Discussing Racism and Prejudice in the Military: A Matter of Embracing Civility and Managing Our Biases
The murder of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer over the minor crime of attempting to pass a counterfeit $20 bill is the tipping point that touched off international protests in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. Because BLM embodies so much to so many of us who serve, military leadership, from the Secretary of Defense through the service chains of command have rightfully taken an interest in hearing what we all have to say.
Several articles have appeared in recent issues of Proceedings, including “We Don’t Need Conversations, We Need Systemic Change” (CDR Jada Johnson, Vol. 146/7/1409), “White Officers: Maybe Oblivious But Not Innocent” (CDR Wolf Melbourne, Vol. 146/7/1409), “The Burden of a Black Naval Officer” (CDR Desmond Walker, Vol. 146/6/1408), “The Case For Renaming the USS John C. Stennis” (LCDR Reuben Green, Vol 146/6/1408) and “Racial Tension in America Requires Intrusive Military Leadership” (CDR Marcus Canady, Vol. 146/6/1408). Additionally, more articles have appeared in recent months regarding a possible renaming of Buchanan House and Maury Hall at the Naval Academy.
It is worth noting that so many articles about racial tension in America and in the military have been published all at once. This is not surprising, given that military leaders at the highest levels are actively encouraging us to engage in what has traditionally been a taboo and emotionally charged topic. It seems appropriate that I should add another article to the broader discussion.
Unfortunately, a lot of the dialogue on the Disqus comments, where I comment as “SWODude,” much of what I’ve been reading are from people who seemingly refuse to live to the fourth tenet. The posters who continue their vehement denial that racism is still a problem, that renaming buildings is “erasing history,” that “all lives matter,” etc. are not living to this tenet. We all do well when we can accept when we are wrong, change our opinions, and grow as people.
I have been commissioned for 19 years and spent two years on instructor duty at the Naval Academy, teaching NL 110 (the “Introduction to Leadership” course that all Plebes take). By teaching and facilitating discussions about leadership with our future Navy and Marine Corps leaders, I had the opportunity to learn about myself, to search my soul, and to grow as a person. We taught many topics but the three that are most important to me and, I think, to the discussion about racism and prejudice are 1) Civility, 2) Perception and Bias, and 3) Resilience. These topics, and many others, were presented in the standard-issue textbook “Preparing to Lead: Introduction to Character & Leadership Development,” edited by LCDR Danielle Litchford and Maj. Lee Shinn.
Dr. Stephen L. Carter laid out 15 tenets of civility in his book, “Civility.” We required the Plebes to learn five of the tenets as listed by Litchford and Shinn:
1. Civility does not depend on liking others.
2. Civility requires sacrificing for strangers, not just people we know.
3. Civility is two parts: Generosity, even when it costs and Trust, even when there’s risk
4. Civility requires that we listen to others with knowledge of the possibility that they are right and we are wrong.
5. Civility requires expressing ourselves in ways that demonstrate our respect for others.
These tenets fit the BLM context well. We have seen people of all races and backgrounds come together for more than two months now, sacrificing their time, freedom, and physical well-being to demand change and reform. The act of partaking in a protest, particularly in the presence of police with military-grade equipment and weapons, embodies all five of these tenets.
Perception and Bias
People, like other animals, have an ability to form patterns. In our formative years, we do something known as prototyping. The first time a child touches a hot stove, they immediately associate that hot stove with pain and generally don’t touch hot stoves again. The same child associates their parents and the people with who they interact with comfort and safety. Throughout history, people tended to live in homogenous families and villages where everyone looked more or less alike. It stands to reason that the same child, when first meeting a person who doesn’t look or sound like their family or village, may have some degree of apprehension.
This prototyping leads to a schema, which psychologists understand to be a mental script. These mental scripts help people to organize experiences, events, and interactions with the world in a way that helps them form mental patterns and an understanding of their environment. Dr. Jonathan Haidt in “The Happiness Hypothesis” and Dr. Daniel Kahneman in “Thinking Fast and Slow” describe two systems of thinking. Haidt describes these systems as the elephant and rider while Kahneman describes it as System 1 and System 2.
The System 1 (or elephant) is the pre-conscious or emotional process that enables people to make quick decisions that often preserve their life. For example, if a person sees a car running off the road and right at them, they run. No thought is involved. That’s about 90% of our interaction with the world and is programmed into us.
System 2 (or rider), on the other hand, s the conscious and rational process that requires 90% of our effort. People tend to do well with System 2 thinking when they are not in danger. System 2 is where we can have the meaningful discussions about abstract concepts like race and socioeconomic status. But when a person who doesn’t look or act like the aforementioned child appears, the natural inclination is toward avoidance.
Resilience is the ability to withstand and grow from adversity. Adversity comes in many forms and at various levels of intensity. For this discussion, I think we need to consider resilience from two points of view: 1) the minority who has historically struggled against the de facto and de jure forms of racism and, 2) the white person who is not used to having their beliefs and world view challenged.
