It appears to fascinate some Americans and annoy others that President Bush's stationing American troops in the Gulf has drawn a decidely negative response from African Americans. In the past six weeks, blacks' opinion has moved from 43 percent approval of the president's policy in an early national poll to a low of 23 percent in a more recent one. In both, there was a distance of 30 to 40 points difference between the black and white rates of approval.
In assessing the reasons for this difference, the speculation has encountered the normal range of possibilities: blacks feel that Saddam Hussein's aggression was wrong but that Bush's military response is worse, placing them at an unacceptable level of vulnerability and deepening the nature of their disadvantages in society in the process. Then there is the provable fear of high black casualties in the event of war based on the Vietnam experience and given that the Defense Department admits that 28.7 percent of the troops in Saudi Arabia are black.
Blacks, like many other Americans, are suspicious of the motivations for the possible war. If it is to prove that America is still the policeman of the world, then the price is too high. If it is to secure supplies of oil, Africa stands ready to supply oil -- including Angola, where Bush is conducting a policy favoring the rebel faction UNITA. If it is to develop a new regime of security in a post-Cold War world, no time could be better than this for experimenting fully with methods of resolving international conflict short of war.
What we know is that billions of petrodollars are now being made as a result of higher oil prices. And we know that the poor, who will fight this war, will not profit from the oil riches or the war itself.
Many feel that blacks and others who think similarly should forgo all of these considerations and approve the president's actions in the name of loyalty to the nation in a crisis. They pose the alternatives of blind loyalty and patriotism. Yet, black patriotism is unassailable: it should be kept in mind that the patriotism of black members of the military has never wavered in times of war. Historically they have felt a demonstration of patriotism was necessary to prove they had legitimate claims to equal treatment within American society once they returned from serving their country. Alas, it has not worked out that way. In fact, it is arguable that, considering the number of high-ranking black officers there, the military is the truest meritocratic system we have, far more so than society as a whole.
Blind loyalty of blacks to the president is prevented by the knowledge that the expenditure of billions of dollars in Saudi Arabia gives the lie to the frequent protestations of the lack of resources available for domestic urban priorities. This duplicity has contributed fundamentally to our own domestic "gulf" policy, creating the generally different attitudes of blacks and whites toward the current crisis in the Middle East. A stubborn segment of the American public wants to pretend that racial disadvantages do not exist, that social policy must be operated on an individually "objective" basis. As a result, ameliorative policies are held hostage and the racial divide is widening in a country that holds out the promise of multiracial democracy.
So it is important to understand that the recent actions of President Bush in the field of civil rights take place against the backdrop of a potential war that may require a disproportionate sacrifice by many "individual" blacks. But given the state of social policy it is logical to ask where the disproportionate understanding and rewards for their service will be.
There is the agonizing irony that while this philosophical and political debate drones on, black soldiers sit in the sands of Saudi Arabia in splendid equality, mobilized to die for their country, while their president has vetoed a measure -- the Civil Rights Act of 1990 -- that would enhance the possibility for them to have the means to live in dignity. And if they should be lucky enough to return, they would find that he may also have taken away their right to college scholarships and placed them in a dangerous race-neutral pool.
To put it bluntly, the Bush administration is playing race politics in a manner that would continue to deny national resources to blacks, while black lives are disproportionately at stake as a result of his foreign policy. If no one will respect the nature of their sacrifice, then why should blacks especially be motivated to demand that their sons and daughters give it, considering the circumstances? The writer is chairman of the political science department at Howard University.