This article originally appeared in The
Non-Violent Activist, the magazine of the War Resisters League.
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
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 a metaphor, specifically Black women –
need to take up more action against a war that we clearly know is
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
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
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
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 enter 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
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
“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
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
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.