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Should we expect outsiders to be patriotic?

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MAXWELL
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By BILL MAXWELL, Times Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times
published September 8, 2002


SAN ANGELO, Texas -- As an African-American, I do not bring good tidings about the nation's social fabric during this the first anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

I and millions of other blacks, especially males, feel more like outsiders than ever before. We fear that the U.S. citizenry has become less, not more, tolerant of one of the traits that sets Americans apart from other peoples of the world: our ethnic diversity.

Shortly after the attacks, several white readers asked me to explain why, compared to whites, fewer blacks planted Old Glory on their lawns or flew the flag on their vehicles.

"Are you all less patriotic than us, I mean white people?" a letter writer asked.

Now, 12 months later and given everything that has transpired since that hellish day, I feel the need to return to the man's question.

Here is the gist of my explanation then: The late black historian W.E.B. DuBois wrote about African-Americans' dual identity. He called the condition "two warring souls in one black body." Simply stated, he meant that black people are permanent outsiders and American citizens at the same time. And this duality is never more acute than during war and threats of war, when robust shows of patriotism are the litmus test for being real Americans.

Before Sept. 11, blacks faced daily injustice, and, too often, their pleas for redress were ignored. Even during and after the nation's wars, black GIs were treated as second-class citizens.

What, then, are blacks to do today as the so-called war on terrorism moves relentlessly toward restricting civil liberties and ignoring black concerns?

Noted African-American intellectual and Columbia University professor Michael Eric Dyson comments: "This is the vicious double bind that black people find. The double bind of black people is that we look unpatriotic if we keep a distance from the arguments of American nationalism in a time of crisis. But in the past, whenever we have cast our lot, as we always do, with the American mainstream, as soon as the crisis subsides, our interests are scuttled, marginalized and overlooked.

"So the price for admission into American patriotism is the rejection of our very complaints about the lack of full access to such citizenship and democracy. So we are asked, in effect, to prove our participation in a reality to which we are constantly and systematically denied access."

Immediately following the tragedies, social scientists and other scholars began studying how different groups -- including Democrats and Republicans, Arab-Americans and Jews, the wealthy and the poor, the educated and the uneducated, the religious and the nonreligious -- reacted to the attacks and to subsequent events and trends.

University of Michigan researchers, for example, studied attitudes about the future of the economy, and scholars at the University of Chicago studied the prevalence of "distress" among various groups.

The researchers found that the degree to which people feel "threatened" determines their views of the economy and their personal stake in the future. "People who are more threatened are less optimistic about the future of the economy, and less willing to spend money," wrote Michael Traugott of the University of Michigan's Institute for Social Research.

Large numbers of blacks felt personally threatened before Sept. 11, and that sense of threat has only increased with the corporate meltdown that has hit the nation's economy in general.

Chicago scholars found that blacks and other people of color remain on the fringe of U.S. society. As majority groups move toward healing and adjust to federal measures to protect the nation from future terrorist attacks, blacks, along with Hispanics and several other minorities, are experiencing high levels of "distress."

The poor are more likely to see themselves as targets of terrorism because, for one, they rely on venues, such as mass transit, that probably will be attacked.

In addition to feeling threatened by terrorists, blacks feel threatened by their own government and fellow citizens. City University of New York psychology professor David Manier: "There is somewhat broadly this spirit in our land of anger and revenge. And it's frightening to people who are on the margins of society . . . and who know they can be targets of the majority."

While Attorney General John Ashcroft's harsh policies reassure many affluent, well-educated white people, they scare many minorities. Some of these fears may be illogical, but they emerge from years of concrete individual and group experiences.

What I wrote shortly after the 2001 attacks is salient in 2002: "Blacks are American citizens and must participate in national life. As the nation confronts the current crisis -- one that may last for years to come -- how will blacks deal with their dual identity as the outsider and the citizen? When the heat of the crisis wanes, who will listen to black people's pleas for justice? Will the mean-spirited conservatism that tainted civil rights and social service policies before the World Trade Center tragedy regain its footing?"

On this anniversary of the twin towers' attacks, the rest of the country expects blacks and other minorities, such as farm workers, who are denied full entry in American life, to be as patriotic as majority groups. I ask the same question I asked a year ago: Is this a realistic expectation -- even during times of crisis?

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