From Tue Oct 29 10:00:07 2002
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Subject: wwnews Digest #531
Date: Mon, 28 Oct 2002 18:32:40 -0500

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Subject: [WW] African Americans in the military: The struggle against racism & war
Date: Mon, 28 Oct 2002 18:26:11 -0500

African Americans in the military: the struggle against racism & war

By Pat Chin, Workers World, 31 October 2002

What is the potential for a Black GI resistance movement if the Bush administration goes ahead with its criminal war against Iraq?

Racism in the U.S. armed forces has long reflected institutionalized racism in society at large, which views people of African descent as inferior. Despite this stigma, however, Blacks in the military have insisted on their democratic right to be treated equally, rather than being forced to serve in segregated units.

In Vietnam, thousands of Black soldiers rebelled against what they saw as an unjust war by a government that wielded racism like a club against their communities at home. Many agreed with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who said, The greatest purveyor of violence in the world today is the U.S. government.

Black people have always been an important part of the anti-war movement in the United States. Many African Americans and others of African descent staunchly oppose U.S. wars of aggression around the world and reject the notion that Black people should fight on behalf of a system that’s responsible for slavery, Jim Crow and racist profiling.

Many also hold the view, shared by internationalists of all nationalities, that the U.S. military represents the interests of greedy, super-rich bosses and bankers, not of poor and working people.


The history of African Americans in the U.S. armed forces stretches back to the Civil War. Many believed that their participation in the war would win them basic democratic rights and respect. But despite the Emancipation Proclamation and later efforts to desegregate the armed forces, racism still remains deeply rooted.

During the Civil War, more than 180,000 joined the Union Army. Another 30,000 served in the Navy, and 200,000 worked on military support projects. Some 33,000 perished in the conflict. (See y Historian Howard Zinn writes, When the Emancipation Proclamation was issued Jan. 1, 1863, it declared slaves free in those areas still fighting against the Union (which it listed very carefully), and said nothing about slaves behind Union lines. (A People’s History of the United States)

The Emancipation Proclamation, and the huge numbers of Blacks who joined the Union Army, gave the erroneous impression that the Civil War was being fought principally for Black freedom rather than the domination of the capitalist mode of production over the system of chattel slavery.

The more whites had to sacrifice, explains Zinn, the more resentment there was, particularly among poor whites in the North, who were drafted by a law that allowed the rich to buy their way out of the draft for $300. And so the draft riots of 1863 took place, uprisings of angry whites in northern cities, their targets not the rich, far away, but the Blacks, near at hand.


Although Blacks participated in every U.S. war since, they still were subjected to the worst kind of racism.

Some 200,000 fought in World War I. They faced racist death squads like the Ku Klux Klan upon their return home. They also went into combat in large numbers in World War II, even though the military continued to deny them access to adequate equipment and training.

This exposed the hypocrisy of the U.S. government, which was willing to let Black soldiers fight and die overseas while denying them full equality and reparations for hundreds of years of unpaid slave labor.

The armed forces were legally desegregated in 1948 by the Truman administration. But Black soldiers and commanders received little or no respect from white officers and they remained poorly trained and ill equipped. Black units were, in fact, expected to fail, and Truman’s desegregation orders did little to change this racist mind-set.

Reform was forced, however, during the Korean War, when huge battlefield casualties exposed the unsound nature of a segregated army. The post-World-War-II vigor of the civil rights movement also brought about concessions.

Washington’s bloody war against Vietnam--a heroic nation that successfully resisted U.S. colonial domination-- coincided during the 1960s with a big upsurge in the civil rights movement and rebellions in the inner cities. There were also frequent acts of war resistance. Muhammad Ali’s refusal to serve in the military had a big influence on Black, Latino and white youths.

The Black Panther Party influenced many drafted African American youths. Not only did the BPP oppose the war; its leadership offered to organize military units to fight alongside the Vietcong against the Pentagon. Some Black troops even defected to the side of the Vietnamese liberation forces.

The American Servicemen’s Union defended 43 Black Marines from Fort Hood, Texas, who refused orders to go and repress anti-war protests at the 1968 Democratic National Convention.

There were huge numbers of conscientious objectors, some of whom left the country to avoid service. In the United States, Blacks were among the hundreds of thousands who took to the streets in numerous protests until the war was ended.

After the Vietnam War, anti-militarist sentiment was still so strong that the draft was ended.


An economic draft became widespread with the technological revolution of the late 1970s and 1980s, which led to widespread layoffs. This, coupled with deep cuts in social programs, forced many Black and Latino youths into the military, which promised a lot, including free education.

Meanwhile, the prison-industrial complex, with its captive workforce toiling for slave wages, began to mushroom.

For many Black and Latino youths, it’s been either join the military or face prison. Blacks and Latinos, in fact, make up 62 percent of the incarcerated population, though comprising only 25 percent of the national population. (Human Rights Watch Report, Feb. 27, 2002)

Most youths don’t join the military for patriotic reasons. This is even truer for oppressed youths, who have fewer opportunities than whites.

With the deepening instability of the capitalist economy, many young people of color feel even greater pressure to enlist in the military, where racism still exists and where they’re trained to kill other poor people and/or be killed themselves.

History has shown that it’s been mainly poor and working- class people--disproportionately Black and Latino youths-- who become the casualties of war. Their role, in the long run, is to be killers or cannon fodder.

A whopping 75 percent of all African Americans and other military personnel of color complain that they have experienced racially offensive behavior, and less than half expressed confidence that complaints of discrimination are thoroughly investigated, according to the largest survey of racial attitudes ever conducted within the armed forces, reported the Washington Post of Nov. 23, 1999.

Furthermore: Nearly 20 percent of Blacks and 13 percent of Hispanics in uniform reported that they had been given inferior assignments or evaluations because of racial bias. Only 4 percent of whites reported such treatment.

This remains true despite Secretary of State Gen. Colin Powell’s ascendancy to the higher echelons of power, from whence he would be put out to pasture, to quote Harry Belafonte, should he not submit to the program of war and exploitation being foisted on the world by the racist and sexist capitalist class. Powell, along with National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, serves them dutifully.

The anti-war movement, in alliance with supporters abroad, is uniquely positioned to stop George W. Bush’s Pentagon war machine in the insane rush to dominate the world for super profits.

Linking the anti-war movement with the struggle against racism is a powerful way to forge the unity that’s needed to resist and disarm the military brass.