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The Struggle of African American Vets
By Vince Emmanule
The socioeconomic situation facing returning veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan is quite grim. Broadly speaking, returning veterans are enduring the multiple stresses of combat trauma, physical injury, unemployment, homelessness, imprisonment, drug/alcohol dependency and a multitude of other social, economic, and psychological ailments. In this context, it's important to remember that veterans from all ethnic backgrounds are disproportionately represented in any and all socioeconomic statistics within the United States. However, the situation is even more tragic for African American veterans.
Vince Emmanule at Memorial Day,
According to Tom Tarantino of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, referencing a recent survey conducted by IAVA, over 16% of veterans surveyed reported being unemployed. That's almost three times the national average. In particular, the youngest subset of veterans, returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, are facing the most difficult situation with regard to employment. In fact, as Tarantino notes, "For new veterans aged 18-24, the unemployment rate averaged 20.4% in 2012, more than five percentage points higher than the average among non-veterans aged 18-24."
African American veterans, as Naeesa Aziz mentions, "make up only 11.9% of the entire veteran labor force" but "accounted for 17.5% of overall veterans unemployment in 2010." Additionally, Naeesa Aziz suggests, "the data also showed that unemployment among Black veterans has steadily increased from 2007 to 2010, rising seven points and landing at 12.7%." Above all, the "transition back home" for African American veterans is marred with economic strife and inequality.
Overall, the disproportionate economic realities impacting returning veterans from African American communities reflects nationwide trends. According to the most recent jobs report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, African Americans are facing an unemployment rate (12.6%) exactly twice that of their White counterparts (6.3%). Unfortunately, institutional racism is reflected throughout the African American veteran community in the form of long-term joblessness, short-term employment and marginal economic opportunities.
Unsurprisingly, veterans are also disproportionately represented in America's prison industrial complex. Indeed, while veterans only comprise 7% of the total civilian population, they represent over 10% of America's prison population. Additionally, the National Coalition of Homeless Veterans reports that, "most State prison veterans (54%) reported service during a wartime era, while 20% saw combat duty. In federal prison 2/3 of veterans had served during wartime, and 1/4 had seen combat." Furthermore, the NCHV notes, "over half of veterans (57%) were serving time for violent offenses, compared to 47% of non-veterans."
Moreover, the NCHV observes that, "nearly one in four veterans in state prison were sex offenders, compared to 1/10 non-veterans." Similarly, "Veterans were more likely than violent offenders in state prison to have victimized females and minors," Unsurprisingly, African American veterans represent 34.7% of the veteran prison population, despite only accounting for 10.4% of the total veteran population. Quite obviously, the situation facing veterans in the prison system is calamitous. Particularly, we must draw attention to the growing inequalities among the African American veteran population enslaved within America's prison industrial complex.
Lastly, I would like to illuminate the utterly catastrophic situation facing tens of thousands of homeless veterans living in the United States. Citing the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), the National Coalition of Homeless Veterans points out that, "62,619 veterans are homeless on any given night. Over the course of a year, approximately twice that many experience homelessness." Moreover, NCHV illustrates that, "51% of homeless veterans have disabilities... 50% have serious mental illness," and "70% have substance abuse problems." Again, while veterans only represent 7% of the total population, they constitute 13% of the total homeless population within the United States.
For African American veterans, particularly black women veterans, the situation is even more disastrous. As Shannon Jones reports, "About 13 percent of homeless Afghan and Iraq war veterans are women, and almost 50 percent of all homeless veterans are African American." With 1/3 of all women veterans reporting Military Sexual Trauma, it should be noted that female African American veterans who have been sexually assaulted are one of the fastest growing segments of the homeless population within the United States. These are the stark socioeconomic realities plaguing our veterans as a consequence of centuries of institutional racism, militarism, empire-building and neoliberal economic assaults at home.
In this context, Iraq Veterans Against the War - Chicago - has made it our absolute mission to address these issues by working with the African American community and incorporating African American veterans into our chapter's leadership roles. Yes, this is a difficult task. Why? Well, namely, because the anti-war movement within the United States is "old, white and grey." In other words, IVAW's demographics represent the anti-war movement as a whole. But this isn't a model for growth, power or success. In order to accomplish our stated goals, IVAW, along with the broader anti-war left, must cultivate spaces conducive to building a multiracial movement.
That being said, we've had some limited success in working with Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr. and the RainbowPush Coalition. To my surprise, on several occasions, Rev. Jackson has invited me as a guest on his TV program, and has created a space for IVAW members to visit and speak with his largely African American congregation and political community. On a personal note, Rev. Jackson has been extremely cordial and helpful. He has continually supported IVAW Chicago's work by showing up to our events and providing political support. For example, during the 2012 anti-NATO protests, Rev. Jackson marched with IVAW and Afghans for Peace preceding the service medal-returning ceremony. Afterwards, he came up to me and said, "Brother Emanuele, that was the most powerful anti-war event I've ever been a part of, and I've been to a lot."
Let us remember, Rev. Jackson understands violence, and its devastating after-effects. On April 4th, 1968, Rev. Jackson was standing but a few meters away from Dr. Martin Luther King when Dr. King was shot by an assassin at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. He knows what the fresh blood of a good friend looks like, and he understands the soul-crushing consequences. The ongoing and never-ending violent circle continues today—whether it's economic violence, or military occupation. The only way to move forward as a society and anti-war community is to openly recognize, analyze and radically change the institutional structures that dictate such inequalities will continue.
Vince Emmanuele is a former US Marine of two tours to Iraq who refused to go again by laying down his weapon. He serves of the national Board of Directors of Iraq Veterans Against the War. He hosts the Veterans Unplugged radio program on Radio WIMS, Michigan.