Since early June, I have been thinking about Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) Admiral Michael Gilday’s empathetic message on the death (murder) of George Floyd. “First, right now, I think we need to listen. We have black Americans in our Navy and in our communities that are in deep pain right now. They are hurting,” said the CNO. He continued, “I’ve received emails, and I know it’s not a good situation. I know that for many of them, they may not have somebody to talk to. I ask you to consider reaching out, have a cup of coffee, have lunch, and just listen.”
While I appreciated the expression of sadness and mutual respect, I reject the framing of individual conversation as a suitable means of understanding racism because of a number of assumptions such an idea presumes. “Coffee conversations” assume that such discussions take place on neutral ground, where equal conditions exist, and where each person can share their experiences and thoughts openly and freely in an environment that is presumably free of the very racism we are discussing. It assumes that racism, where it exists, is sporadic and randomized and not a complex part of the existing practices and norms within the military, which set the very context and terms in which these conversations take place. This assumption of neutrality ignores the structural nature of racism and the extant power imbalance and racial dynamics in an officer corps that is 77 percent white and 8 percent black.
While black people are under-represented in comparison to their proportion of the U.S. population (13 percent), white people are over-represented. (Non-Hispanic) White people are 60 percent of the U.S. population but 77 percent of the officer corps and 92 percent of the flag- officers. If we were to further disaggregate the data, we would see it is white men, specifically, (30 percent of the American population) who are considerably over-represented in the U.S. Navy officer corps as a whole (66 percent) and even more so in the flag officer (84 percent) ranks in comparison to their population density. That means in a hierarchical organization like the military the least powerful and largest group is representative of America’s racial diversity (the enlisted force is 58 percent white and 19 percent black), but the most powerful groups at the middle and top of the pyramid are overwhelmingly white. This is not limited to just the Navy or the military. This significant representation of white people is seen in Congress, the Federal Judiciary, Fortune 500 companies, state legislatures, full-time faculty at universities—you could pick just about any field and see the same distribution of power. Power has a race in America, and it is highly gendered. What accounts for this disproportionate distribution of power in a multi-racial democracy where de jure segregation was legally abolished 56 years ago?
The rejoinder to my pointing out the overwhelming institutional power of white people in every area of American life is normally, “Well, what do you expect? White people are the largest demographic!” This argument assumes natural happenstance and not the result of centuries of exclusion, legal apartheid, and racist immigration policy. Examples include the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and the eugenics-sponsored Immigration (Johnson-Reed) Act of 1924, whose purpose, according to the Office of the Historian of the U.S. Department of State, "in all of its parts . . . was to preserve the ideal of U.S. homogeneity.” This is what we mean when we say that racism is structural or systemic—it is the accumulation over time of advantages to one group and disadvantages to others through racialized and discriminatory social, political, economic, legal and historical processes.
The majority group is not just a matter of numbers, but of who has access to resources and opportunities, the ability to influence others, who makes the decisions, and who has the power to define and enforce the norms and practices of an organization. In the Navy, as in all of the United States, that group is white people. According to the Aspen Institute,
"Structural Racism [is] a system in which public policies, institutional practices, cultural representations, and other norms work in various, often reinforcing ways to perpetuate racial group inequity. It identifies dimensions of our history and culture that have allowed privileges associated with “whiteness” and disadvantages associated with “color” to endure and adapt over time. Structural racism is not something that a few people or institutions choose to practice. Instead it has been a feature of the social, economic and political systems in which we all exist."
Black and brown people understand the structural nature of racism experientially. We often experience racism concurrently in different areas of our lives from the workplaces where we are being directed to have difficult conversations, to our neighborhoods, our kids’ schools, while renting/buying real estate, to doctor’s visits, to our likelihood of being affected by the novel coronavirus—there are very few places in our lives unmarked by racism.
But what happens in a conversation when one person experiences and understands racism as structural and the other thinks it is a matter of personal experience? What happens when I explain to my mostly white coworkers that racism is a structural problem? And that they and I are enmeshed in a hierarchical system of advantage and disadvantage? What happens when I name the system that murdered George Floyd for what it is, and name white people as the beneficiaries? What happens when I point out that the overwhelming majority of people in the wardroom are white and I connect that to a larger system of institutional racism evident in every branch of the U.S. military and every U.S. institution? What is the response when I say that racism does not go both ways? What happens when I tell the truth about the racism I have experienced in the Navy?
