The U.S. military fights racism the same way it fights wars. There are platoons of PowerPoint planning, battalions of buzzwords, and squads of staff officers. The military created and deployed the Defense Equal Opportunity Management Institute to the fight nearly 50 years ago. But, just like in Afghanistan, victory against racism in the ranks remains a distant dream.
In a military that is 43% racial and ethnic minorities, why did it take until 2020 for there to be a Black officer confirmed to head a military service? On August 6, Air Force General Charles Brown Jr. will become the first. Why, in an active duty military made up of 1.3 million men and women, are only two of its 41 four-star officers—the highest rank—Black?
“The U.S. military fights racism the same way it fights wars. But, just like in Afghanistan, victory against racism in the ranks remains a distant dream.”
As someone who has covered the military for more than 40 years, I know that things are a lot better than they used to be. But racial animus remains salted through the U.S. military. More than a third of active duty troops—and most racial minorities in uniform—said in a Military Times survey last year that they have witnessed racism in the ranks. It’s like a constant white noise, ranging from racist talk and discrimination, to the exchange of Nazi-style salutes, to swastikas and Ku Klux Klan decals affixed to troops’ cars.
It indicated things don’t seem to be improving: Those saying they have witnessed racism jumped from 22% in 2018 to 36% in 2019. Respondents said they see white nationalism as a greater national security threat than either Islamic-linked domestic terrorism or immigration.
But it’s worse than racist language and bumper stickers. There has been a steady stream of such attitudes laced with violence. There were two incidents just last month. On June 6, an active duty Air Force sergeant working as a security officer at a California base was arrested for the murder of a California sheriff’s deputy, a week after he allegedly killed a federal security officer as he guarded a federal building in Oakland during a protest against George Floyd’s killing. The suspect has been linked to the extremist right-wing “Boogaloo” movement, whose goal is to trigger a second U.S. civil war. On June 10, an Army soldier was arrested for sharing classified military information with an “occult-based neo-Nazi” group as part of a deadly plot against his own unit.
The U.S. military has a long history of treating racism and racists in uniform with a wink and a nod, and as long as that remains true, the military will continue to attract members of their ilk.
The death of George Floyd under the knee of a police officer in Minneapolis on May 25 seemingly caused the military to finally take a hard look at itself. Until then, the military had generally patted itself on its back when it comes to racial tolerance. “The Army is the only institution in America where whites are routinely bossed around by blacks,” the late Charlie Moskos, perhaps the top military sociologist of the past century, said in 1995. Typifying the U.S. military’s attitude, a 2002 Pentagon report said blatant racism had been eliminated due to Defense Department rules. “Most would agree that overt racism and racial discrimination generally do not exist in the Armed Services given the current regulations, instructions, guidelines, and zero tolerance policies,” said the study, Historical Overview of Racism in the Military. It whitewashed the low-hanging fruit—"overt racism and racial discrimination”—like a freshly-painted barracks. But, just beneath that gleaming surface, termites are still turning wood into sawdust.
That’s because the Pentagon’s congratulatory tone is largely just words, in black and white. To trace true progress, check out this white-and-white photograph from last fall, when the nation’s high command stopped by the White House to have dinner with President Donald Trump:
All of the nation’s most senior officers pictured are white (and male). That might be acceptable if, for example, those men had won a war recently, or brought in a weapon system on time and under budget. But their performance in both realms has been markedly less than stellar.
So why does the U.S. military brass remain a largely white-male-only club?
Testimony last month by the Government Accountability Office offered a pernicious insight into the problem. At first glance, the GAO’s reporting would seem to show bias, if not racism, in the military-justice system. “Black and Hispanic servicemembers were more likely than White servicemembers to be the subjects of recorded investigations in all of the military services, and were more likely to be tried in general and special courts-martial in the Army, the Navy, the Marine Corps, and the Air Force,” Brenda Farrell, the agency’s director of defense capabilities and management, told the House Armed Services Committee on June 16.
That’s bad enough. But what she said next is actually worse: “In the military services that maintained complete punishment data—the Army, the Navy, the Marine Corps, and the Air Force—we found that minority servicemembers were either less likely to receive a more severe punishment in general and special courts-martial compared to White servicemembers, or there were no statistically significant differences in punishments among racial groups.”
“Minority troops were more likely to be suspected and investigated for wrongdoing, but ended up being convicted and punished less, or at about the same rate, as whites.”
Bottom line: Troops who are racial minorities were more likely to be suspected of and investigated for wrongdoing, but ended up being convicted and punished less or at about the same rate as white troops. In other words, there apparently is some insidious bias in how the military initiates investigations into wrongdoing that leads to more charges than warranted against racial minorities. Either that, or commanders are cutting white troops slack when initiating investigations. Given human nature, it’s probably some of both. While such investigations don’t necessarily translate into fewer opportunities for racial minority members of the U.S. military, the fact that they are hauled before courts martial and other judicial proceedings at a higher rate than white service members suggests the system is somehow rigged against them.
