Iraq, Black Folks, and the Crisis of the White Left

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      . Close to
400 US troops have been killed since
President Bush declared major combat
operations over on May 1st, 2003. Roadside
bombs regularly kill US service personnel.
News reports flash gory scenes of University of Illinois, more than 338 courses were cancelled
this past academic year. Several large lecture classes
no longer have teaching assistant-led recitation sections
that provide undergraduate opportunities to discuss
classroom materials in small settings. This is occurring
in universities across the country. The ranks of
food service, physical plant, clerical, and custodial
workers at American colleges and universities are
increasingly filled by of color.As schools trim their budgets,
administrators look to outsource college services to
non-unionized labor.With these changes in higher education
coupled with the disappearance of higher-waged
unionized jobs, increasingly more people of color will
find themselves trapped in dismal, low-paying service
jobs. This reckless war has caused a financial crisis. A
crisis which will continue the decline of communities
that have already been devastated by police brutality, the
criminal (in)justice system, de-industrialization,
absence of free health care, and a war on the poor and
working people.
Considering these issues, it is unconscionable that we
often hear white Leftists ask: “Why don’t more Black
people come to protests, events, or meetings?” This
question should be reversed.Where have white progressives
been when Black people have staged protests for
reparations or against police brutality? Where have
white anti-war activists been when Black community
groups have organized campaigns for better schools and
safer streets? Indeed, organizations and individuals of
color at the national, regional, state, and local level have
been fighting everyday for survival in this country for
the last 20 (400) years. In light of these developments,
quips about Black people’s absence from peace demonstrations
reflects little more than white anti-war
activists’ arrogance, ignorance, and racism.
White leftists need to ask themselves why a Black person
would want to attend an anti-war protest.Attending
a two-hour demonstration might mean that someone
has to take a whole day off from work. For a young
Black mother working a low-paying job at the checkout
counter of a grocery store, losing even a few hours
from work can mean not having enough money to pay
the bills or buy food for that week. In addition, demonstrations
are often surrounded by well-armed, scared
white police in riot gear. Considering that a significant
portion of people in the Black community have criminal
records or have friends, relatives, or neighbors in
prison, why would an African American want to put
themselves in a situation where they could be thrown in
jail or violate probation? Above all, the threat of being
targeted as “un-American” at this historical moment has
much more negative consequences for Black and Brown
people than it does for their white counterparts. For
example, with the exception of John Walker Lindh, the
so-called “American Taliban,” all of the high-profile
cases of people detained by the Justice Department for
having alleged ties to “terrorist” organizations have been
people of color. With these facts in mind, it is amazing
that any Black, Brown, and people of Arab and Middle
Eastern descent attend protests.
Additionally, the culture of demonstrations and
peace groups is often alien to most Black people. Too
often in meetings white radicals use wooden obscure
language instead of speaking in a way that most people
can easily understand. By doing so, they drive away people
who might very well wish to become more involved
in anti-war organizing. Language in this sense becomes
oppressive in itself. Few people of color are going to feel
comfortable around funky looking white people or aged
white folks singing 1960s-era folks songs. It’s hip hop,
not Peter Seeger, that speaks to young people of color
and can be used to mobilize them for progressive causes.
White leftists too often have a preoccupation with
prioritizing “the class struggle” over fighting white
supremacy. For instance, how many times have Black
activists heard white peace activists ask: “Won’t focusing
more on anti-racism dilute our message about the war?”
What they fail to realize is that class in the US has always
been and continues to be racialized. What
scholar/activist W.E.B.Du Bois called the “psychological
wage” of white supremacy, which allowed white working
people of the 19th century to feel that their interests
lay with white capitalists, continues today. The American
working-class is disproportionately comprised of
people of color. The brunt of US state terror at home
has been historically directed against Black and Brown
communities. This is not to say that activists should
reject building working-class movements. But white
progressives need to appreciate that the white workingclass
in this country has historically been a site of reaction,
while the Black working class has been at the forefront
of progressive change.
The goals of the anti-war movement also need to be
rethought. Large marches have their place. They show
power brokers that people reject the war, and demonstrations
provide anti-war activists with a sense of community.
But instead of focusing most of their energy in
mobilizing people around large, one-day demonstrations,
where throngs of spirited marchers take to the
streets of Washington, DC or New York and then go
home, peace activists need to concentrate more on
building sustained, mass-based, social justice movements.
This involves the grunt work of organizing: door
to door canvassing, distributing leaflets on street corners,
listening to everyday people’s ideas about what
issues are important to them, and forging organic ties to
community groups. This means prioritizing anti-racism
struggles and forging ties with communities of color
that are on the front lines in struggles against police
brutality, HIV/AIDS, the prison industrial complex, and
the indifference of white America.
Perhaps the most egregious problem facing the white
Left is its failure to accept Black leadership. White leftists’
cool support for Rev. Al Sharpton’s bid for president
is the clearest example of this tendency. From the war to
health care to education, Al Sharpton has promoted the
most progressive line of any of the major Democratic
candidates. When asked to elaborate on the specific
issues they have with Sharpton, they start stammering.
