Racist Undercurrents in the “War on Terror”

Malik Miah

ALTHOUGH IT IS rarely mentioned in  the so-called war on terrorism, racism is an undercurrent in every action and decision taken by the Bush-Cheney government. It is a dangerous element that has long-term implications.

History teaches us that racism has a way of rising up and being used by the rulers to push back, divide and advance anti-democratic objectives, even after wars and other adventures are stopped. Unfortunately, many liberals and left activists don’t pay enough attention to this aspect of the Bush-Cheney attempt to rewrite the Constitution and impose U.S. will on the peoples of the Middle East and world.

The use of fear and warmongering has convinced most Americans, including African Americans, that the ends justify the means. The link between racism and the war on terrorism is therefore generally downplayed or ignored.

When Dick Cheney says the divide between Republicans and Democrats is between the “cut and run” Democrats and the Bush Administration, he always adds that the critics of  their policies (that includes torture, imprisonment for life and racial proofing) don’t want to “win the war on terrorism.” Bush said critics of his policy are “enablers of terrorists.”

Racial profiling is tacitly considered an acceptable part of conducting war. The mainstream media, with few exceptions, most notably the editors of The New York Times, give Bush, Cheney and their operatives a free pass on these issues. While some debate is taking place on the use of torture and loss of habeas corpus, little is said about racial profiling. Even civil rights leaders are mostly quiet. Why? Because no one wants to be labeled as soft on fighting terrorism.

If you look like an Iranian, an Afghani, a South Asian (mainly a Pakistani) or worse an Arab, it is now okay to racial profile to “protect the country.”

Logic of Racial Profiling

In my book, racism is racism no matter how it is justified. It is a disgrace that the topic is so underground and viewed as “that’s the way it is.”

The logic of racial profiling, however, is much more serious than simply a few setbacks in our civil liberties. It opens the door to broader justifications to impose more  onerous blows to affirmative action programs, school desegregation, and fair housing and employment rights for minorities.

The fact that little is written about the issue by the mainstream media shows how racism in the war on terrorism is considered acceptable. I tried to pull up articles on the internet to see how many times racial profiling, or racism and terrorism, have been written about. Amazingly, outside the left press, few critical articles or columns have appeared. The majority of pieces in fact have been in defense of racial profiling as a necessary step  in today’s world.

The depth of the problem is seen in an article  written in 2005  by an African American Washington Post deputy editorial page editor in an op-ed piece  entitled, “You can’t fight terrorism with racism.” (July 30, 2005). Regarding three op-ed pieces that had appeared in the Post and The New York Times, Colbert King wrote:

“A New York Times op-ed piece by Paul Sperry, a Hoover Institution media fellow [‘It’s the Age of Terror: What Would You Do?’] and a Post column by Charles Krauthammer [‘Give Grandma a Pass; Politically Correct Screening Won’t catch Jihadists’] endorsed the practice of using ethnicity, national origin and religion as primary factors in deciding when police should regard as possible terrorists—in other words, racial profiling.

“A second Times column, on Thursday, by Haim Watzman [‘When You have to Shoot First’] argued that the London police officer who chased own and put seven bullets into the head of a Brazilian electrician without asking him any questions or giving him any warning ‘did the right thing.’”

Krauthammer, King noted, was quick to make clear that he wasn’t talking about “classes of people who are obviously not suspects.” Who are these classes of people? You can guess.

What is striking is that everything Colbert King wrote in 2005 remains true today. I know first hand, as an airline employee, that most passengers accept the argument that it is better to err on the side of racial profiling than to face unknown terror. If anything, most Americans, including Blacks, make a distinction between their opposition to the war in Iraq and their support to using racial profiling if necessary.

Historical Context and the Present

The success of the Bush-Cheney regime in “winning” most Americans to this false, reactionary and racist view of entire peoples is one of the biggest gains of the right wing since 9/11.

The problem for citizens who are African American, Arab American, Iranian American, Latino or South Asian is that we have seen racism come in cycles — rise, then decline only to rise up again.

In the western United States in the 19th century, Chinese were brought in as laborers (e.g. to build the railroads), but  faced discrimination followed by a backlash and assaults. Japanese Americans were accepted for decades as “loyal” — until they were interned during WW II.

Mexican Americans have faced language discrimination and second-class status. Assimilation has not worked when anti-immigrant campaigns began — even Mexican American citizens were deported by the thousands in the Depression. Native Americans, never trusted or assimilated, still suffer on reservations and face third class status in urban areas.

For African Americans — slavery, legal segregation and de facto segregation — the history is long and brutal.

Yet all these groups, in the main, are silent or uncritical of today’s racial profiling of peoples from the Middle East and South Asia. While many on the left may want to pretend this isn’t the case, it is. It is not an accident that Democrats and  Republicans both play down racism and promote anti-terrorism to win votes.

We should all be concerned. If these groups are suffering amnesia on racial profiling regarding Arabs, Iranians and Pakistanis, it makes it easier for the Bush-Cheney government, supported by Congress, to use the “enemy combatant” demagogy to open the door to eroding and even reversing many civil rights gains that were won in the 1960s and ’70s.

History (distant and recent) shows that gains can be reversed. The end of slavery was supposed to bring equality — but instead the violent reaction to Radical Reconstruction led to a century of Jim Crow legal segregation. Affirmative action programs are disappearing from universities. School desegregation plans continue to be dismantled.

Standing Up for Rights

The Bush-Cheney assault on democratic rights, civil liberties, international treaties and long established principles from the Geneva Convention to the Magna Carta, goes hand and hand with the not-so-subtle exploitation of racism and bigotry.

The wave of racism in the war on terrorism can have long-term impact. It is not that difficult to go from  justifying racial profiling to fight terrorism, to extending it to other issues. Black Americans should know this better than any racial/ethnic group. Yet many African Americans are falling for the sweeping anti-“Islamic fundamentalist” rhetoric of the government.

The Bush-Cheney anti-terrorist drive, backed by Congress and the far right, is to impose American power and prevent  future challenges by the people. The goal is the creation of an imperial presidency — ultimately a step toward a more totalitarian regime.

As wars in Iraq and Afghanistan fail to “win,” the American people will press more forcefully for military withdrawal and  begin to challenge the powers of the imperial presidency.  The rush to rewrite the Constitution is aimed at limiting the future backlash.
Moreover, the American people while cowed by fearmongering still believe that the power of the state and government should be limited and under their control. Few if any support a permanent change in the Constitution  to allow unlimited presidential terms.

Taking on racial profiling and racism now is an important part of the fight to defeat the U.S. wars abroad and the imperial presidency at home. It’s time to make racial profiling a central issue of American politics.

ATC 125, November-December 2006