Well, don’t count on the military for answers. “Officials from DOD and the military services acknowledged that they do not know the cause of the racial disparities that have been identified in the military justice system,” the GAO’s Farrell explained. “This is because they have not conducted a comprehensive evaluation to identify potential causes of these disparities and make recommendations about any appropriate corrective actions to remediate the cause(s) of the disparities.”
That is a striking statement about the U.S. military, which has long had a pathological need to document everything.
“While my experience tells me that we have an extraordinarily healthy system of justice, I also recognize that we simply do not know what we do not know,” Lieutenant General Charles Pede, the Army judge advocate general (a white man), told lawmakers at the same hearing. “We are developing a framework this very week and last week to figure that out,” he added.
He said that 71 years, 10 months and 21 days after President Harry Truman signed an executive order on July 26, 1948, desegregating the U.S. military. Congress is also readying legislation to help fill this information vacuum. Better late than never.
Something changed following George Floyd’s death. In recent weeks, top Pentagon officials are speaking bluntly and candidly about the scourge of racism in their ranks. The military has a checkered history here. While the Tuskegee Airmen and other racial minority units excelled in wartime, too often they faced discrimination back home after their service. But it’s not all due to explicit racism. Part of the reason Black service members have lagged in the higher ranks is because they have tended to make their military careers in support roles like logistics, supply, and transportation. The good news is that such jobs teach skills that are easily transferred to the civilian world once a uniform is put away. The bad news is that promotions to the highest levels favor war-fighters, from infantry to fighter pilots, where white service members are over-represented.
But that hasn’t stopped the Pentagon from talking a good game. The military has created a lot of things to rid the service of racism. Here’s one example, from one service, covering only a five-year span: The Army established the Army Diversity Office in 2005, which led to the creation of an Army Diversity Working Group, which spun its wheels, according to an official Army account. In 2007, the service created the Army Diversity Task Force. But bureaucratic turf wars thwarted mission success. To smooth things out, in 2010, the Army Diversity Office was moved into the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army for Manpower and Reserve Affairs. Within that office, the Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Army for Equal Opportunity and Civil Rights was renamed the Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Army for Diversity and Leadership. Later that year, the Army Diversity Office was combined with the Equal Employment Opportunity Civil Rights Office and the Equal Employment Opportunity Compliance and Complaints Office to form the Diversity and Leadership Office.
That does sound a bit like the 19-year-long war in Afghanistan, where Pentagon officials regularly say the U.S. has fought 19 one-year wars, churning through troops and strategies that change with every new commander’s arrival.
On June 18, Defense Secretary Mark Esper said he was—wait for it—creating another new outfit to deal with the challenge. The Defense Board on Diversity and Inclusion in the Military will ultimately become the Defense Advisory Committee on Diversity and Inclusion, and will be charged with increasing the share of racial minorities among senior officers … just like all those that have come before.
Yet the military retains biases against its minority members, as Esper acknowledged in a June 18 video message to the nation’s troops. “We know this bias burdens many of our service members, and has direct and indirect impact on the experiences of our minority members, the cultural and ethnic diversity of the force, and representation in our officer ranks,” he added. “These things have no place in our military; they have no place in our country.”
He suggested simple steps—like removing official photographs of officers up for promotion from their files—could help remove discrimination, either conscious or otherwise. The photos—which obviously show a candidate’s race—"may allow unacceptable biases to creep into board decisions and to wreak havoc on what should be a fair process,” Army MajorPaul Kearney said in an April post to an official Army website. “Racial and gender discrimination, for example, are not just possible; they are probable–and [Department of the Army] photos facilitate such biases.” The Army said June 24 that such photos would no longer be included in promotion-board packages.
“I believe that we have not made much progress in this area of racial injustice and diversity among our ranks.”Chief Master Sergeant Kaleth Wright, a Black man and the Air Force’s top enlisted official
Floyd’s killing and resulting protests were followed by Trump’s threat to deploy active duty troops against U.S. citizens, and his infamous June 1 hike across Lafayette Park with Esper and Army General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in tow. That double thunderclap outraged much of the nation. And it has unleashed a torrent of reflection from senior U.S. military leaders.
“I am George Floyd,” Chief Master Sergeant Kaleth Wright, a Black man and the Air Force’s top enlisted official, wrote the same day as that Lafayette Park expedition. “I am Michael Brown, I am Alton Sterling, I am Tamir Rice,” he said, naming a trio of Black males killed by police. “Just like most of the Black Airmen and so many others in our ranks … I am outraged at watching another Black man die on television before our very eyes.” Wright said racism’s “demons” remains a persistent stain on the U.S. Air Force. “I believe that we have not made much progress in this area of racial injustice and diversity among our ranks.”
The next day, Wright and General David Goldfein, the Air Force chief of staff, sat for a video chat. “We are not immune to the spectrum of racial prejudice, systemic discrimination, and unconscious bias,” said Goldfein, the service’s top officer. Wright elaborated on the concerns he had expressed a day earlier. “The fear I have when I'm driving down whether it’s the Beltway or any street and I see blue lights, because I think it doesn't matter if I'm the chief or whomever,” Wright said during the conversation, which went out to the Air Force’s 321,618 troops, 46,741 of them Black (15% of the force). “And my greatest fear is not for myself. It's that I wake up one day and one of our airmen will be George Floyd.”