Of all the candidates, only Sharpton seems to have the
courage to stand up to Bush and critique him from the
Left.When Wesley Clark, John Kerry, and even the “darling
of the white Left,” Howard Dean, criticize Bush,
they do so mostly from the right. “The war has been
mismanaged,” quips Kerry. “We should have worked
closer with our European allies before starting the war,”
Clark often exclaims. Instead of flocking to Al Sharpton
white Leftists are running in droves to Howard Dean
and to a lesser extent to Dennis Kucinich. Kucinich, a
former mayor of Cleveland and congressperson representing
mostly white voters (who overwhelmingly supported
the war), has no real political base. What’s the
appeal of Howard Dean? As governor of Vermont, a
state that is almost 95% white, Dean embraced a centrist,
Bill Clinton-like political agenda. His campaign is
geared almost exclusively toward white, urban, middleclass
20/30-somethings. Slick internet-based campaigns
and national bus tours that resemble “Road Rules” and
the “Real World” have a lot of white folks ecstatic. How
many people of color do you see at these rallies?
In my view, Sharpton is the only candidate who
could easily shred Bush in a presidential debate and
build a viable, grassroots, diverse progressive political
movement. Sharpton is not without his problems. Over
the years, he’s been accused of being egotistical or
opportunistic. True, perhaps, but are Dean, Edwards,
Clark, or Kerry any less so? Above all, Dean’s inability to
energize Black and Brown voters means he doesn’t stand
a chance in beating Bush. Instead of supporting another
Walter Mondale-like candidate, the white Left would be
better suited in jumping on board the Sharpton campaign
before it’s too late.
We can’t place too much of our faith in electoral politics
as the solution to the multiple problems facing this
country and the world. It is possible for the white Left to
find common ground with communities of color.
Indeed, there are some white progressives who are sincerely
grappling with their own white privilege and who
have recognized that fighting racial injustice is central –
not tangential – to all the major social justice campaigns
in this country and indeed the world. The ball rests not
in Black folks’ court but in the white Left’s. Communities
of color are going to continue moving forward in
their struggle against all forms of oppression with or
without the white Left.
Iraqi police, politicians, clerics, and
bystanders killed or maimed by suicide
bombers. Much of the Iraqi infrastructure
continues to lay in ruin. 18-year old
US soldiers with their fingers on the trigger
stare nervously at Iraqis protesting
for food, unpaid wages, and the right to
rule their country as they see fit.Much of
the international community, especially
in the Arab and Muslim world, deplores
the US-led war against Iraq. Domestically,
the economy is still in shambles. The
so-called “jobless recovery” has left millions
of people wondering how they are
going to pay the bills, cloth their children,
and make ends meet.
The war has produced another significant
crisis: the failure of the white Left to
realize that African Americans constitute
the vanguard of the progressive anti-war
movement. Despite efforts by such
groups as Act Now to Stop War and End
Racism (A.N.S.W.E.R.), white radicals
too often come short of linking the antiwar
movement to struggles around affirmative
action, the criminal justice system,
reparations, and other issues critical
to Black people. The American Left has
suffered an incalculable set back due to
their inability to forge real and sincere
connections with Black people and their
long-standing struggle for freedom, dignity,
and respect. Until white anti-war
activists make anti-racism a priority, the
Left will continue to be a marginal force
in the US.
Poll after poll has showed that the
majority of Black folks oppose the war
on Iraq, while the majority of white
Americans support it. Put simply, Black
people overwhelming oppose American
imperialism and white people enthusiastically
support it. As an oppressed peoples
who have experienced the nightmare
of the “American Dream,” it is no wonder
that African Americans so strongly
opposed the war. Black people aren’t stupid.
They know people of color will disproportionately
shoulder the cost of the
war. They know that the most vociferous
supporters of the war were the Trent
Lotts, Tom Delays, and the extreme right
wing of the Republican Party. The Right
that has stridently opposed affirmative
action and all government programs
benefiting people of color.
Opposition to the war also stems from
fear for the well-being of loved ones serving
in Iraq. Since the US armed forces are
disproportionately filled with Black and
Latino people, it’s not surprising that
people of color are doing a disproportionate
amount of the dying in Iraq.
Most young Black and Brown (and some
whites) did not enlist in the armed forces
“to serve their
country.” Rather
after they graduated
decrepit high
schools, joining
the military
made the most
economic sense.
Besides going to
prison or working
a dead end
job, what other
option do large
numbers of
young people of
color (as well as
many whites) have but to join the military?
Most enlist hoping they will not
have to fight in a war. If they had been
given the right opportunities, most of
these Black and Brown youths would
have gone on to live productive lives here
at home, instead of returning home in a
body bag or physically and/or emotionally
scarred by the Iraq war. Like their
counterparts from the Vietnam era, a
large segment of an entire Black generation
will be annihilated in a war that is
not their own.
The tax cuts coupled with the $87 billion
that the Bush administration will
spend this year on the war will exacerbate
a general crisis that has been taking place
in communities of color across the country
for years. Cities including; New York,
Chicago, and Philadelphia, have
announced massive cuts in public services.
Public transportation fares have
been raised and for many working-class
people of color, the bus is their life-line to
their job located an hour or two from
their home. Raising fares for tokens and
monthly fare cards will only stretch their
limited resources. Unions have been
wrestled into shouldering more health
care costs. African Americans and a new
wave of immigrants, especially from Latin
America, comprise the growing ranks of
the American labor movement. It’s these
people who are going to lose their jobs,
homes, and dignity as unions give in to
the demands of management and big city
governments. In addition, recent reports
show that close to 43 million people are
without health care insurance, nearly two
million more than a few years ago.Money
that could be spent on building a real
social safety net is being diverted to wars
overseas that cannot be won.
At the state level, public secondary
schools and universities across the country
have seen their budgets slashed by as
much as 10%. Some schools have raised
their tuition by more than $1,000. At the

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