Race and Class: Terrorism, Racism, Patriotism

— Malik Miah

UNDER BUSH's NEW world of “morality,” people, groups and states are either “good” or “evil.” Countries are with the United States or against it. The “evil” terminology permeates newspapers, television and every medium.

Yet there is and has never been a world that is simply black and white, good versus evil. Take these three words: terrorism, patriotism and racism.

Terrorism

The word “terrorist” has become an epithet for all those who disagree with Bush. The April arrest of a prominent civil liberties lawyer in New York for allegedly abetting terrorism by communicating to her Islamic client in prison shows the logic of the “war on terrorism.”

It will be turned against liberals, radicals and many others in the country, not just foreigners charged as terrorists.

Jessica Stern, a lecturer at Harvard University and author of The Ultimate Terrorists, rejects a black and white version of terrorism.

“To me,” Stern is quoted in the April 7 New York Times, “the definition of terrorism is deliberately targeting noncombatants with the aim of instilling fear. I don't think it's useful to focus on the perpetrator, because then it just becomes an epithet. It's a technique that can be used by nonstate actors, as well as states. I believe that when the United States dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, terrorizing the Japanese population was a very deliberate strategy.”

This is an interesting point. The U.S. government defends its slaughter of Japanese civilians as justified. It defends the state terrorism of Israel, armed by the United States, as self-defense to fight Palestinian terrorists.

In truth there is no simple definition. It is not simply killing civilians that make a group or state terrorist.

Palestinians, for example, are an oppressed people dominated by an overwhelming military power (Israel) backed by an even stronger power (U.S.). The terrorist tactics by Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and even Fatah are incorporated into a mass strategy of resistance.

To condemn suicide bombers (martyrs of resistance) who see their bodies as the only equalizer to a completely militarized Israeli society that uses F16s and tanks on Palestinian civilians is to accept Bush's and Sharon's black-and-white view of the conflict: the suicide bombers are murderers, and the Israelis are defenders of democracy and civilization.

Patriotism

Patriotism is not black and white either. Bush states that true patriots are those who accept his definition of terrorism and evil. Attorney General John Ashcroft charged some Democrats in Congress as unpatriotic for daring to question the Bush domestic policies to fight terrorism.

In a true democracy, however, a patriot can disagree with the government. Socialists reject the idea that a “patriot” is only a person who agrees with the government. We distinguish between the patriotism of oppressed peoples and the chauvinism of the oppressors.

Patriotism of the U.S. ruling class is reactionary. It's jingoism and chauvinism when Bush told the Taliban and General Musharraf to “get behind us or face our massive power.” That's imperialist arrogance.

Patriotism of a Third World people, on the other hand, is progressive when it reflects a desire to end that subordination to imperialist domination.

Racism

Patriotism in an imperialist country is not so black and white. Patriotism for African Americans has always been a problem because of the country's history of racial discrimination. (This issue was taken up in the previous installment of this column, ATC 97.)

Patriotism for the most part has been identified with white racism, Jim Crow segregation and slavery. After the 1960s and the victory of the civil rights movement it became more complex as more Blacks identify themselves as “Americans.”

Blacks today are proud that more African Americans are serving in powerful governmental and corporate positions that weren't possible in the past. This is so even though such gains haven't benefitted the majority of Blacks.

The broad pro-American attitudes in the Black community after September 11 reflect the changes in U.S. society since the 1960s. Yet the contradictory interaction of racism and patriotism hasn't gone away.

Conservatives argue that the use of race is outdated and reflects negative attitudes among Blacks toward themselves. The strong opposition by Black conservatives to reparations for the descendants of slaves is a case in point.

While it isn't often discussed in the mainstream media, the discussion is heated among the Black elite conservatives.

In March a group of lawyers filed a federal class-action lawsuit in New York on behalf of all African-American descendants of slaves. The lawsuit seeks compensation from a number of corporate defendants for profits earned through slave labor and the slave trade.

The Reparations Coordinating Committee, a separate body of mostly academics and professionals, has been pursuing the issue for years. Following the examples of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and Jewish survivors and Japanese Americans who suffered during World War II, the committee seeks to get the U.S. government and corporate America to take responsibility for slavery and its aftermath.

It is not a new idea. Congressman John Conyers of Detroit has been filing legislation in Congress since 1989. There have been conferences on the issue, which is more about morality, historical justice and political responsibility than money.

Yet for some in the conservative Black elite the issue is an insult and a danger to the country, not just Blacks. I've never seen so much venom even during earlier debates over quotas and busing for school desegregation.

Dangerous and Evil

Black columnist Juan Williams, a senior correspondent for National Public Radio and a political analyst for Fox News, wrote a vicious column in the April 9 Wall Street Journal titled, “Slavery isn't the issue.” He sees as an attempt by the civil rights elite to gain more power.

“In the current lawsuits,” he writes, “the money from reparations is designated for a treasury that would be controlled by a Black elite and used as they see fit to improve life in Black America. What is now national policy for dealing with Black poverty would become a matter of a Black nationalist agenda.”

Williams concludes his piece: “Reparations are a dangerous, even evil, idea because they contradict the moral authority of Black America's claim to equal rights. Pushing them through would only hurt race relations by encouraging negative stereotypes about Blacks at a time when the nation is more diverse and the need for inter-racial understanding is at its greatest.”

“Reparations' bottom line,” writes Jeff Jacoby of the Boston Globe, “is that Black people are hopeless losers who cannot rise above their history. That is a terrible libel, and no one but a racist would believe it.”

In other words, the victims (as Malcolm X explained) are made responsible for the racism of the white majority.

Williams' charge of “evil” neatly fits the black-and-white, good versus evil paradigm. The truth is the reparations issue highlights and exposes the long history of white racism and the racial underbelly of corporate America.

Simply put, there is no “black-and-white” understanding of terrorism, patriotism or even racism in today's world separate from the bigger social and class picture. What is clear is that progressives can never allow the oppressors and aggressors to define the terminology and its underlying meaning.

from ATC 98 (May/June 2002)

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