On June 3, the Army, Marines, and Navy joined the chorus, saying the services reflected the American public from which they draw their soldiers, Marines, and sailors. “Over the past week, the country has suffered an explosion of frustration over the racial divisions that still plague us as Americans,” the Army’s three senior leaders declared. “And because your Army is a reflection of American society, those divisions live in the Army as well.” General David Berger, the Marine commandant, told his leathernecks that “current events are a stark reminder that it is not enough for us to remove symbols that cause division—rather, we also must strive to eliminate division itself.” And Admiral Mike Gilday, the chief of naval operations, told his sailors that “we can’t be under any illusions about the fact that racism is alive and well in our country. And I can’t be under any illusions that we don’t have it in our Navy.”
Brown, the Black officer who soon will command the Air Force, spoke up two days later. “I’m thinking about my mentors, and how rarely I had a mentor who looked like me,” he said. He will be the second Black man to serve as a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; Colin Powell was the first, as chairman of the Joint Chiefs from 1989 to 1993. “I'm thinking about the pressure I felt to perform error-free,” Brown added, “especially for supervisors I perceived had expected less from me as an African-American.”
The Army wanted to show it was willing to make a significant change. On June 8, Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy—the service’s top civilian—said he was “open” to the idea of renaming 10 Army posts whose names currently honor Confederate officers. It’s an issue that has been festering for several years. Pentagon eyebrows raised when Esper agreed.
But then Trump decided to double down on racist appeals to his base. “My Administration will not even consider the renaming of these Magnificent and Fabled Military Installations,” he tweeted June 10.
But make no mistake: The military, slowly but surely, seems to be moving beyond Trump’s reluctance to deal with racism. So is Congress. Don’t bet that traitorous names like Benning, Bragg, and Hood are permanent.
There is much that needs to change. “The department has taken a softball approach to the challenge—as illustrated by the fact that it doesn’t treat membership in white supremacist organizations as a sole rationale for discharge,” retiring Air Force Colonel Mike “Starbaby” Pietrucha, an F-15 pilot, wrote three weeks before Floyd’s death at the War on the Rocks website.
He zinged the Army for tolerating those posts honoring Confederate officers, and the Navy for naming two aircraft carriers after “unrepentant segregationists”— Representative Carl Vinson of Georgia (the USS Carl Vinson was commissioned in 1982) and Senator John Stennis of Mississippi (the USS John C. Stennis was commissioned in 1995). The pair signed the 1956 Southern Manifesto aimed at thwarting integration, especially in schools. “The message that’s sent to American soldiers today is that white supremacy is something that the Army and Navy are proud of,” Pietrucha adds. “The last message, perhaps unique to the Navy, is that white supremacy is excusable if there is some form of offsetting behavior: specifically, funneling huge piles of taxpayer cash to the fleet.” Ouch! (In January, the Navy announced it will name one of its new carriers the USS Doris Miller, in honor of a Black mess attendant aboard the USS West Virginia who heroically manned a machine gun against Japanese attackers at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.)
“The outstanding question about racism in the ranks is whether the government and military will act on it as they did with homophobia. Will U.S. military leaders follow their recent rhetoric with concrete actions?”
The U.S. already knows what it needs to do to wipe out racism. Esper mentioned it in passing in that June 18 video message. The U.S. military has “reached this level of excellence because we attract the best America has to offer,” he said. “Young men and women across the land and beyond our shores who not only love our country and share these values, but who also represent a wide range of creeds, religions, races, ethnicities, sexual orientations, and other attributes that not only distinguish us as individuals, but also make us stronger when combined together.”
Of course, fear that gay or lesbian troops would hurt “unit cohesion” was the argument the U.S. military made for decades to try to keep them from openly serving. “Unit cohesion” has always been a requirement for a top-notch military, which makes the Pentagon’s boot-dragging on racism, dating all the way back to Truman’s integrating order, perplexing.
In 1999, I wrote about the brutal murder of a soldier by a comrade who suspected he was gay, back when openly gay troops were barred from serving, and homophobia seethed in the ranks. The U.S. military brass contended that openly gay troops would unleash discord among those in uniform. Those already serving would quit in droves, and recruiting would become more difficult because young Americans would refuse to share a foxhole, or a barracks, with a gay person.
But 12 short years later, I was inviting a gay Air Force pilot to write as “Officer X” in Time Magazine about the end of the ban on openly gay people serving in the U.S. military. He wrote numerous articles, and even came out in his final one.
So what had changed that made him comfortable about so publicly writing about his experiences? Very simply, the world had changed. Yet the predicted explosion of openly gay men and women who were now allowed to serve didn’t detonate when the ban disappeared in 2011, and the tidal wave of turmoil the military predicted never happened.
U.S. society changed dramatically between 1999 and 2011, finally forcing action by the government and the military. The outstanding question about racism in the ranks is whether the government and military will act on it as they did with homophobia. Will U.S. military leaders follow their recent rhetoric with concrete actions?