I’ll tell you: it does not go well. What I hear and receive are defensiveness, anger, tears, denial, rage, and “Yeah, but . . .” interruptions. “Yeah, but not ALL white people . . .” “Yeah, but it's not fair that black people get free stuff.” “Yeah, but you need to get over slavery.” “Yeah, but my uncle didn’t get a job once because of affirmative action.” “Yeah, but I grew up poor.” “Yeah, but ALL lives matter.” “Yeah, but you can’t blame white people for this.” “Yeah, but that’s racist against white people.” “Yeah, but you don’t know my heart.” “Yeah, but Webster's dictionary says . . .”
And when I point out examples of actual racism? The reactions escalate from verbal denials to reprisal, vindictiveness, antagonism, and aggressive pushback. Something someone said or did becomes, by some racial alchemy, a problem with my tone or my attitude or my failure to “fit in” with the wardroom. In pointing out a problem, I become the problem—and the solution is to fix me via a stern talking to. “If you don’t like the Navy, then you should leave.” “You should just be grateful for the job you have and shut your mouth.” Or worse yet, my tone or attitude might be noted in my fitness report. And now my career is in jeopardy because I took someone aside to point out, for example, that invoking a “blaccent” was racist. Lest this be dismissed out of hand as using personal anecdotes to make broad generalizations, the defensive responses, derailment tactics, and racial narratives invoked by white people in these conversations are so common that they have been the object of much sociological study and named in various ways, to include colorblind ideology, white racial framing, white fragility, race to innocence, privileged identity exploration (PIE) model, and more. I will refer to these responses as institutional pushback.
Institutional pushback, a form of institutional discipline, teaches you early on what you can and cannot say at work about racism and that you must never ever upset your white coworkers. After a few “coffee conversations,” after pointing out racist behavior once or twice, you learn not to tell the truth. You keep your face blank when your co-workers say “black-on-black crime,” or “Black people have a culture problem,” or when they rage about "Mexicans taking over our country." You ignore the Confederate flags; you avoid office gatherings if anything remotely "racially controversial" is being discussed; you try your best to do your job in an environment saturated with racial antagonism. Coffee conversations are no different. The power imbalance, existing racial dynamics, and overwhelming institutional power of white people results in conversations about race that privilege and reinforce white people's feelings and ideas about racism over the lived experiences with and structural understanding of racism that are the reality of people of color. This is what makes conversations about race “difficult.” Not some innate discomfort about race, but the fact that the very people in power—the people who have been historically advantaged by the very system that harms us—are leading and asking us to join in conversations where we cannot even acknowledge the historical inequalities and how they continue to impact our lives for fear of offending them and invoking institutional pushback. These conversations are minefields of emotions where marginalized people must balance telling the truth with keeping white people comfortable.
While I appreciate the sentiments expressed in the various upper echelon messages on the “death” (it was a murder) of George Floyd, I write to call attention to the further stress and burden we are placing on already heavily laden shoulders when we call for these conversations, when we do not understand or recognize the effects of institutional power, and when we expect servicemembers of color to do the intense labor of racial education and enforcing standards of antiracism in a system where they are the most powerless, and the harm we cause when we ask leaders to engage in such conversations without training or understanding systemic racism. We cannot have honest conversations about race without acknowledging the existing power dynamics that influence and limit such conversation. To assume these conversations are neutral erases the institutional power at work and elides the fact that the majority sets the terms and conditions under which black and other marginalized people can speak.
Race is not biological and self-evident, and racism is not some unknowable phenomenon that can only be understood by trading anecdotes back and forth. These are subjects of serious scholarship across disciplines. Race is a socio/political construction with a complex history deeply interwoven with capitalism and enmeshed in every aspect of our lives. The amount of time and labor involved in educating someone about the historical context of racism, as well as dealing with their emotional response and reaction, is not a skillset that can, or should, be captured in a collateral duty designation letter. In fact, if the Navy deems such conversations as mission critical and desires to deputize black and brown servicemembers as race educators and mental health counselors during moments of racial crises, then a critical skills bonus would be the appropriate way to recognize a specific skillset the Navy lacks and wishes to retain and the best way to address the additional workload and stress placed on marginalized servicemembers.
