On 12 January 2021, top-ranking Department of Defense (DoD) officials, including the Chief of Naval Operations, issued a forcewide memo declaring that any attempt to prevent the peaceful transition of power to President-Elect Joe Biden would have consequences.1 The week prior, Confederate flags had defiled the halls and chambers of the U.S. Capitol after armed insurrectionists forced their way inside.2 Eleven months earlier, Ahmaud Arbery, an African American man out on a jog, was stalked and killed by men driving a truck displaying the Confederate flag.3 His tragic death foreshadowed the senseless killings of other black Americans, including George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, igniting waves of outrage and protests throughout the country.4 These incidents initiated a sweeping reckoning among many white Americans, including those in the military, with the present-day effects of this nation’s racist past.
The Military’s Racial Indifference
The events of 6 January 2021 were not an aberration. Indeed, the nation has been on the path toward 6 January for some time. The DoD memo was a late-in-coming repudiation of a collective indifference to present-day acts of racial discrimination, the foundation of which is enshrined in our shared national history. For decades, military officials ignored such racist incidents, deeming them “too political” for military personnel to intervene.5 But following the death of George Floyd, when speaking out against racism suddenly became en vogue among many white Americans, senior military leaders finally vocalized their dissent from racism.6
For decades, the military social order had been easy to placate. On 6 January, however, such problems were dramatically brought to DoD’s doorstep, its prolonged silence becoming a luxury it no longer could afford, as nearly one-fifth of those initially arrested and charged in the insurrection were active, retired, or former military.7
As James Baldwin once said in an interview, “I don’t know what most white people in this country feel, but I can only conclude what they feel from the state of their institutions.”8 Seventy-five years after President Harry S. Truman desegregated the armed forces, nearly 43 percent of the 1.3 million active-duty military members in the United States are people of color.9 Yet there are nearly no black leaders at the top: As of June 2020, only 2 of the 41 most senior commanders in the U.S. military were black, and neither was a woman.10 This statistic indicates a troubling institutional problem decades in the making.
So how did we get here? How and why do people who at one time swore to support and defend the Constitution go on to carry the Confederate flag—which is recognized by the military as a symbol of hate—while participating in an armed insurrection against the U.S. government?11 As committees across the Navy dedicate themselves to gaining a better understanding of race, I pose another hypothesis: Modern racial disparities in the officer corps are the result of the Navy’s history of excluding certain groups of people. Therefore, to write, implement, and enforce policies designed to increase the diversity of the force, the Navy must first acknowledge the history that led to the present circumstances.
For military leaders to effectively remedy exclusion, they must first command a mastery of its history. More directly, to cultivate an ethos of diversity and inclusion, the U.S. military must first adopt a policy of educating its future leaders about the nation’s discriminatory and violent past so that its officer corps will be equipped to recognize intolerance within its ranks. Officer accession programs, such as the U.S. Naval Academy, must develop curriculum and learning standards designed to confront a history of racist, discriminatory, and unjust policies. The history and traditions taught to officer candidates must more accurately represent the nation’s history and the discriminatory decisions that led to present circumstances.
From the day they arrive at the Naval Academy, midshipmen learn to overlook their nonwhite peers. On arrival, plebes are issued Reef Points and are expected to memorize most of its contents. Reef Points details the mission of the Naval Academy, the Honor Concept, and Theodore Roosevelt’s “Man in the Arena” speech. Midshipmen learn the U.S. Military Code of Conduct, as well as the history of the Naval Academy football team, and songs, such as “The Goat Is Old and Gnarly.” Problematic, however, is what Reef Points omits. In the 2020–21 edition, a scant two lines are dedicated to James Conyers, the first black man admitted to the U.S. Naval Academy in 1872, and there is no mention of the intense harassment and physical violence he endured, which prompted him to leave the Academy the following year.12 Nor are the five black men who followed Conyers but did not graduate mentioned.13 It was not until 77 years later that Wesley Brown became the Academy’s first black graduate.
