Taking the Cake

Taking the Cake

According to a recent Gallup Poll, 78 percent of white Americans supported invading Iraq, but only 29 percent of blacks.


According to a recent Gallup Poll, 78 percent of white Americans supported invading Iraq, but only 29 percent of blacks. One reason for such a great disparity might be that while blacks represent 12 percent of the population, they make up at least 25 percent of the Army. Those whom the war touches most deeply–particularly the relatives of servicemen–tend to be deeply uneasy about this war. (It would be interesting to break down the antiwar sentiment among whites: a good portion will no doubt be “the usual liberals,” but I suspect that a surprising number of them will be Gulf War and Vietnam vets, as well as family of servicemen and -women.)

Another reason for the disparity is probably economics. With an unemployment rate double that of whites–a little more than 10 percent–African-Americans are first to feel our massive, war-inspired budget cuts. There is concern, too, that almost 5 percent of all black men are in prison or jail, a sad overrepresentation among the nation’s inmates, whose overall population recently rose to surpass 2 million. While some think that this rate of incarceration–the highest in the world by far–is a good thing, most blacks see it as the product of failures in the infrastructure serving minorities, particularly public schools, which have been resegregating over the past decade at an alarming rate.

In addition, many black churches and social organizations are very mindful of Martin Luther King’s concern in his much-cited “Beyond Vietnam” speech: that we were “taking the black young men who had been crippled by our society and sending them 8,000 miles away to guarantee liberties in Southeast Asia which they had not found in southwest Georgia and East Harlem. So we have been repeatedly faced with the cruel irony of watching Negro and white boys on TV screens as they kill and die together for a nation that has been unable to seat them together in the same schools.”

Although it is useless now to wish us back to the days of global diplomacy, perhaps it is not too late, in the spirit of earnest–even desperate–patriotism, to offer a few suggestions, based on lessons learned and analogies floating around the black community, about how we might handle the extended occupation to which our leaders seem committed now that Baghdad has reportedly fallen.

First, one should never enter a fight announcing that it will be a “cakewalk.” A cakewalk was a dance contest popularized during the days of black minstrelsy, for which the prize was, as implied, a fluffy confection. Debussy, as our well-educated senior advisers ought to know, wrote a funny little piece of musical condescension to this effect, Golliwog’s Cakewalk. (A golliwog, for the uninformed, is a charmingly old-fashioned word for “nigger.”) Such are the amusements of colonialism. But in the so-called postcolonial era, such references do tend to rankle.

Second, one might think twice about some of the clichéd paradigms that have been used to drive our mighty military momentum, like, “You can’t stand around waiting to be mugged.” This is the Bernhard Goetz doctrine, the cowboy rationale, as well as the hip-hop anthem, shoot first, ask questions later. It is a scared gangfighter’s way of thinking, and it insures a never-ending cycle of trauma, in which illusions of danger are treated on a par with reality, in which waves of endless violence engulf all sane limits.

When some of us hear about our “having” to kill pregnant women, children and old people in the name of self-defense–it is hard not to be reminded of what happened to Amadou Diallo. It is hard not to think about children in black communities who have been shot for holding candy bars and toy guns and sticks or nothing at all.

We appreciate how quickly a soldier must react in a firefight on the battlefield–or in a dangerous drug bust. But the imperative of “not waiting” is the recourse of the badly trained, the panicked, the ill prepared, and for that we must–we must–question our leaders, who, despite being warned by almost the entire world, kept planning as though acts of war would be received as pure humanitarianism.

Finally, if our mission is to “win hearts and minds,” it is not a great idea to engage in boorish, end-zone triumphalism. Everywhere there are pictures of American soldiers crashing through Saddam Hussein’s palaces, those immense, ornate buildings that we are supposedly liberating because they belong to the Iraqi people.

Yet one sees American soldiers sprawled commandingly in the silk-upholstered chairs, high-fiving, having a smoke, their guns and helmets strewn upon the spindly coffee tables. One picture showed a soldier clutching a fistful of silverware with his left hand; with his right, he held an ornate fork up to the light, the unseemliness of open appraisal upon his face. The Boston Globe described the soldiers as helping themselves to “souvenirs.” Our soldiers must be careful not to act as police sometimes do in ghetto raids. The residents may hate the drug dealer, but they will also hate the policeman who struts about smiling and laughing and helping himself to the dealer’s Cuban cigars.

Nor should our troops stand by in the aftermath, while things burn, baby burn. In Basra, coalition soldiers watched looters carry off everything from computers to grand pianos to public buses. They watched, they said, because it was not their function to interfere. “This is Iraqi against Iraqi,” one commander explained, sounding rather as though he was speaking of “black on black” crime. We must remind our leaders that it is deeply immoral to foment this kind of disorder and then stand back and shake our heads about how incorrigible the natives are.

This behavior will not win us friends and, ahem, we do need friends. As Elizabeth Stanley-Mitchell wrote in a New York Times op-ed, if the United States does not soon make peace with some group of Iraqis from whom new leadership can grow, “then it must defeat all of them.” It is folly to think we can make peace by ourselves. The sad truth is, we’re still trying to make peace with ourselves.

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