Nonviolent Activist, March-April 2006
Blacks, Military Recruitment & Antiwar Movement: Not Showing Up
By Kenyon Farrow
When I was the Southern Region Coordinator for Critical Resistance I once spoke at an event in New Orleans entitled “What Now: War, Occupation, and the Peace Movement.” I was asked specifically to address why more people most adversely affected by systems of oppression were not involved in local antiwar work. Many of the white attendees were very concerned about how to bring Blacks into antiwar organizing work.
One white attendee from a local organizing project told a story of his organization’s commitment to “connecting the war abroad to the war at home.” The demonstration of that desire to connect with Blacks was to make the march route cut through one of the housing projects in New Orleans. I suggested this was a faulty strategy, since the march would draw additional police presence in an already overly policed community, in a city infamous for police brutality against Blacks.
This forum was not the first time I had heard this conversation, and nearly two years later, it has not been the last. In many organizations and activist circles, people can be found lamenting the same problem. More often than not, “most affected” means Blacks (and sometimes Latinos or immigrants, depending on the issue at hand). Even when the issue itself disproportionately affects Blacks, Blacks are not likely to be found in much of what the Left considers to be valid forms of resistance—meetings, rallies, public forums, demonstrations, and the like.
The question that often underlies the discussion about getting people “most affected” involved is: “Why are Blacks these days so complacent or unwilling to stick their necks out for a ‘good cause’?” Does their lack of involvement mean Blacks aren’t doing their part to end the war in Iraq? What does their ambivalence about antiwar activism say about the Left?
Even though the Left is multiracial in many ways, the organizations that hold the seat of power, control much of the discourse, and shape what it means to be “Left” are largely controlled by whites. This is true regardless of whether we’re discussing liberal or radical organizations. Blacks (and other people of color) working in those organizations usually have to buy into the existing discourse as it is shaped by whites and/or are in constant negotiation to be able to shape the work as they see it. Therefore, if not actively challenging the status quo of these organizations’ strategies, Blacks and other activists of color often help perpetuate problematic and narrow notions of what activism and organizing look like and should be.
In March 2005, Earl Ofari Hutchinson published an essay entitled “Where Are the Black Cindy Sheehans?”on Huffington Post.com, the blog for liberal pundit-turned California-gubernatorial-candidate Arianna Huffington. He attempted to answer the question he posed in the title—why are Blacks not involved in the antiwar struggle?
Hutchinson’s basic argument is that while Black people are opposed to the war in Iraq, they have historically not supported antiwar efforts—specifically during the Vietnam War—because they feel that the antiwar movement is disconnected from their day-to-day struggles around poverty and racism. Hutchinson goes onto say that Blacks also have too much invested in the Army to launch major opposition to it, since it is a primary source of employment.
Indeed, Blacks are about 13 percent of the total U.S. population and make up nearly a quarter of all Army enlistees. Black women are grossly overrepresented in the military, making up nearly a third of all women enlisted.
According to a 2003 Gallup poll taken near the beginning of the Iraq war, seven out of 10 Blacks think the war in Iraq is an unjust one, compared to two out of 10 whites. Hutchinson argues that because of overwhelming Black disapproval of the war, Blacks—and by using Sheehan as is a metaphor, specifically Black women—need to take up more action against a war that we clearly know is unjust.
But Hutchinson’s contention, and one put forward by many on the Left, that Blacks aren’t actively opposing the war is simply not accurate. In March 2005, the U.S. Army reported that the enlistment of Black youth was at an all time low, dropping from 23 percent in 2001 to 14 percent by 2005. The report indicated that many youth were afraid of being killed in the conflict. However many also conveyed a lack of desire to serve in a war they felt was unjust. Additionally, the report showed that key role models—parents, ministers, and the like—who have traditionally encouraged military enlistment, are now actively discouraging Black youth from signing up. So the Black community has become actively involved in steering Black youth away from the military. Why is this not considered an act of radical defiance, especially considering the lack of options for Black youth?
Refusal Despite the Odds
It is important to think about what refusing military enlistment actually means for Black people materially. Black unemployment in the United States is usually twice the national average of whites at any given time. Unemployment rates for Black youth consistently fall between 30 and 40 percent. According to writer Dwight Kirk’s February 24, 2005 article “Can Labor Go Beyond Diversity Light?” for The Black Commentator, 55 percent of all union jobs lost in 2004 were held by Black workers. 70 percent of all women who lost union jobs were Black. With consistently high rates of unemployment and recent major job losses in stable union employment, enlisting is usually encouraged by Black parents as a means for their children to have steady employment.