Instead of relying on personal conversations that ignore existing power dynamics and put additional onus on black and brown servicemembers, what should the Navy do? It should hire professionals—people who are not subject to institutional discipline and pushback—to conduct training that contextualizes structural racism and to mediate and facilitate the difficult conversations that have been deemed necessary. In addition, the Navy must fund independent research that will study the ways institutional racism shapes our Navy, and from this we could develop a strategic vision with actionable goals to eliminate those structures. We could invest resources to improve the racial literacy of the force, allowing sailors to get past their limited analyses based on personal experiences and feelings, and enlarging our collective understanding of the world and each other. Increasing the racial literacy of the force, while eliminating the unequal conditions of institutional racism, would empower every service member to know, enforce, and live up to the Navy's values of Honor, Courage, and Commitment and make existing policies, such as diversity and inclusion initiatives, more effective.
Maybe this all sounds lofty, but I believe where we put our time, attention, resources, and efforts is an indication of what we care about and support. We cannot fix an institutional problem such as racism with individual solutions like conversation—no matter how thoughtful and empathetic the conversation may be. Like the CNO, I am also an optimist who wants to make this the best Navy possible for everyone. In that spirit, I offer the following recommendations:
- Identify existing structural barriers. The Navy should partner with a racial justice organization that can provide an independent review of Navy policies, institutional practices, and norms to identify the ways institutional racism continues to impact the fleet.
- Listen to Servicemembers. Conduct “listening sessions” throughout the fleet specifically to gather the experiences of black and other racially marginalized servicemembers. Such listening sessions (conducted by a non-Navy organization) would allow, according to the Equity Lab, “stakeholders to share thoughts, opinions and experiences regarding their work culture, individual role, and their perspectives on their organization. The results will inform and be integrated into the dialogue and decision-making about the impact of race, class, and culture on the organization and the mission it serves.” If you want to hear how black sailors feel right now and their experiences in the military, you have to take away the structural barriers and fear of reprisal that prevent them from speaking freely and honestly.
- Develop a strategic vision. From the results of the first two initiatives (in addition to any internal investigations conducted by the Navy Inspector General), develop a strategic vision for eliminating identified structural barriers and institutional racism that impact the mission and the organization.
- Create and Fund Race Advisors. In the same vein as the gender advisors who are tasked with assisting the combatant commands in implementing the “Women, Peace, and Security” initiative, create and fund the role of a (non-white) Race Advisor to assist all upper echelon commands in implementing the Strategic Vision to eliminate structural racism identified in step
- Improve racial literacy. The Navy should partner with a Black/Indigenous/POC-led racial justice organization to conduct training on the historical, social, political, and economic context in which racism was constructed and continues to thrive, beginning with senior leaders and extending down to the deck plates. Following training, senior leaders can add books to their own reading lists that they have found helpful in their individual journeys to a deeper understanding of structural racism.
While there is optimism in the newly announced creation of Task Force One Navy, I am reminded of a similar advisory board that was convened during another moment of civil unrest sparked by police brutality, the 1968 Kerner Commission. Its findings were the same as those from the other committees that were convened in 1919, 1935, 1941, and so on, to determine the cause of “race riots.”
What the Kerner Commission found, what Task Force One Navy will no doubt find, is that the problems are not unknown, that they are deeply complex and inextricably tied to our long history of violent subjugation and racial oppression, and that only substantial action and concrete steps are—and have always been – lacking. I conclude with the Kerner Commission’s final paragraph as both a warning and a call to action.
“We have provided an honest beginning. We have learned much. But we have uncovered no startling truths, no unique insights, no simple solutions. The destruction and the bitterness of racial disorder, the harsh polemics of black revolt and white repression have been seen and heard before in this country.
It is time now to end the destruction and the violence, not only in the streets of the ghetto but in the lives of people.”
 Statistics taken from the U.S. Navy FY 19 Q1 Total Force Demographic Report. 1 Jan. 2019, www.navy.mil/strategic/Navy_Demographics_Report.pdf and the U.S. Census Quick Facts https://www.census.gov/quickfacts/fact/table/US/PST045219