It is just this sort of thing that makes Bush’s call to arms damn near impossible to answer, even tepidly, though there have been other things too, including the American snub of the conference on racism and xenophobia, held in Durban, South Africa, in early September. Nobody black could miss the symbolism of Secretary of State Colin Powell making it clear he wanted to go, but then “deciding” not to go — the final but unsurprising irony of the highest-ranking black government official in American history having to toe the party line. The message was that Powell’s views and beliefs don’t matter, only his adherence to a prescribed point of view that may or may not benefit a black constituency. The narrative of compromise and power playing only feels extended, not altered, in the American war on terrorism.
And — I really hate to bring this up — some of us feel expendable in the nasty bioterrorism battle that’s cropped up as a sideshow. The casualties on the anthrax frontline include two postal workers, both of whom were black; beneath the grumbles that the government did too little too late to protect the Capitol but not the workers is the speculation that it didn’t care because so many of its postal workers are black — another irony, this one more cruel, given that the post office has historically been among the country’s few sizable employers of African-Americans. Speaking of terrorism, professor Marable also points out that the recently lionized Rudy Giuliani had been well known for instituting a kind of terrorism in his aggressive — and successful — efforts to clean up New York, primarily through his Street Crimes Unit (Rampart, anyone?) that was responsible for, among other things, the horrific Amadou Diallo shooting. Yet this and other hot points of black dissent that were collectively making a case for racial injustice and slowly thawing the skepticism of a Reagan-hardened public feel like ancient history already. September 11 blew these clear but unanchored bits of indignation about like so much debris.
I’m getting the discomfiting feeling that the whole effort must begin again, from scratch. It might not ever: The Terrorist Question might permanently replace the Race Question as America’s biggest bugaboo. I don’t want to think too hard about the state of civil liberties, which has always borne the argument for black justice, in the wake of the breathless passage of the USA-PATRIOT Act. I suppose we’ve always been riding the back of the elephant, and while in good times we’ve been able to give it a couple of directions, it’s now lumbering on to its own music and we’re hanging on for dear life, or liberty. What we think about the matter at hand, about peace or war or the impossibilities of patriotism, is, as always, regarded but not considered. Maybe the best we can hope for in terms of visibility is also the worst. Ronald Hampton, director of the National Black Police Association, remarked at the Howard University forum that he wasn’t concerned about Arab terrorists and the possible fallout of the new racial profiling. “They have a distraction now,” he said, “but the government will get back to us.”