Illustration by Dave Shulman
I almost hate to bring this up. Feelings about 9/11 are glowing hot like the obliterated-but-still-smoldering World Trade Center towers themselves. The body count remains speculative. We literally haven’t gotten to the bottom of the towers yet, to say nothing of the bottom of the whole bewildering terrorist ordeal that has landed our military in a remote country that up to now we have cozily associated with big dogs and patchwork throw blankets. Here at home the government’s message is that Americans should respond to extraordinary circumstances extraordinarily, meaning that we should suspend any disbelief or criticism about its plan of action, or if we can’t do that, at least keep our mouths shut. There are issues of national security, after all, of vanquishing an enemy that is depending on our very disunity to achieve its goals; we can’t give them the satisfaction.
Part of me would like to hold up such a front, just as I reported not long ago that I actually wanted to wave a flag, yet I can’t, because — I must bring it up — black people have a different point of view. If anybody cares to hear this, polls and more informal temperature takings are finding that, while the majority of blacks support the war, it is a markedly smaller majority than you find among whites, which leaves lots of room for a certain wariness among black folk toward so-called national interests — wariness that’s grown as American as apple pie. That blacks and whites have different perspectives on the same issue is hardly news in the larger scheme of American history — that is American history, for God’s sake. But in the small scheme, in the increasingly airless debate about Afghanistan et al., the black difference is being roundly ignored.
The racial gap on this issue is not so black and white, in more ways than the obvious. A Pew Research Center poll recently found that 90 percent of whites supported the recent bombings, versus 70 percent of blacks. I would wager that even the word support means different things to these two groups, but I’m reasonably sure that the black percentage of those not in favor have some qualitatively different doubts than their white counterparts. Anti-war whites are assumed to be, by and large, peace activists or social progressives or some other kind of philosophical objectors whose philosophy was forged during some critical event, like the civil rights movement or the Red scare or even the WTO protests. Blacks may overlap in that regard, but their main grievance is, and has always been, with a power structure that has never granted them full citizenship status. The patriotism the Bush administration expects us to pull out and dust off like a good suit blacks have had to forge through a history of homegrown terrorism that began with slavery intensified after Reconstruction and persists to one degree or another today, economically, emotionally, psychologically. You try that at home.
There are other impediments. Hearing the White House declare a kind of vigilante justice campaign on terrorism inflames a not-too-distant cultural memory. During a recent black forum held at Howard University that looked at American foreign policy and the advisability of war, one black reverend remarked that in calling for Osama bin Laden dead or alive, “Bush was calling out the posse, and black people know the posse. They come by and get you in the middle of the night and kill you without due process.” Nor is fear of this sort of justice exclusively ours: At the forum, entitled “A Black Community National Dialogue,” panelists included Latinos, Koreans and other ethnics who have historical reasons to regard the current American nationalism skeptically, if not downright suspiciously. Arab-Americans, now the target of brand-new and patently unconstitutional FBI probes, may soon have no choice but to join the ranks of the wronged. Columbia University professor Manning Marable noted in a recent article that equating skin color with anti-American sentiment began with blacks — proof that they were foreigners in their own country.
Yet, if I may return to my original point, what gets me is that black people are classified as dissidents at all. Clamoring for equality guaranteed by our own government has gotten us an enmity we hardly deserve, though, after many generations, raising objections to the status quo is now nearly encoded into our DNA, to the point that black dissent sounds somewhat redundant. But as with most other things black, it has a very particular and unforgiven history — Nat Turner, Malcolm X, Marcus Garvey, the Panthers, even that paragon of peace Martin Luther King Jr., who in his day was branded a threat not just to domestic but international security. Politically restive Negroes have always been considered especially dangerous because what they wanted — the ballot, equitable education — wasn’t up for negotiation. The latest instance of black unrest, lest we forget (and since 9/11 we’ve forgotten much), is last year’s hijacking of the presidential election. It was an election that Bush appeared to have procured at the expense of black people and at the expense of voting rights secured not very long ago; once again an uncomfortably recent cultural memory was pricked open.
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.”