Just before the September 11 attacks,
African American leaders were preparing to confront President Bush about America's arrogant withdrawal from the United Nations World Conference Against Racism, which took place in South Africa from August 31 to September 7. The United States' absence from the conference made international headlines, and proved what many had suspected all along--that Bush is not committed to the affairs of black folk. This is why only eight percent of our nation's black vote went to Bush; no one believed that he would "reach out" (as NAACP President Kweisi Mfume put it) to black America.
And now there was hard evidence. The South African episode showed that Bush had no plans to reach out, but instead was stepping back. Black organizations were outraged. Then the hijacked Boeing planes hit the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and from the burning ruins a new political world was born.
Black reaction to this new social and political environment has been diverse and at times bizarre. One African American acquaintance, Anthony Hayes*, gave me the whole fantastic "Jewish conspiracy" theory proposed by both Osama bin Laden and Mohamed Atta's father. Another friend of mine, Jonas Little*, supported the bombing of some Islamic power ("from border to border") because he felt Arabs "don't like blacks anyway."
DJ Riz Rollins was less dramatic when I spoke to him a few after days after the attacks. "Man," he sighed at the end of our phone conversation, "I wish white folks would just chill out."
Capri St. Vil, who lectures at Seattle Central Community College and is originally from New York City, told me that the messages she has received from family and friends have been as mixed as the responses I've encountered. "What's intriguing is that there is no one point of view [from black Americans]. It depends on social standing, and is based on the person's level of frustration with America. It's not a collective voice, but one [divided] along economic, class, and religious lines."
Beneath the general diversity of responses to the terrorist attacks, one thing seems certain: Most black leaders, and the general black population, are unhappy about the act of terrorism itself; meaning, blacks are not moved so much by the symbolic implications of the attack (the clash of the civilizations, America is good and "they" are evil, etc.) as they are at the hard fact that a lot of black people died when those twin towers collapsed.
"First of all," said Dr. Robert Smith of San Francisco State University, when explaining the black response on www. Africana.com, "there were a lot of blacks killed in the terrorist attacks." And that is exactly where black America starts: Lots of black people died. Everyone knows that New York, like most big American cities, is thoroughly multi-ethnic. Twenty-five percent of New York City's population is black--2,000,000 people, 250,000 of whom live in Manhattan. Along with Johannesburg, Nairobi, and Lagos, New York City stands as one of the black capitals of the world. Even London, the most cosmopolitan city in Europe, comes nowhere near New York City in black population and ethnic diversity. (Blacks, who are London's second-largest minority group, make up six percent--350,000--of the city's population. Asians comprise just seven percent of London's population.)
Big American cities often serve as makeshift capitals for Third World countries. A terrorist act against any major American city is bound to kill a large number of people who aren't even American--if they are American, they may not be white; and if they are white, they're likely to be liberals who disagree with American foreign policy. To target a symbol of American capitalism is to target a concrete organism in the heart of a densely mixed American metropolis. This is what the terrorists failed to appreciate, and why their attack was essentially stupid. Many black Americans are aware of this, and at times they interpret the attacks as sheer arrogance rather than any earnest attempt to bring attention to injustices in the Arab world.
In the same way that America (before bombing Afghanistan) faced a complex geography of people and political/religious alliances--and no unified enemy--the terrorists were confronted not with a monolithic capitalist entity, but with a complex urban organism that has no real center, an intricate mix of races, politics, and cultural alliances. "The attack was heavily symbolic," writes Luther Brown on www. Africana.com. "We, as a country, got the point. But we don't give a damn about the point. We don't care about the piddling symbolism. And for most African Americans, what the symbolism has done is to make us hopping mad. The killing of so many--many of whom were barely much better off than some of the people the terrorists claim to be fighting for--makes my flesh crawl. ...And I deeply resent the idea that their suffering is somehow more outrageous than our own."
"I really don't care for all that American shit," says Carl Mays*, who lives down the road from me in Columbia City. "America is my land of birth, but not my country. But man, a lot of brothers died in that attack. It seems we always lose. We die when whites shoot us at traffic stops; we die when Arabs try to kill white people for whatever shit they've done in the Middle East." Columbia City is one of the most diverse neighborhoods in the state, and as a consequence, the American flag is not as present here as it is in, say, Greenwood, where one can find whole lawns planted with American flags.
Mays, who is unemployed, has what Capri St. Vil calls "a high level of frustration with America." As a result, he is not so impressed with the renewed patriotism that has consumed much of our country. Beyond the Ground Zero destruction of black and other innocent life, Mays is not moved to stand behind the president or offer his body to the U.S. Army. His position reflects that of the militant rapper MC Boots Riley, who in this paper ["The Coup's Bomb," Brian Goedde, Sept 20] said, "I want it to be clear that I have been touched by this personally, and express deepest sympathy to the families and friends of all the victims there... [but the government] is using this incident to put forth the picture that this happened in a vacuum... [when it] needs to be compared to what the U.S. does on a yearly basis throughout the world." Other black Americans, like Jonas Little, disagree with Riley's opinion, and feel much closer to the prosperous capitalist Dr. Dre, who is currently working on a rap song called "Kill bin Laden," in which he prepares "a pine box for his dead body." (I think cardboard would be the more humiliating material for bin Laden's coffin.)
Then there were the images of weeping and praying blacks on the covers of USA Today, The New York Times, and The Seattle Times. These images of suffering were not false; many black people were deeply affected by the monstrous magnitude of the September 11 attacks. But these newspaper photos served another purpose. Beyond showing that the tragedy was an American tragedy, the photos also said, "Look, even black people are upset about this attack. They have been humiliated and oppressed by America from day one, and yet here they are crying."
Now, dear reader, if blacks are crying, can you imagine what white America is feeling at this moment? Yes, that is how bad things are.
*Names have been changed upon request.