The plight of minorities throughout American history is well known and documented, but I never really began to understand it until 2018, when I took a faculty trip to several destinations in the Deep South to learn more about the Civil Rights Movement.1 What really struck me learning about the Civil Rights Movement was the incredible amount of resilience required for oppressed people to stand up and speak truth to power. From having churches bombed, property destroyed, enduring injury, and being murdered, those involved in the advancement of equality and enfranchisement certainly struggled.
By most (if not all) accounts, the advancers of civil rights had to move forward with open minds, a willingness to risk their lives, to regroup after setbacks, and be creative in recruiting their fellow Americans to the cause. Moreover, the advancers of civil rights had to live to the Epictetan stoicism that all Midshipmen are taught.
Soul-Searching and Personal Growth
While I like to think I had awareness on account of the stories my grandmother would tell me while growing up as a Mexican in Texas during the Depression (Jim Crow laws applied to Mexicans, too), my childhood and young adult life more-closely resemble “white privilege” than they do the “minority experience.” I often denied such things existed as America is a country of equality, right?
In fact, until fairly-recently, I held strong opinions on the matter. To me, Trayvon Martin was some teen who was probably making mischief, much as I did as a teenager (except no one killed me for being a mischievous kid). To me, Colin Kaepernick was being disrespectful by kneeling. But then some events happened that led me toward reconsidering these opinions.
Eric Garner was killed in a choke-hold, for selling loose cigarettes. As the son of a career police officer and having been trained on the use of force, I could not understand why what probably would have amounted to a few cents of tax revenue and a non-violent crime would be worth a man’s life. Then Walter Scott was shot while fleeing because it turned out that he was behind on child support and a warrant was out for his arrest. I couldn’t understand why a police officer would shoot at a person running away because he didn’t want to lose his freedom over what was probably a few thousand dollars.
I thought about these incidents, and a lot of others, during the faculty trip. I also thought a lot about how the media covers missing people. Had Natalie Holloway been a woman of color, would the media have covered her disappearance so extensively? In 2016, shortly after a PCS move to Jacksonville, FL, a young boy named Lonzie Barton went missing. For several months, the local media extensively covered Lonzie Barton and we learned all about the criminal histories of his mother and her black boyfriend. Local media presented us with the classic “black man kills white child” narrative. And during the search, after several retention ponds were drained, two missing sailors of the U.S. Navy were recovered: a 22-year-old Russian-born sailor who had been missing since 2003 (he drove his car into a pond), and a 39-year-old black Chief Petty Officer who had disappeared in 2013. Two Sailors, one an immigrant and the other black, who were on active duty when they disappeared and yet, where was the extensive media coverage?
Like every “alpha” type, I absolutely hate to be told I’m wrong. I get this. If we back track a few paragraphs, we get back to Dr. Carter and his premise that civility requires that each of us is willing to admit we are wrong.
For a long time, I wanted to believe in our stated American principles of equality. I wanted to state opinions such as “all lives matter.” I wanted to believe that I was enlightened because my grandmother shared with me her experience with living in the Jim Crow South as a Mexican during the 1930s, as she had to sit in the back of the bus and drink from the “colored fountain” and attend a “colored” school. However, from following the media for most of my life and having some academic training in critical thought (my degrees are in Political Science and International Relations), there came a point where I needed to ask the tough questions.
When we consider these disparities in the treatment of minorities in the criminal justice system and media, along with the history of racism in America, I am left with only one sad conclusion: the lives of blacks, other people of color, and immigrants are worth far less than white natural-born American lives. This disparity in the valuation of human lives on the basis of race and ethnicity is not a codified rule or law. However, it is pervasive and has yet to be properly addressed.
Yet, everywhere I turn, whether in the Disqus comments for the aforementioned Proceedings articles about racial issues, or in my social media posts on the matter (in Facebook and Sailor Bob and LinkedIn), I see a lot of loud resistance to the changes we clearly need to make as a nation. I can present reasons for why we should rename ships and installations that currently honor Confederates and segregationists, or why law enforcement and criminal justice need reform. Unfortunately, I tend to get hostile reactions from white conservative friends and support from friends and family who are people of color. This is not a coincidence.
It all astounds me. Are we really erasing history by removing statues of Taney and all the Civil War generals? Are we really promoting Wild West-level lawlessness by questioning recent actions by law enforcement officers that resulted in such incidents as a police officer spending nearly nine minutes killing a man for allegedly attempting to pass a counterfeit $20 bill? Is it un-American to question why the “Star-Spangled Banner,” a poem with references to slavery, is our National Anthem? Which, by the way, is a poem about one battle in a war that America didn’t even win (the War of 1812 was a stalemate).
Because the American military services are comprised of people from all walks of life and thus are diverse, at least from the deckplates through the middle ranks, it is imperative we continue the ongoing discussions on what has traditionally been a taboo subject. Much of what I wrote above is not necessarily military-centric, but does illustrate the unconscious biases that we show every day.
The critics of these calls to action to correct past and existing wrongs can continue to lambast those of us who dare to initiate, continue, and advance the ongoing discussions. More importantly, we who support these discussions, movements, and causes, absolutely must continue to stay our course. Let us continue these discussions!