MAXWELL:  When crisis hits, blacks asked to be patriots

9/30/2001 – Printed in the PERPECTIVE Section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


Black historian W.E.B. DuBois spoke of African-Americans’ dual identity in the United States. He called the condition “two warring souls in one black body.” Although it sounds academic, DuBois’ message is simple: Black people are permanent outsiders and American citizens at the same time.

That duality is never more painful than during times of war and threats of war, when shows of patriotism are the litmus test for being true Americans. I do not remember World War II and Korea, but I do remember Vietnam, when many blacks joined the ranks of antiwar protesters, when the Black Panthers, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the Urban League, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and other groups opposed the war.

Most recently, the 30-year-old Congressional Black Caucus, always the most dovish group in Congress, could be counted on to oppose military intervention abroad. As a group, they opposed the bombings of Iraq and our involvement in Kuwait, Panama, Somalia and Grenada.

Needless to say, many of their white colleagues see caucus members as being unpatriotic. But white politicians fail to see that black legislators’ major agenda is a domestic one dealing with racism, justice and the inequalities that make life unnecessarily harsh for African-Americans.

Now, however, following the World Trade Center disaster that threatens national security, caucus members find themselves facing their dual identity in ways many have never had to before. For the first time, the caucus voted to give a president the authority to wage an unlimited war. Only two members voted to hold President Bush’s war-making power in check.

The dilemma caucus members face _ an awareness of being the outsider and an American citizen simultaneously _ mirrors that of individual African-Americans everywhere. Blacks face daily injustice, and, too often, their pleas for redress are ignored.

What are African-Americans to do, then, when the nation faces a crisis? Noted black intellectual Michael Eric Dyson answers:

“This is the vicious double bind that black people find. The double bind of black people is that we look unpatriotic if we keep a distance from the arguments of American nationalism in a time of crisis. But in the past, whenever we have cast our lot, as we always do, with the American mainstream, as soon as the crisis subsides, our interests are scuttled, marginalized and overlooked.

“So the price for admission into American patriotism is the rejection of our very complaints about the lack of full access to such citizenship and democracy. So we are asked, in effect, to prove our participation in a reality to which we are constantly and systematically denied access.”

Perhaps black GIs who fight in combat struggle with their dual identity more than other blacks. They pay the ultimate price of citizenship: They put their lives on the line for the nation. Yet after returning home, they remain outsiders.

In American Patriots: The Story of Blacks in the Military from the Revolution to Desert Storm, Gail Buckley argues that blacks, although they served alongside whites, have not received proper recognition for their heroism in defending the nation.

“American history is full of heroes,” Buckley writes. “For a long time, it seemed that none of them were black. Yet there have been black heroes from the beginning; they were simply cut out of the picture. What do heroes do? They fight dragons. And blacks have been fighting the dragons of racism since the country began. One of their most powerful weapons . . . was military service. In going to war, black men and women believed they could both better their lives and make their country true to its own best promise.”

In too many instances, however, the country fails to deliver on its “best promise” to its black GIs. They return from the battlefield to the same racism and inequalities. They remain outsiders, and their voices mostly go unheard.

Still, they are American citizens and must participate in national life. As the nation confronts the current crisis _ one that may last for years to come _ how will blacks deal with their dual identity as the outsider and the citizen? When the heat of the crisis wanes, who will listen to black people’s pleas for justice? Will the mean-spirited conservatism that tainted civil rights and social service policies before the World Trade Center tragedy regain its footing?

Those who take the dual identity issue for granted delude themselves about the pain of being an outsider in one’s own nation. The rest of the country expects blacks and other groups, such as Hispanic farm workers, who are denied full access into American life to be as patriotic as the majority group.

Is this a realistic expectation _ even during times of crisis?