Friday, May 18, 2007

Homeland Racism and Other Weapons of Mass Distraction

Lately, USAmericans across the political spectrum have spent an inordinate amount of time and energy assessing, refuting and rebuking the recent, profligate racist annoyances that seem to occur constantly in Hollywood, on television, on the radio and along the presidential campaign trail.

And, this, most certainly, could be time wasted.

That is, if we fail to recognize that attending closely to media rhetoric regarding race is vital and relevant to a broader analysis of power. In this vein, just as I was contemplating whether my intermittent blogging here had become too media-crazed and domestically-focused, I received what seemed a brief, informative article about Black soldiers’ perspectives on the current situation in Iraq. Upon reading the first few paragraphs, I had planned to write a short ditty and to provide a link, but as I summarized the argument I found that the writer’s passive approach to reporting “just the facts” constituted a legitimation of war on behalf of the African-American community. So, here again, I think it is worth paying attention to what this author sets out to say, how he says it, and precisely where the fact that he is talking about race directs (and distracts) the course of his argument. (Check out the Common Dreams Reprint.)

“It’s hard to fight halfway around the world for people’s freedom when you’re not sure you have it at home.” -- Gregory Black, Retired Navy Diver

In a recent article for the Boston Globe, Derrick Z. Jackson attempts to put his finger on why African-American soldiers possess an especial "sensitivity" to US military involvement in Iraq. He writes that Black soldiers are increasingly less willing to participate in what they see as an “oilman’s war” that “smacks of neo-imperialism.” Employing various statistics, opinion polls, and the studied perspectives of sociologists and political analysts, he provides an informative snapshot of the role that military institutions have played in equalizing career and education opportunities for African-Americans, especially men, and reciprocally how the US all-volunteer military has relied on the disproportionate participation of African-American soldiers since 1973 (when the draft was “permanently” suspended.) Gregory Black, a retired veteran of the current conflict sums it up: “we’re halfway around the world fighting people of color under the guise of democracy and we can’t see how it’s benefited anyone.”

Jackson’s recurring theme is that Black soldiers are more “sensitive” to the wrongness of the US invasion and ensuing occupation of Iraq. As he moves through the article, however, he abandons what might have been a useful examination of these feelings and simply piles on various quotes that defend African-American perspectives without explicating them in the slightest. Clearly, suggesting that the perspectives of African-Americans are distinct from those of mainstream Americans, especially in the time of war, might render them vulnerable, so he and his expert interlocutors feel compelled to explain that African-American soldiers’ resentment regarding their exploitation for the economic gain of a very small, elite minority, has “nothing to do with [a lack of] patriotism.” He quotes David Segal, director of the University of Maryland’s Center for Research on Military Organization, who says “What we’re getting is not an opposition to war, but considerable opposition to this war.” And it’s all downhill from there.

Sadly, Jackson’s preoccupation with avoiding a negative representation of African-American soldiers hijacks his argument and nullifies his initial point that this unique perspective might shed light on the relationship between racism at home and US aggressions abroad. He uses statistics and polling data to demonstrate that that African-Americans, like most other USAmericans, have lost faith in this administration and its projects, and he concludes the article by suggesting that “kids” today (and their “influencers”) have TVs, watch the news, and are therefore more savvy about the horrors of war and the dangers of this conflict in particular.

It bears repeating that statistically speaking, he argues, Black people are just like everyone else in the United States. That is, the majority dislikes the current administration and our involvement in Iraq but supports war in general.

Why Race & US History Are Inexorably Linked

The requisite historical approach necessary to a critical race perspective would have remedied this article's key faults, namely myopic presentism and generalizing, and likely would have rescued Jackson’s argument from this insipid conclusion. Specifically, he might have legitimized the feelings of African-American soldiers by placing them in a deeper historical as well as ideological context. For instance, he might have referred to how the sacrifice and participation of the poor, people of color as well as ethnic and national minorities in US military efforts (call them wars, conflicts, or aggressions) has been historically a way to gain social status, achieve citizenship, etc. Along these lines, consulting the historical record might serve as a reminder that minority soldiers’ (and collaborating civilians’) aspirations often remained unfulfilled, and that many post-war periods were characterized by the systematic retraction of temporary wartime privileges. Specifically, one might observe how restoring peacetime relations has often included a violent reorganizing of the Racial Order, especially desegregated social spaces, occupations, etc. Finally, and perhaps most significantly, pursing the connection raised three separate times in the article between the sensitivity to racism and to imperialism, might have shed light on how and whether the current situation in Iraq is changing the way that members of all communities in the US look at war. In summation, let me re-phrase it like this:

Are Black people just like all the other Americans who support war, or are all Americans just like African-Americans who are beginning to question whether war is consistent with the USAmerican values that we cherish and seek to preserve?

Race, Violence & War Relevant Links:
Chicago vs. Iraq (Southtown 5/24/07)