I want to congratulate those who have arrived at the point of social consciousness within the last two months. Embracing anti-racist perspectives through your awareness of conscious and unconscious biases, you have begun to grapple with your new found role as an ally to the Black community, moving beyond the “I-had-a-Black-friend-in-college” defense. Your language has changed; you now loudly proclaim Black Lives Matter and understand that this does not exist paradoxically to any other lives. Your “wokeness” is to be commended. Now the real work begins.
Several years ago, in my role as a contract administrator, I handled a contract for a company that delivered sexual assault prevention training, designed to provide military members with knowledge, skills, and language to address pernicious cultural norms that have existed over generations within the military. After one mandatory all-staff training session, I overheard one of the department heads loudly state, “I hate this PC crap! I’m tired of ‘them’ telling me what to say and how to say it.” His response to a training focused on sexual assault awareness and prevention is not dissimilar from commonly held responses/reactions to recent wide-spread attention to racial injustices. I draw the parallel here to bring attention to the problem with training and increased attention on a topic: awareness alone doesn’t always lead to the substantive work needed to affect real change.
An article in the July 14, 2020 edition of military.com (sailors-using-n-word-navy-leaders-hear-painful-cases-of-racism.html) reveals the truth about the racial landscape currently in the military and it is deeply troubling. Racism remains alive and well in the military 72 years after officially desegregating the US armed forces. Members are still being berated for speaking languages other than English. Only recently has the Secretary of Defense ordered that the confederate flag be removed and no longer displayed on military installations. Let’s be clear: a Presidential Executive Order, specifically Executive Order 9981, issued on July 26, 1948, mandated desegregation 72 years ago. Nearly three quarters of a century later, the order banning confederate and other hateful symbols on military installations was issued.
Before the modern civil rights movement began to build momentum in the mid to late 1950s, the US military was the racial experiment in integration, democratization, and meritocracy. Many firsts were achieved, ostensibly proving — for some — that the lived experiences of Black Americans within the military mattered. But, is this really true? Historically in the US, one of the pathways to higher education and a middle-class life was through military service. Access to much smaller but an increasingly high-tech military is now limited by education. Our military remains a racialized and politicized space. The glacial progress on racial relations in the military stands as proof. To my woke allies, I ask: Why did you find comfort in the existence of a small percentage of breakthroughs as proof that racism no longer existed? Why is it so easy to lull you into complacency regarding the Black lived experience?
As you grapple with your newfound perspective as an anti-racist ally, your attitude regarding the real change that must be affected is where the work really lies. We can have Executive Orders from the President of the United States and memoranda issued by the Secretary of Defense. We can even have the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff as well as the chiefs of every service branch of the US armed forces speak out against racism, but the solution lies within a shift in your attitude about your privilege and requires a revision of your frame of reference. We can no longer afford to watch idly as another generation of servicemembers endures racialization and politicization of their service.