Nearly a decade ago, I began a lifelong friendship with my roommate on a Navy ship. We were naval officers serving on an afloat staff in the Pacific. It was obvious from the start that we shared a dedication to our respective professions and were proud of the careers and lives we had built for ourselves and our young families. Gradually, over small things, such as a shared love of barbeque, playing basketball, singing karaoke, and watching The Wire, the roots of something great began to form. By the end of our two-year assignment, a white guy from a small southern town and a black guy from Cleveland became as close to family as it gets.
Some might call a friendship like that extraordinary, but it felt very normal to me. The fact he was black, while certainly obvious, was not something that factored into my feelings for him. To me, he was just a great friend—someone in whom I innocently saw nothing different from myself. The meaning behind my friendship was deep because of all the similarities and complementary qualities I saw in his character, not because he was black.
And that is where the crime begins.
Most of us have heard or watched some version of the clichéd story of white guy meets black guy. Over time, they realize they are not all that different and become friends, demonstrating the power of seeing past the color of skin to the content of character to rise above the evil of racism. It makes for a feel good story about how to deal with the inequity of race. But feel good stories have a bad habit of ending at this emotional crescendo, with the audience thinking no further action is necessary.
In a recent conversation with my former roommate, I shared a revelatory event that had just occurred in my life. A conversation that had up to that point been about work and life under lockdown turned in a way that revealed a part of my friend I never saw before. For ten years I had it so wrong. He is different from me. Not because he was never any of the wonderful things that drew me to him, but because he had a far more difficult experience to be considered an equal to me.
To even have the opportunity to be my friend he had to overcome the incredible odds of life as a young black man. He had to navigate his way through a Navy rife with unconscious bias that denied him the wider margins of error and smoother career progression his white contemporaries enjoyed. He had to bear the burden of the black naval officer that Commander Marcus Canady and Lieutenant Commander Desmond Walker wrote about in their recent respective Proceedings articles, “Racial Tensions in America Requires Intrusive Leadership” and “The Burden of a Black Naval Officer.” A burden that involves the “exhaustive mental drain of cumulative questioning,” the weight of being labeled as an example of either “black excellence or black incompetence,” and the need to wear an invisible mask at work that “hides the part that is hurting, tired, and frustrated.”
To this point in our friendship I had not seen any of that burden. I only saw a man, an officer, a friend. By not seeing his Blackness and the experience it entails, I could not fully see him. And if I could not fully see him, how could I ever think to consider him as close to family as it gets? In our emotional conversation, I expressed my failure as a friend to see him in his entirety and a desire to atone for it. He, being the person he is, was having none of the atonement business. He just wanted the deeper friendship. Now that I see him—his character and his Blackness—our relationship is on firmer and more fertile ground.
Sharing this story is personally cathartic, but it also shines a light toward the path I think the Navy and the wider U.S. military—and the nation for that matter—need to take to make real progress in combating racial inequity. The saccharine story of seeing past color and only looking at character ends with white naval officers in power thinking we do not need to do anything else but continue to be the kind, hardworking, and innocent people we like to think of ourselves as being. That mind-set encourages both a personal and an institutional inertia and passivity in the face of continued racial inequity. And that passivity is what slowly rots an organization from the inside.
If the Navy’s long-held insistence on being colorblind is the best way to address systemic racism, why over the course of an average career do black naval officers lose rank and positions of power while their white colleagues gain and improve on already substantial positions? Why, after more than 20 years in the Navy, do I continually find myself in rooms of power full of white naval officers? Why, after more than 70 years since President Truman desegregated the military, does the Navy still celebrate with great fanfare, while failing to hide the obvious hints of tokenism, the promotions of black naval officers to senior positions? Why are there currently no black naval officers above the rank of two-star? Why, if diversity and inclusivity are important, has the Navy failed to conduct a rigorous analysis of how it recruits, retains, and promotes black officers? Why did two Chiefs of Naval Operation—50 years apart—send roughly the same message to the fleet admitting the presence of racism and a desire to do something about it? And, ultimately, why, if everybody is innocent and nobody thinks they are racist, does the Navy keep getting racist outcomes?
It is these outcomes that Canady, Walker, and my friend speak to regarding the experience of black naval officers. In portraying the service as colorblind and only interested in character, the Navy is conveniently blinding itself to the uncomfortable truth of the black officer experience and how it maintains white officers in positions of power. If the Navy cannot see the Blackness of its naval officers, it cannot see them. And if it cannot see them, it certainly cannot begin to make the changes necessary to place the institution on firmer and more fertile ground.
Most white naval officers are not consciously racist. They are not actively denying black naval officers opportunities to succeed. They are living their lives. Working hard. Making decisions as well as they can. Sacrificing personal pleasures for the sake of their careers. Doing their best to make a good life for their families. While none of that makes them guilty, it certainly does not absolve them of their contributions to racial inequity in the service.
In The Fire Next Time, writer and activist James Baldwin argues, “But it is not permissible that the authors of devastation should also be innocent. It is the innocence which constitutes the crime.” The outcome of innocent white naval officer behavior is the crime that is evident all around the Navy—white naval officers continue to profit from a status quo that demonstrably devastates the careers of black naval officers. Evidence of continued racist outcomes is ignored, willfully or otherwise, because it conveniently benefits those currently in power while also affirming the cognitive biases of white naval officers on how well they do at their own jobs. It is white naval officers who continue to promote at higher rates. It is white naval officers who continue to get the majority of career enhancing assignments. It is white naval officers who get invited most often into the rooms of power. By innocently accepting benefits believed to be earned solely through their hard work and character, white naval officers become “authors of devastation.”
The revelatory experience I shared with my friend? The one that led to my eyes opening to what he and many other black men in our nation experience? It began with a video. A video I could not bear to watch. But my young daughter did.
Over a recent dinner, where my family was discussing how to balance the interests of justice with social order, she mentioned she had seen the video of George Floyd’s killing. And in that penetrating, matter-of-fact voice that only children have, she described how, with his last breaths, he called out for his mother and nobody came to help him.
It was at that moment I shattered.
I shattered—as I think did the rest of the nation—because I was suddenly facing the ugly truth of things I did not want to know. The truth was I would never have to worry about anything like that happening to one of my children. Yet for every black father, it is a very real possibility. And the harder, darker truth was I knew, if I had been a passerby on that street in Minneapolis, I would not have gone to help. I would have passively accepted my innocence and the “rightness” of what was occurring in front of me.
In that moment, I knew I was an author of devastation, and I was ashamed.
For eight minutes and 46 seconds a black citizen was murdered in front of the entire nation. In the glimpse it gave of the incontrovertible reality of what black people face in their lives, the murder of George Floyd shattered the delusion of our innocence and opened our eyes to the truth we did not want to know. We, white people, with our maintenance of innocence while reaping the benefits of the status quo, remain the authors of devastation in the lives of our black brothers and sisters.
In the span of a 21-year career, I received numerous promotions, took career-enhancing assignments, and was reviewed as the best at what I do. But never once was I moved to act or even think about what it meant in terms of racial inequity. I conveniently embraced the delusion of my innocence and benefited from the status quo. I failed to see the evidence that black officers were struggling to breathe in their careers with far heavier burdens than I. And now, hearing my young daughter ask why nobody came to help a man who could not breathe, I was faced with the truth of my failure.
To overcome the shame of what I felt over the murder of George Floyd and what I failed to do in my naval career, I need to be able to look into my daughter’s eyes and say I did not stand around innocently.
I need her to know I did something.
I refuse to be innocent any longer.