Because of the highly-promoted G.I. Bill that promises recruits money for college, many Black youth and their parents—unable to afford a four-year university—see the military as a way to pay for school. Since many attend under-funded, poorly staffed high schools with low expectations of students, Black youth often defer college education until they finish a term in the military, believing that veteran status will give them more leverage in the admissions process.
In addition, youth rates of imprisonment continue to rise nationally, and Blacks are 50 percent of the U.S. prison population. Some Black parents have encouraged joining the military as a means of providing structure and discipline to “troubled” teens that may be imprisoned thanks to the “three-strikes” laws, mandatory minimum sentencing, and the use of police and “zero tolerance” to solve school conflicts.
Oftentimes, young Black women who are perceived as promiscuous or who rebel against prescribed gender norms are encouraged to in the military as a means of “straightening them out.” Black women also enroll in the military as a means to get skills in careers often unavailable to women, or to have stable employment to support their children.
In the face of poverty, prison, and unemployment, why is Black communities’ collective “NO” to the military not considered an act of bravery and resistance by much of the Left? Part of the problem is that the white Left wants Blacks to act on its terms, in forms it deems appropriate or recognizes as resistance. Why can’t Blacks determine for themselves what their resistance will look like? “
Activists define resistance in a very narrow way,” says Kai Lumumba Barrow, a longtime organizer and Northeast Regional Coordinator for Critical Resistance. Barrow says that while marches, rallies, and sit-ins are the most coherent forms of resistance for many whites, Blacks have also resisted through armed struggle, cultural production, and more subtle tactics.
During slavery, those more subtle acts took the forms of work slow-downs, poisonings, and other militancy that did not involve public displays of resistance—a dangerous way to show opposition. While some may debate whether or not Black people are in the same oppressive conditions where more subtle forms of resistance are necessary, the point is resistance is not a formula to be followed like a recipe. Those who are most affected by systems of oppression carry out daily acts of resistance that go unnoticed under the mainstream movement’s radar.
Moreover, lest we forget, when Black people do in fact rise up en masse, it is immediately criminalized—usually by calling it a riot—and is violently put down. Whether in Los Angeles, Miami, Cincinnati, Toledo, or New Orleans in the days after hurricane Katrina, Black people have collectively taken action around political issues that affect them and have been consistently construed as violent and criminal. While there will be some show of force by police when whites organize, it will most likely not be labeled a riot. So while not legally enslaved, Black people are still are given the message that to publicly act against the state means to invite additional violence and oppression. Even the Left, which sees itself as “allies” to Blacks, will often be the first to decry “violence” as a way to tell Blacks they do not support angry or militant resistance—whether actually violent or not. Many on the Left fear Black militancy and discourage protests and forms of resistance that are “too angry.”
Another way white organizations dictate their rules of engagement with Black and people of color organizers is through a kind of “safe” tokenization.
“On my campus, there has been a lack of engagement with students of color by the antiwar organizers,” says Reginald Gossett, a Black activist and student at Columbia University. “There is a rush to produce a product, which means students of color, specifically Black students, only get asked to be visible at the events, but little is done to involve many of us in the actual planning and organizing.”
Blacks are often showcased as part of the antiwar movement at marches or rallies, but their issues and political concerns are rarely allowed to shape the antiwar work in any meaningful way. Always following the traditional march or rally formula perpetuates this tokenization, as antiwar work is more of a dog-and-pony show than a grounded grassroots movement built on actual relationships. As in the case of the white antiwar group that wanted to march through a housing project, the Left needs to develop strategies that are cognizant of the barriers to organizing that Black communities face. These include the militarization of Black communities via policing, public housing, and public schools.
With a growing refusal to join the military and the daily resistance to domestic warfare, perhaps Blacks have contributed more to ending the war in Iraq than the Left realizes, or cares to admit. I don’t know that Blacks need to join the antiwar movement as it currently exists. I am also unsure if we need to be engaged in more public, mass-mobilizing efforts that hearken to the days of the Civil Rights movement.
One thing is for sure, Black youth and Black parents today are exemplifying the old adage, “What if they gave a war and nobody showed up?”
Kenyon Farrow is the Culture Editor for Clamor Magazine and the co-editor of Letters From Young Activists: Today’s Rebels Speak Out from Nation Books. He began thinking about issues of militarization and Black communities via his work as a member of Critical Resistance.