Black America's Opposition to the Iraq War

St. Louis Post Dispatch national correspondent Ron Harris talks with Farai Chideya about why a large majority of African Americans oppose the invasion and occupation of Iraq. A recent poll suggests nine out of 10 black Americans are against the war.

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

The number of US soldiers killed in Iraq is now more than 2,000. The rising death toll makes it harder for the US military to recruit soldiers, and it's also driving down public support for the war. In fact, eight out of 10 African-Americans give the war a thumbs-down, according to a recent CBS News poll. Reporter Ron Harris has been in and out of Iraq since the conflict began. He's a national correspondent for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. He explains that black Americans have long been skeptical about the Iraq War.

Mr. RON HARRIS (St. Louis Post-Dispatch): When the war initially began, they did a poll, and seven out of every 10 African-Americans said that they opposed the war. They're very patriotic, but this war, they don't see a connection between the war and the war on terrorism.

CHIDEYA: Now you just mentioned that African-Americans are a quarter of the Army, but the number of people recruiting into the Army who are African-American has dropped dramatically, isn't it?

Mr. HARRIS: It has fallen incredibly. The military did a study, and they wanted to find out why, and what they found out is that African-American parents, coaches and all these people who have influence on young men and women are against the war, and African-American children are less likely to go against those, what they call, influences, and so as the military sort of goes out and recruits those kids, they've got to recruit against their families, and then finally, there's a weird thing, that there's a new commercial that's coming out, in which a little black kid basically is defying his mother and has joined the Army and is basically trying to convince her that this is a good thing.

CHIDEYA: Wow. That's a fascinating approach to it. We'll see if it actually holds up. But let me ask you another question. We've been talking about African-Americans and the same Marist College Public Opinion poll that showed that nine out of 10 African-Americans are against the war also showed that 56 percent of people in this country overall don't like the way the president is handling Iraq. Now on the one hand, we see all of the pictures of the ongoing insurgency. On the other hand, Iraqis just voted on a new constitution. Why didn't that, for example, seem to show any spike in public opinion numbers?

Mr. HARRIS: Because that's not what Americans are concerned about. What they want to know is when are the American troops going to stop dying? So what they're looking for is an endgame. I mean, Republican pollster after Republican pollster says this issue of Iraq is the number one or two issues on the minds of American people. But at the same time, there's no debate about it in the government.

CHIDEYA: You mentioned that Republican pollsters are going around trying to figure out what's happening. A recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll put the president's support among African-Americans at just 2 percent. It can't get much worse than that.

Mr. HARRIS: That's pretty low.

CHIDEYA: Yeah. So there was not only Iraq on people's minds. There's also the economy. There's Katrina. What were the pollsters you were talking to thinking about what to do about those numbers?

Mr. HARRIS: They didn't really have an answer as far as how he can bring those numbers up. But they had a very clear answer about why those numbers are so low. They point out the Republican Party and Republicans have now dipped below Democrats in popularity. And with, as you know, a few months ago or a little over a year ago when President Bush was elected, I mean, Republicans were riding high. And there's two or three things. Number one, Katrina angered the entire country, and it angered African-Americans even more so. You combine that with the war in Iraq, what people saw, one, in Katrina that here's a guy that we thought after 9/11 had the ability to get things done. We're seeing that he doesn't.

CHIDEYA: Ron Harris is a national correspondent for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. He's returning to Iraq in a month. He joined us from Washington. Thank you so much.

Mr. HARRIS: Thank you so much.

CHIDEYA: This is NPR News.

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