War in Iraq points up racial divide
By ALFRED LUBRANO
- The war in Iraq is illuminating a racial divide in
America, a profound rift in thinking between blacks and whites.
Different histories and different experiences are bringing many
people to different conclusions.
Among black Americans, just 29 percent support the war, while 78
percent of white Americans do, according to a March 28 Gallup poll.
Many blacks see wrongs in the conflict that white Americans often
cannot discern, African American scholars and analysts say.
For one thing, many black people say their history makes them
especially sensitive to the spectacle of a dominant entity asserting
its will over a weaker minority.
Then, too, the U.S. policy of pre-emption - attacking Iraq
without provocation - smacks of a kind of harassment with which many
blacks say they are all too familiar.
Finally, there is President Bush himself, excoriated by many
blacks as the victor in a contested election in which black votes
reportedly went uncounted; as the former Texas governor who executed
many black convicts; as an allegedly insensitive leader who used the
Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King's birthday as the time to express his
opposition to affirmative action - an issue coincidentally being
taken up by the U.S. Supreme Court as fighting rages in Iraq.
"If anything," says University of Pennsylvania
sociologist Elijah Anderson, "Bush puts forth an agenda seen by
black people as antagonistic. That accounts for a huge amount of
alienation in the black community. That makes so many blacks turned
off by this war. These days, blacks have an especially critical eye
Many blacks find themselves in a quandary - opposing a war in
which a disproportionate number of those in the military are black.
Though they are 12 percent of the general population, blacks make up
21 percent of the U.S. military. This has created a conflict for
black families who want to support dear ones in the killing zone but
cannot condone the war.
Black America is hardly a monolith, and those blacks who do
support the war have no problem standing up for their beliefs in the
rightness of the mission.
"I really do believe Saddam Hussein is a dangerous
man," said Tracy Price-Thompson, 39, a retired Army lieutenant
who lives in Fort Dix, N.J., with her Army husband. She is the
author of "Black Coffee," a novel about blacks in the
"I've heard black people say, `This is not our war.' If you
look at this as an American, then this is your war."
For some blacks, there's an additional complication in all this -
what National Public Radio's Tavis Smiley calls the "tricky
conversation" regarding Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and
national security adviser Condoleezza Rice, blacks who are among the
Bush administration's most visible players in the war.
The polls demonstrate that among black Americans, much antiwar
sentiment is directed toward the president - and that the enmity is
"Bush is more of an immediate threat to me," says
Quintel Harcum, a 21-year-old philosophy student at Lincoln
University, one of America's oldest black universities, tucked into
southern Chester County, Pa. "He's against affirmative action."
It is not lost on many blacks that the war is raging at the
precise moment the U.S. Supreme Court is contemplating the future of
"Nobody minds us fighting and dying," says William
Spriggs, executive director of the National Urban League Institute
for Opportunity and Equality in Washington. "But everyone is up
in arms about our going to college." He was referring to those
opposed to affirmative action at the University of Michigan, whose
entrance policy is part of the Supreme Court case.
At a more basic level, many blacks still question the legitimacy
of Bush's presidency. Citing the reported disenfranchisement of
numerous black voters in Florida during the 2000 election,
sociologist Anderson said the disputed vote "still sticks in
the throat. It's caused huge African-American alienation toward
So profound is the animosity, in fact, says historian Manning
Marable, director of African American studies at Columbia
University, that many blacks believe "regime change should
begin at home, because the guy was not democratically elected."
Asked whether she voted for Bush, Lola Moore, 59, who runs a
Camden health clinic based in Woodrow Wilson High School, seems
incredulous. "Are you kidding? He never impressed me as a very
bright person. Seems to be fighting this war on behalf of his father
… what his daddy couldn't do."
Bush is also criticized for "despising" Bill Clinton, a
president admired by black people in large numbers, according to
David Bositis, senior political analyst at the Joint Center for
Political and Economic Studies, an African-American think tank in
Beyond Bush, the sight of American treasure being expended to
fund a war rankles people who see where the money could be better
"We have war going on in our neighborhoods," says
Stephane Coney, 39, of Camden, Pa., founder of the National Stop the
Violence Alliance, a grass-roots antiviolence group. "We have
war going on in our schools."
Brandon Bigelow, a 20-year-old Lincoln University student, agrees.
"What I'm against is the U.S. saying it's taking care of all
these countries when there are things to be fixed at home."
Historically repressed by slavery, prejudice and limited choices,
black Americans are uncomfortable witnessing the "might-makes-right
perspective," according to sociologist Darnell Hunt of the
University of California at Los Angeles. And why intervene when oil
is on the line, and not black people's lives, as in Rwanda? asks the
Rev. Steven Lawrence, president of the Metropolitan Christian
Council of Philadelphia.
For years, says Ron Walters, professor of African-American
politics and culture at the University of Maryland, "war has
been made on us. Our mentality is that of a defeated people, and we
tend to identify with many of the oppressed and defeated groups
around the world.
"But though we are jaundiced, we participate," Walters
asserts. In fact, blacks have been fighting for the country since
the Revolutionary War, and nowadays, the racially diverse military
is an attractive career option for young blacks who find less luck
breaking into the corporate world.
The American decision to attack Iraq pre-emptively, without proof
that Saddam possesses weapons of mass destruction, reminds some
black people of hostile police behavior. "It rings of the
experience of cops' saying, `I thought I saw a gun' to justify the
shooting of an unarmed black suspect," says the Urban League's
Spriggs. "You gotta give us more evidence than, `I thought I
saw a gun.'"
(Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondents Dwayne Campbell,
Vernon Clark, Murray Dubin, Rita Giordano and Elizabeth Wellington
contributed to this report.)