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Race, Prejudice and War

What White America Doesn’t Hear

by J.L. CHESTNUT, Jr.

On December 7, 1941, the Imperial Government of Japan bombed the American island of Pearl Harbor in the Pacific and slaughtered more than 2000 people. President Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered law enforcement authorities on the West Coast to detain all Japanese-Americans and place them in special camps. There was no outcry in the media or elsewhere over this brazen and unfair treatment of American citizens who happen to be Japanese or over this wide-open mockery of the Constitution. After all, these Japanese-Americans were American citizens but they were not white and they constituted less than 1 % of the population. They were also isolated into a few ghettos.

That is one reason why today so many Americans have reservations about the so-called Patriot Act. We have been down that road before. All through World War Two, German soldiers were treated as the enemy but the Japanese were treated and pictured as subhuman. The U.S. Government even launched several secret efforts to find out if black Americans were on the "right side" of the war. In the end, President Truman, who integrated the armed services, would also order the military to drop two atomic bombs on the Japanese. All these years, I have wondered if Truman would have dropped two atomic bombs on the Germans in a similar situation.

At the beginning of the war, black leaders warned President Roosevelt that racial segregation in the military and on the home front had created such bitter opposition among black people that it could pose problems for the war effort. The President enlisted his wife, Eleanor, to insure sure that complaints brought by black leaders would be heard by the right people. The situation was explosive and A. Phillip Randolph, leader of the black Union Car porters, threatened to march on Washington. That would have been a propaganda coup for Adolph Hitler whose government was asking black servicemen, "With racial segregation at home and in the army, who, why and what are you fighting and dying for?"

Sixty long years after Pearl Harbor, Islamic zealots turned three airliners into bombs and destroyed the twin World Trade Center Towers in New York City and also did damage to the Pentagon in Washington. A fourth airliner was brought down in Pennsylvania because of some really brave people. President George W. Bush, to his credit, said repeatedly that the U.S. response would be against international terrorists and not generally against the people of Islamic faith.

Millions of American citizens are Muslims and they live and work all over the country. Some died in the attacks on September 11th. Nevertheless, some Americans believe, as I do, that notwithstanding what the president said the U.S. would make continuous war against Arabs and Muslims generally. We believe that is true because a racist component has always deeply infected this nation’s foreign policy and virtually everything else. Likewise, African-Americans always have reservations and misgivings about America’s foreign policy that one seldom, if ever, hears in white America.

James Baldwin, celebrated black novelist and playwright, spent part of 1965 in a backroom at my law office helping finance black protest marches. In 1962, he wrote the celebrated novel, Another Country, in which he described a nation occupied by blacks and situated alongside the United States. This nation was seldom visited, seldom consulted and seldom reported upon by whites except when it disrupted or disturbed the white nation next door that it mirrors. To white people, black citizens living in this parallel country were shadows, creatures glanced at out of car windows, over the shoulder, tolerated, feared, and despised. Blacks were viewed as a problem, as an issue.

Baldwin understood that many white Americans and even some African-Americans do not feel that blacks are really Americans. In truth, some African-Americans deep down only see themselves as black in America and many working class, lower middle class Muslim Americans also do not feel they are American. These people were as shaken by 9/11 as anyone and they do not condone that cowardly attack but unlike many white Americans they can understand why it happened and when they hear Arabs and Muslims around the world say this country got what was coming to it, these American Muslims want to yell, "Which America are you talking about? Certainly not mine."

I chose not to see Steven Spielberg’s picture, "Saving Private Ryan," because I would not see black soldiers dying, bleeding and fighting on the beaches. The same is true of Spielberg’s follow-up picture, "Band of Brothers." The army only armed black soldiers in late 1944 during the Battle of the Bulge, and after a substantial number of white soldiers had died. Up to that point, black soldiers could only fight in an "emergency" situation and were automatically reduced to supply jobs.

Two decades after that war, the black prizefighter, Muhammad Ali retorted that he would not fight in Vietnam because no Vietcong had ever called him a "nigger." Variations on Ali’s theme are heard today in many black urban ghettoes in relation to the war on terrorism even as many others voluntarily sign up for the military in order to escape the ghetto. As usual, Washington hears what it wants to hear.

Not long after 9/11, I landed at New York City’s La Guardia Airport, and was directed to wait in line as a dispatcher assigned passengers to cabs on the basis of each person’s destination. A well dressed, middle aged white man and I were both headed for the Marriott Marquee Hotel in Times Square and were therefore assigned to the same cab. The man refused to enter the cab because the driver’s dress indicated that he was obviously an Arab or a Muslim. The man gave me a look that strongly suggested that I should ask for another cab. I entered the cab and went on about my business.

The cab driver turned out to be an American citizen, who has spent 42 of his 56 years in this country. He drives cabs on weekends and drives limousines during the week. His wife is a white Christian, born in this country. They have a daughter studying nursing at Columbia University, and their only son is a captain in the U.S. Marines and stationed in Afghanistan.

The driver also said, it would have been very painful for him if I, a black man, had refused to ride in his cab. He said he understands white Americans and is married to what he called "one of the good ones." I assured him that I have been riding and walking with his kind before he was born.

J.L. CHESTNUT, Jr. is a civil rights attorney in Selma, Alabama. He is the founder of Chestnut, Sanders and Sanders which is the largest black law firm in Alabama. Born in Selma and, after graduating from Howard University Law School, he began practicing law in Selma in 1958. He started as the only black lawyer in the town and has been challenging the establishment since then. His law firm now owns two radio stations in Selma and Mr. Chestnut hosts a radio talk show three days a week touted as the most popular radio show in south and central Alabama. He is the author of "Black in Selma" with Julia Cass (1989 Farrar, Straus and Giroux), and writes a weekly column called the "Hard Cold Truth". He can be reached at tmarshall@csspca.com.