” to see Arabs being discriminated against instead of them. It’s a misguided expression of “relief.” Malcolm X called this head-in-the-sand denial of reality a reflection of low self-esteem.

A S.F. Chronicle reporter Annie Nakao quotes one Oakland insurance clerk’s explanation, “Let other races feel what it’s like. It’s been going on for a long time with African Americans.”

Of course, these mixed sentiments in the Black community — supporting the war on terrorism but ambivalent on the new racism aimed at others — reflect the New World reality.

The ability of Washington to win so easily in Afghanistan and to make up its own international law, and act unilaterally, sent a strong message to Washington’s imperialist allies and Third World rulers that it alone will decide which countries are “evil.”

Bush in his State of the Union picked his next targets as the “axis of evil” of Iraq, Iran and North Korea. He’s already sent Special Forces to the Philippines and advisers to Columbia. No country, no group, no individual can doubt Bush’s intentions.

Black In-house Apologists

The ideological offensive to “unite” the country behind the rightist agenda includes revising Black history. According to a story in the March issue of Savoy, a Black-interest magazine, Condoleeza Rice, a native of segregated Birmingham, Alabama in her youth, said white bigots if given time would eventually have changed on their own.

There was no need for a massive civil disobedience campaign to end segregation. “Segregation had become not just a real moral problem,” she said, “but it had become a real pain in the neck for some [white] people.”

Rice was against sending a high level delegation to the Durban, South Africa, United Nations conference on racism last year. She basically sides with the Republican right on issues regarding race, placing more emphasis on self-help and one’s own actions.

With friends like Rice, Colin Powell (not a “moderate” as some liberals claim but a strong advocate of the Bush Doctrine) and Clarence Thomas, African Americans already see the reactionary side of the New World reality.

It is a mistake to view U.S. policies and propaganda against terrorism as simply a continuation of previous pre-September 11 policies. They’re not — and African-Americans understand this better than most people.

The central lesson of African-American political history is that patriotic responses to crisis are both genuine and complex — and with an agenda. What counts are fundamental changes — an end to racism with full equality, jobs and economic development.

When the same old racism raises its ugly face — as it will so long as the free market profit system dominates the world — we can expect a different reaction. The high poll numbers for Bush will collapse.

In that context, the Black apologists in the government like Rice and Powell show the depth of the problem facing humanity.

from ATC 97 (March/April 2002)