While many midshipmen are familiar with Brown, few are taught that, even after black men were allowed to enter the Academy, it took nearly a century before they were able to endure the accompanying violence and harassment enough to graduate. Nor does Reef Points teach midshipmen about Gordon Chung-Hoon, the first Asian American to graduate from the Academy in 1934 (and later the first Asian American flag officer), or Robert Files Lopez, the first Hispanic man to graduate from the Academy in 1879, who went on to become a commodore in 1911.14 Janie Mines, the first African American woman to graduate from the Academy, who graduated in the first class of women in 1980, is wholly absent.15
Books such as Reef Points represent the values the Academy prioritizes—and excludes. Though it is harmless to memorize a chow call, the omitted content, such as the accomplishments of nonwhite graduates, tacitly encourages midshipmen to overlook their nonwhite peers. To amend these historical oversights, the Naval Academy must update Reef Points, professional knowledge, and Midshipmen Qualification Standards to include specific references to the exclusion of minorities from the Navy, as well as highlight the unique adversity they face. These changes matter not only to midshipmen of color, who open Reef Points to see a chain of command in which no one looks like them, but also to all midshipmen, so they can understand the accomplishments of nonwhite graduates, which will promote a culture that celebrates excellence among all races.
Following military indoctrination, such education must continue through classroom material. The Naval Academy currently presumes entering midshipmen understand basic lessons from the nation’s troubled past with racism and discrimination. Closer examination reveals such an assumption is not warranted. When midshipmen arrive at the Naval Academy, they come from myriad backgrounds. A 2018 report found almost 40 percent of teachers said their states offered little or no support for teaching about slavery, which supports the findings of another poll that found 41 percent of Americans do not identify slavery as the central cause of the Civil War.16 In short, not all state-governed education systems are created equal—and here, Texas serves as a prime example. In 2015, 140,000 McGraw Hill textbooks—at least 100,000 of which were sold in Texas—inaccurately described the transatlantic slave trade as the “immigration of workers from Africa to the southern United States.”17 More concerning, it was not until 2019 that the Texas School Board curriculum was required to teach slavery as a central cause of the Civil War.18
So why does this matter to the Naval Academy and the fleet? Graduates will move on to lead in a fleet that may be more diverse than the environments in which they were raised. Texas, for example, often boasts the second-highest distribution of Naval Academy students, sometimes accounting for as much as 20 percent of incoming freshmen in a given year.19 With a student body from such varied regional and educational backgrounds, the Naval Academy cannot presume its midshipmen understand the nation’s past and its effect on the present. It must, therefore, establish a common educational baseline for all midshipmen it graduates—including the history of racism and its modern effects.
Curriculum changes, however, are not enough. The Academy must hire a historian in African American studies, a field of history experiencing a dramatic renaissance, as well as add a diversity and inclusion minor, such as the one offered at West Point.20 Furthermore, the Academy must shore up its own history curriculum to include diverse perspectives, sources, and a robust introduction to historiography. Such studies should highlight the history of the civil rights movements within the military, such as the “Double V Campaign,” an effort by black Americans during World War II to win the war against fascism abroad and Jim Crow back home.21 Museum visits, which offer tremendous learning potential, should be reconsidered. As a Jew whose family fled Nazi Germany in 1943, it was important to me for my peers to visit the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., and learn about the difficulties my family has overcome. With this in mind, I know firsthand how invaluable it would be for all midshipmen to visit museums such as the National Museum of African American History and Culture, also in Washington, and other museums dedicated to the history of minority groups and the nation’s racist past.
During my sophomore year at the Naval Academy, I was fortunate to have an instructor who cared passionately about racial justice and civil rights. Such course material is not normally a focus of the Academy’s history curriculum. A native Alabamian, she spent much of our modern history class on the 20th-century Civil Rights Movement. I will never forget the day she passed around a picture of the corpse of young Emmett Till, a 14-year-old boy beaten, mutilated, shot, and drowned after allegedly wolf-whistling at a white woman.22 As midshipmen, we had heard stories of horrific acts perpetrated against Americans abroad, but never of atrocities on U.S. soil committed against American citizens by American citizens. This lesson left me better equipped to serve this nation as a leader, aware of the challenges my peers are overcoming.
My experience should be the rule and not the exception. Every midshipman should know that Emmett’s tragic story was not an isolated event; that his lynching was the culmination of nearly a century of violence, during which at least 4,400 African American men, women, and children were “hanged, burned alive, shot, drowned, and beaten to death by white mobs.”23 Intimate familiarity with such history teaches the radical empathy necessary to lead the nation’s sons and daughters, regardless of race, into harm’s way.
