The Race Gap That Shapes American Views of War

Hip-hop music can offer a window into the concerns of Black communities. “Our Soldiers,” a 2008 song by the American rapper KRS-One, opens with a siren. After those first few seconds, one might assume the track—like many other hip-hop songs—will be about policing in the United States. But as the lyrics unfold, it becomes clear that KRS-One will take on a different issue: the Iraq war. When the siren returns, he delivers his chorus: “Rest in peace to them soldiers on a two-year tour / Frontline of the political war / Troops flyin’ out to Iraq, sent home in a black bag / Global terrorism droppin’ bombs over Baghdad.”

“Our Soldiers” expresses sentiments that many Black Americans shared: frustration about U.S. casualties, alienation from the politicians who launched the war, and anxiety for families separated by the conflict. Such concerns have long pervaded Black communities in the United States during wartime. Studies going back to World War II and the Korean War suggest that Black Americans have been skeptical than others about the use of U.S. military force abroad during many different conflicts.

But historically, the field of international relations has not shown much interest in studying how racial divides shape American attitudes toward war. Political scientists have noticed the phenomenon, but it has not been comprehensively investigated. To fill in this knowledge gap, we analyzed over 60 public opinion polls on the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, comparing average views on the war among Black and white Americans and accounting for other relevant factors such as income, education, and partisan affiliation.

This research not only provided evidence of a long-standing racial gap in support for U.S. military action but suggested potential causes behind that gap. More than their white counterparts, for example, Black Americans expressed concern about potential American casualties—a worry likely rooted in the fact that Black Americans have, in the past, borne disproportionate casualties in battle. More recent polling shows that Black Americans’ hesitation to support war persists. Chicago Council on Global Affairs polling indicates that African Americans are around ten percent less likely than the U.S. national average to support sending troops to defend South Korea or Taiwan against a Chinese invasion. The same polling shows less support among Black Americans for sending troops to defend Ukraine or other Eastern European states against Russian aggression.

This is a major cause for concern for a Democratic administration committed to supporting the Ukrainian cause and defending Taiwan. Without a better understanding of this rift, future policymakers may be blindsided by substantial opposition to U.S. military action, even if the policy they wish to implement has clear strategic importance to them. If American leaders better understood the persistence of the racial gap in war support and the causes behind it, they could better anticipate criticisms of major foreign policy decisions and rethink their public messaging during wartime.


One benefit of studying public opinion on the Iraq war is that a great deal of data is available. Examining 66 polls run by a range of news organizations such as ABC, CNN, The New York Times, and The Washington Post as well as by the Cooperative Election Study, an academic project that surveys tens of thousands of Americans each election year, provided sizable samples of Black respondents and allowed for a detailed investigation of the Black-white gap in support for war. A quarter of the polls, for instance, specifically asked about respondents’ views on potential U.S. casualties. Two-thirds asked about respondents’ trust in the president at the time, providing a way to determine how political alienation affected war support.

Overall, this set of polls showed that Black Americans were, on average, about 30 percent less likely to support the Iraq war than white Americans were during George W. Bush’s presidency and 20 percent to 29 percent less likely to do so during Barack Obama’s presidential terms. (Fewer polls on the Iraq war were conducted during the latter period, yielding greater uncertainty.) During 2003, the year the war began, Black Americans’ support for the war averaged around 30 percent compared with over 60 percent among White Americans. By the time U.S. forces withdrew from Iraq in 2011, this gap had narrowed but not disappeared: Black Americans’ support for the war ran from 20 to 25 percent, while all estimates of white Americans’ support remained above 30 percent.

Black Americans were, on average, about 30 percent less likely to support the Iraq war than white Americans.

Some analysts have suggested that partisanship can explain these differences. Black Americans overwhelmingly vote for the typically more dovish Democratic Party. The data, however, suggest that demographics cannot fully explain the gap. Even accounting for partisan affiliation, as well as age, education, and income, Black Americans remained less supportive of the war. Black respondents also did not appear to be consistently motivated by the potential tradeoff between military and social spending. Some polls asked for individuals’ views on U.S. budget priorities, and during the Bush years, Black Americans, on average, prioritized domestic over military spending at a slightly higher rate than white Americans. During Obama’s presidency, however, Black Americans were less likely than their white counterparts to prioritize domestic spending over spending on defense.

Nor are Black respondents from military families the source of the gap. Black Americans are generally overrepresented in the armed forces. During the initial years of the Iraq war, they constituted about 11 percent of the overall U.S. civilian workforce but 17 percent of military personnel (and 23 percent of army personnel). One might guess that concerns about the endangerment of their family members drove Black respondents’ hesitancy about the war. Yet Black people from military families were no less supportive of the war than Black people from nonmilitary families.

The divergence in opinion was not limited to the Iraq war. Fourteen polls investigating public support for the war in Afghanistan, taken from 2001 to 2014, confirmed a gap in war support: Black Americans were anywhere from eight to 33 percent less likely to support that war during the Bush years and three to 17 percent less likely to back it during the Obama years, even when controlling for other factors.


