As a historian, this question — asked mostly by white Americans in the wake of Sept. 11 — struck me as naïve, at best, and arrogant, at worst.
As a student of U. S. foreign policy, and particularly the CIA‚s half-century of covert (but by no means secret) intrigues abroad, during which it waged wars, toppled governments, and plotted the assassination of foreign leaders deemed a threat or obstacle to U. S. interests, my immediate reaction to this question was the same as that of most black people I spoke with then and since: What goes around comes around.
As a student of U. S. domestic policy, and particularly the FBI’s near-century of clandestine (but by no means secret) intrigues at home, during which it waged wars on dissent, destroyed lives and movements, and instigated violence against American leaders deemed a threat or obstacle to national security, I won’t apologize for this reaction, nor hasten to assure white Americans that everyone feels the way that they do.
The targets of these foreign and domestic intrigues were usually people of color. As a member of an oppressed class, America in 2001 meant a return to those bad old days.
I am only one of many who believe that America’s racist seeds have helped to create an environment that now threatens all Americans, yet few seem prepared to look at its roots.
My parents and older siblings were involved in the movement against racism and war. I’m old enough to have personal memories of a time when dissent was seen as treason, questioning the status quo was considered subversive, and one was deemed guilty because of their religion, ethnicity, beliefs, and/or associations.
Then, as now, the government justified its narrowing of civil liberties by declaring a righteous war against an evil external enemy and an insidious "fifth column" in our midst, usually foreign-born with distinctive names, lifestyles, and beliefs.
Then, as now, the powers-that-be exploited grief and promoted fear to erect a powerful national security apparatus that included an Attorney General’s list of subversive organizations.
Then, as now, the war and justice seemed color-coded.
When a young white man was convicted of the Oklahoma City bombing, a national net of suspicion was not cast over all young white men with crew cuts as being potential terrorists or accessories. The same cannot be said of Arab-Americans and Muslims today or Japanese-Americans after the attack on Pearl Harbor.
When the mainstream media christened New York City police officers as "heroes," many black people wondered where this courage was when few to none crossed the thin blue line to testify against their brothers in the heinous mutilation a black Haitian and the firing squad shooting of a black Guinean.
Even black law enforcement officers have been victimized by New York’s finest for being unlucky enough to be caught standing, walking, running, or driving while black.
Many African-Americans wonder why white Americans who support an open-ended campaign for "justice" against foreign terrorists seem deaf to or outright dismissive of calls for reparations for centuries of homeland enslavement.
Not a single, horrific day, but an organized, institutionalized system of terror that dispossessed millions of their humanity and robbed their progeny of their futures — an extended atrocity that will haunt yet more generations if no national effort is made to redress its effects.
Some black Americans noted the coincidence of the United States refusal to allow the question of reparations to even be raised at the U.N. conference against racism in Durban, South Africa — only days before Sept. 11.
Of course, those who make such a link will be called emotional, irrational, oversensitive, confused, hateful. But, as Malcolm X said, a person who’s been stabbed with a nine-inch knife is not consoled when it’s pulled out six inches, particularly when the one who put it there avoids admitting it or the damage it caused, and fails to appreciate that, even if it was removed, it would still leave a scar. Historian Paul Lee is the director of Best Efforts Inc., a professional research and consulting service based in Highland