The US, race and war
Date: Monday, August 11 @ 01:35:23 UTC
Topic: Bush and Blair

Most African-Americans didn't support the war on Iraq - with good reason. But they ended up fighting it

by Gary Younge, The Guardian

As America's most eloquent minister for war, Tony Blair has often taken it upon himself to placate criticism of United States military aggression abroad by pointing to its social achievements at home. And there can be few greater American accomplishments, in his mind, than race.

Quite how he came to this ill-informed conclusion, and why he would choose to share it, is not entirely clear. He rarely mentions race domestically - the last time there were riots in the north he didn't even venture up there to see what had sparked them. So when he raises it about America, it exposes both his weakness on the subject in Britain and his ignorance of its dynamic in America.

In the Labour party conference speech in 2001 where he made the case for the bombing of Afghanistan, he hailed a meritocracy that could produce a black foreign secretary. "I think of a black man, born in poverty, who became chief of their armed forces and is now secretary of state, Colin Powell, and I wonder frankly whether such a thing could have happened here," he said.

Leave aside for the moment that Powell was not born into poverty; the truth is that as prime minister Blair could appoint a black person to the post of foreign secretary any time he wants. The fact that it took him five years to put Paul Boateng in a far lowlier position in his own cabinet is down to nobody but himself.

A few weeks ago, addressing Congress to justify the war on Iraq, he was at it again. "Tell the world why you are proud of America," he implored. "Tell them when the Star-Spangled Banner starts Americans get to their feet, not because some state official told them to but because, whatever race, colour, class or creed they are, being American means being free."

He might have asked himself how far his policies on asylum seekers, ID cards and immigration (not to mention the reckless language and bigoted logic of his home secretary, David Blunkett) have put back the day when black, Asian and Muslim Britons might feel similarly comfortable with their own national identity.

But what is most staggering about his use of race in his tributes to Uncle Sam is not that the accomplishments he supports in America are the very ones he is so busy stifling at home. It is that the very cause in which he raises them - war - has the least backing among those whose experience he uses to marvel at America's greatness: black people.

It is not difficult to see why. If America's achievements in race relations are exemplary then someone forgot to tell African-Americans - that section of the population most likely to be unemployed, poor, without health care, imprisoned, executed and arrested. And if war is the best way to remedy these ills, nobody told them that either.

Even at the height of the popularity of the war against Iraq in April, a Pew Research Centre poll found only 44% of African-Americans supported it, the lowest level of any group surveyed. Overall, 66% of Americans favoured military action, with support at 77% among whites and 67% among Hispanics.

Black Americans obviously shared the shock and loss of September 11. But most did not share the righteous indignation because the notion that they could be the victims of a mindless act of deadly violence in their own country was not entirely new. "Living in a state of terror was new to many white people in America," said writer Maya Angelou. "But black people have been living in a state of terror in this country for more than 400 years."

Indeed, the very man who claims to be fighting the war to make the world safe for democracy - President George Bush - came to power because black Americans in Florida were systematically denied the right to vote.

Such hypocrisy may be news to Blair. But it is no revelation for African-Americans. It is not just this war that irks them. They have been more sceptical than whites about every war during the past century because it has long been a staple truth of American foreign policy that the US would claim to be fighting for rights abroad that it refused to extend to black people and others at home.

N or is it news to the American government. After the second world war, tackling domestic racism was as much a foreign policy decision as anything else. A civil rights committee, appointed by President Harry Truman, reached the following conclusion: "We cannot escape the fact that our civil rights record has been an issue in world politics... They have tried to prove our democracy an empty fraud and our nation a consistent oppressor of underprivileged people."

It would be almost another 20 years before black Americans would be assured of the right to vote. Tied to a country by geography and nationality, yet denied full allegiance to it by politics and history, African-Americans have developed a habit of looking askance when their leaders reach for their gun in the name of the greater good.

But while they were the least likely to support these wars, since Korea they have been the most likely to end up fighting them. In fact, the American military is more reliant on the poor, and therefore non-whites, than ever before - pushed by poverty and pulled by the promise of learning a trade. In 1973 23% of the military was from racial minorities; in 2000 it was 37%. The demographic group most overrepresented in the military is the same one that polls show have least enthusiasm for the conflict - black women.

But if black Americans' resistance to US foreign policy is understandable, is not uncomplicated or unqualified. If their opposition to the war has been greater than white Americans, their support for it has also been greater than the predominantly white populations of Europe. Two of the principle people responsible for the prosecution of the war - Powell and Condoleezza Rice - are black.

Herein lie the contradictions in what the late black intellectual WEB Dubois referred to as black America's "double consciousness". Bar the native Americans and a handful of pilgrims, they are the most longstanding racial group in the country. There are few who can lay a greater claim to being American than African-Americans. Yet there are few who can point to as much systematic prejudice at the hands of America.

"It is a peculiar sensation, this double consciousness," wrote Du Bois. "One ever feels his twoness - an American, a negro; two warring souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder."

It is a nuance that Blair clearly does not see and, given his backward racial policies in Britain, would not understand even if he did. For when they stand for the Star-Spangled Banner, they salute what they believe to be the nation's promise, not what they know to be its practice. And they are the least likely to believe that declaring war on foreign nations is the best way to fulfil that promise, because they have first-hand experience of how selective the ideals can be of those who fight them.

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