History likely plays a role in this opinion gap. There is a perception in some Black communities that when the U.S. goes to war, Black people will be more likely to perish. At a 1991 rally opposing President George H. W. Bush’s plan to invade Iraq, the Reverend Jesse Jackson articulated this view: “If the war breaks out, the black and the brown and the poor will burn first.” Weeks before Jackson’s speech, Black respondents to a USA Today poll were more than twice as likely as white respondents to believe that if the United States went to war in Iraq, Black Americans would “bear an unfair burden in the fighting.”

Polling on the 2003 Iraq war reveals that this perception lingers. Indeed, the polling’s clearest results reflect Black respondents’ greater casualty sensitivity—the fear that war will bring death or injury to members of the U.S. military. Black respondents were between 16 and 21 percent more likely to express concern about potential U.S. casualties in Iraq than white respondents after accounting for partisan affiliation, income, and other factors such as education.

Black servicemembers have not died disproportionately in all U.S. wars. But Black people are overrepresented in the military, and in some wars, Black soldiers have died at disproportionately high rates. During World War I, Black soldiers were more likely “to be drafted, placed in labor battalions, given inferior medical care, and refused commissions,” the Chapman University historian Jennifer Keene has written. Black servicemembers also suffered disproportionately during the first years of the Vietnam War, and many Black Americans remember that unequal sacrifice.

There is a perception that when the U.S. goes to war, Black people will be more likely to perish.

Political leadership also likely plays a role in Black Americans’ attitudes toward war. The Iraq war polling data revealed that few Black respondents felt well-represented by George W. Bush to begin with, even compared with white Democrats—a dynamic that undoubtedly deepened their aversion to the war he championed. The opposite dynamic took hold when Obama took office. Black respondents exhibited greater trust in the president than did white respondents, probably slightly moderating their criticism of the war Obama inherited.

The differences of opinion about war along racial lines would not surprise Black intellectuals and political leaders. At key points in American history, prominent Black leaders such as Paul Robeson and Martin Luther King, Jr., spoke out against war, often urging policymakers to address racism at home before sending Black soldiers to die abroad. And throughout the twentieth century, Black intellectuals such as Ralph Bunche and Merze Tate drew on their own experiences in a racially stratified society to highlight the ways that raw exercise of power underpinned U.S. economic and security policies abroad. Their work argued that given America’s fraught struggle with race relations at home, policymakers must actively guard against manifestations of racism and imperialism in U.S. foreign policy.

Black Americans’ casualty sensitivity in the Iraq war polling suggests that a concept more typically used in analyses of domestic U.S. politics has relevance to foreign policy, too. This is the concept of “linked fate,” an idea developed by the University of Chicago political scientist Michael Dawson. Linked fate suggests that Black Americans have a sense of personal concern for the improvement of social and economic conditions for all members of the racial group. Such in-group solidarity is not completely unique to Black Americans, though it tends to be very strong within this demographic.


Overall, Black Americans view the muscular exercise of American power with less enthusiasm than their white counterparts. Recent polling shows that Black Americans’ hesitation to support war has not vanished—nor is it confined to wars that are already being fought. The historian Christopher Shell, who investigates the relationship between race and support for hypothetical U.S. troop deployments, studied October 2023 polls gauging Black and white support for sending U.S. troops to the Middle East if neighboring countries were to attack Israel. He found low enthusiasm for sending troops among white respondents, but Black respondents were even less supportive. Other polls showed low support among African Americans for sending U.S. troops to Ukraine following Russia’s invasion or sending troops to Taiwan in the case of a conflict with China.

In recent years, the U.S. foreign policy establishment has become more alert to matters of race. The State Department has expanded scholarship programs to diversify the diplomatic corps, and in 2022 the department appointed a leading diplomat, Desirée Cormier Smith, as its first special representative for racial equity and justice. In that role, she seeks to promote racial equity globally. The State Department and many other national security agencies, including the U.S. Agency for International Development and the Defense Department, have also recently invested in management programs dedicated to promoting diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility. Some analysts even allege that foreign policy experts’ new attention to race now goes too far, deriding “woke” foreign policy on cable news channels.

The racial gap in attitudes toward the use of military force, however, remains underexamined. Too few policymakers seek to understand the concerns and narratives that drive it. Instead, many tend to assume that, ultimately, the most important predictor of Americans’ opinions on foreign policy is partisan affiliation. This lack of awareness may have consequences. Consider the January drone attack that killed three U.S. servicemembers in Jordan. All three slain soldiers were Black, but mainstream news reports and U.S. government statements rarely acknowledged this fact.

But it was not lost on Black communities. Black news outlets and bloggers focused on the race of the victims. An editorial in NewsOne, an online publication dedicated to reporting news that affects Black communities, noted that the drone attack illuminated “the outsize role that African Americans play in serving the United States.” The editorial expressed frustration with the seeming contradiction between U.S. policy commitments to racial justice at home and the loss of Black lives overseas.

American leaders must better consider how to communicate events like these to affected constituencies. Thoughtful engagement at least yields a chance of building trust. Recognizing the persistent racial gap in war support could open the door to meaningful engagement with Black intellectual leaders, veterans, and activists on how to address their concerns. But continuing to ignore Black Americans’ longstanding unease about the impact of military operations only risks deepening their alienation from U.S. policies—and undermining their willingness to support government policies in the future.


You may also like...

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *