When I turned on the TV news on May 1, 2011, I was pleasantly surprised to hear that Osama bin Laden had been killed in Pakistan by US forces. As I flipped channels, I noticed a common theme: utter jubilation by pundits and interviewees alike. CNN showed that thousands of people had spontaneously flocked to the gates of the White House to celebrate the death of the world’s most infamous Islamic terrorist.
I watched as the crowd sang patriotic songs, waved flags, and chanted “USA! USA!,” and noticed something that someone without a consciousness of race might have missed: the impromptu rally was virtually all white. It was whiter than a Tea Party rally. It was so white that any company with a workforce that white would be sued for violating Title VII.
Although Presidents Obama and Bush have asserted that the attacks of September 11 united the country, the crowd that gathered outside the White House suggests otherwise. Washington, DC is only about 33.5 percent white. Why did white people–and apparently only white people–gather by the thousands to celebrate the death of Osama bin Laden?
It seems to me that only white Americans are deeply concerned about the conflict between Arabic Muslims and their country. I suspect that this is because only white Americans–deep down–think of the United States as their country, whereas nonwhites do not have the same level of attachment.
White Americans abhor Osama bin Laden, but Chicano Atzlan activists have compared him to their hero, Pancho Villa.
Six months after the September 11 attacks, the leader of the New Black Panther Party, Malik Zulu Shabazz, referred to Bin Laden as a “brother,” called him a “bold man,” and praised his allegedly visionary “reforms.” Shabazz’s remarks drew roars of approval from the black crowd.
Three months after the attacks, Al Sharpton ridiculed our soldiers–likewise to deafening applause–at the State of the Black World Conference where he asked the 700 black attendees, “This country can’t find a guy who comes out every two weeks to cut a video, and then you challenge us to stand under one flag?” [Steve Miller, “Black World Conference Loses Its Audience,” Washington Times, December 1, 2001, p. A3.]
Mainstream black author Brian Gilmore wrote that after the attacks blacks were “not feeling that deep sense of patriotism that most Americans feel.” He added that blacks “were Americans, but not quite as American as white Americans.” [Brian Gilmore, “Stand by the Man,” The Progressive, January 2002.]
He’s right. In 2008, a black player for the Dallas Mavericks basketball team, Josh Howard, participated in a charity flag-football game, where the television cameras caught him making faces as the National Anthem was played. “‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ is going on,” he said. “I don’t celebrate this shit. I’m black, goddammit.” [Eddie Sefko, “Dallas Mavericks’ Josh Howard Disrespects National Anthem,” Dallas Morning News, September 18, 2008.] These sentiments help explain why white Americans supported the 2003 Iraq invasion 78 to 20 percent, while black Americans opposed it 61 to 35 percent. [Darryl Fears, “For Blacks the War Is Another Divide,” Washington Post, March 25, 2003, p. A22.]
More recently, Rashard Mendenhall, a Pittsburgh Steelers running back, condemned the celebration by whites of bin Laden’s death via Twitter: “What kind of person celebrates death? It’s amazing how people can HATE a man they have never even heard speak. We’ve only heard one side. . . .” Black columnist Edward Wyckoff Williams even compared the death of Osama bin Laden to the deaths of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X.
Not surprisingly, American Muslims–blacks and immigrants alike–view the world differently from non-Muslims. According to a 2007 Pew Research Center survey, 47 percent of American Muslims consider themselves Muslim first, American second. American Muslims think it was wrong to attack Afghanistan–48 percent to 35 percent–while other Americans think it was right–61 percent to 29 percent. Only 25 percent of American Muslims think the War on Terror is a sincere effort to combat terrorism (that number drops to 20 percent for American-born Muslims, including blacks), whereas 67 percent of non-Muslims think it is a sincere effort.
Thirty-nine percent of American Muslims between the ages of 18 and 29 think Muslim immigrants should remain “distinct from American society” rather than adopt American ways, and for native-born Black Muslims that number rises to 47 percent. Perhaps this is why President Obama sent a letter to Congress in 2010 saying it was “in the national interest” to permit another 80,000 Muslims to immigrate during 2011.
Many blacks simply do not feel loyal to the United States, which they associate with slavery and “racism.” Others are openly hostile. Here are Malcolm X’s classic 1962 comments after an airplane carrying white Americans crashed in France:
“I would like to announce a very beautiful thing that has happened. I got a wire from God today. He really answered our prayers over in France. He dropped an airplane out of the sky with over 120 white people on it because the Muslims believe in an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. We will continue to pray and we hope that every day another plane falls out of the sky.”
Malcolm X would no doubt have been ecstatic about the September 11 attacks, and to the extent they share his views, blacks are saddened by the death of the man who planned the operation.
In international relations there is something called the “rally ’round the flag effect“; patriotism and national solidarity rise when a nation experiences a triumph or a defeat. This was very clear after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and the attacks of September 11. In the case of Osama bin Laden’s death, it appears that it is mostly white Americans who are rallying ’round the flag. Non-whites seem to think it doesn’t concern them.
It is whites who care about the United States, who grieve for its losses and celebrate its triumphs. Perhaps subconsciously they think of the United States as a white nation, and of Osama bin Laden as an enemy of white America. Their celebration of his death was a celebration of their civilization and of a country they still think belongs to them.