In addition, the Academy should assign midshipmen required readings, both prior to their arrival and each summer thereafter, similar to Stanford University’s Three Books common reading program.24 Each year, Stanford selects a theme and three books for incoming students to read prior to beginning the academic term, giving students access to the authors so they can ask questions and discuss perspectives. Indeed, the Navy can look closer to home for a model: The Marine Corps places particular emphasis on reading as a critical method of officer development.25 Retired Marine Corps General and former Secretary of Defense James Mattis best explains the importance of reading to officer development: “Thanks to my reading, I have never been caught flat-footed by any situation, never at a loss for how any problem has been addressed before. It doesn’t give me all the answers, but it lights what is often a dark path ahead.”26
Illuminating the nation’s ugly past equips future leaders to confront current challenges head-on. Officer candidates—the Navy’s emergent leaders—must learn this history in their training because its lessons can change how they see the world and how they interact with the people around them. Hearing stories such as that of young Emmett Till is transformative for many young adults, irrespective of military background. These recommendations neither solve nor address all of the Navy’s problems. But if we do not want to repeat history, we had better know it well.
Enacting such reforms at the Naval Academy would provide the ideal circumstances for a study on the short- and long-term effects of diversity and inclusion education. The Naval Academy graduates approximately 1,000 officers annually—an ideal control group to test these curriculum changes and their effects on policy and retention. There are multiple built-in benchmarks. Instituting a new, robust training system, beginning with the freshman class, the Navy could track class members as they progress in their naval careers. Four years in, at graduation, they could measure the retention of nonwhite midshipmen. Along the way, they could study the demerits of nonwhite midshipmen compared with their peers, examining how race bias affected the honor and conduct systems, and with it, retention rates. Following graduation, at the 5-, 10-, and 15-year marks, the Navy could track fleet retention and the trickle-down effects officers in recruiting assignments could have on the number of nonwhite recruits. And in 30 to 40 years, the Navy could see if there was an increase in the number of nonwhite senior military leaders, thus demonstrating how the policy did or did not improve retention and the long-term effects of cultivating an ethos of diversity and inclusion.
Though we hope never to see another event like the 6 January insurrection, when we ignore bias and racist
behaviors, history provides innumerable examples of how that discrimination can escalate into violence. It is imperative, therefore, that we not remain stagnant. We must move forward. The shadows of America’s original sin remain embedded in the fabric of the nation today, and when Americans consistently fail to acknowledge these shortcomings, we allow injustice to prevail at all levels of society—including in the military. Leaders need the requisite historical background to tackle it head-on from the first day of training.
James Baldwin once wrote, “In the case of the American Negro . . . [it] comes as a great shock around the age of 5, 6, or 7 to discover that the flag to which you have pledged allegiance, along with everybody else, has not pledged allegiance to you.”27 White military leaders, unlike their nonwhite peers, have enjoyed the privilege of pledging allegiance to a flag that pledges allegiance to them. For centuries, we have led from a place of privilege in which we have been able to ignore a military and national history littered with racism because we, personally, are not confronted daily with its effects. If the Navy hopes to see military leaders who reflect the diversity of the nation, it must acknowledge its past, starting on day one. The Sea Services owe it to every Marine and sailor, officer and enlisted, to paint an accurate picture of the past, both victories and failures.
The Navy is long overdue in addressing and acknowledging its past mistakes to correct its course. May we all continue to work until the sacred flag that we salute, pledges equal, unwavering allegiance to all.
1. Meghann Myers, “Top Military Leaders Issue Warning to Troops after Deadly Capitol Insurrection,” Military Times, 12 January 2021.
2. Maria Cramer, “Confederate Flag an Unnerving Sight in Capitol,” The New York Times, 9 January 2021.
3. Richard Fausset, “What We Know about the Shooting Death of Ahmaud Arbery,” The New York Times, 28 February 2021.
4. BBC, “George Floyd: What Happened in the Final Moments of His Life,” BBC, 16 July 2021; and Christina Carrega and Sabina Ghebremedhin, “Timeline: Inside the Investigation of Breonna Taylor’s Killing and Its Aftermath,” ABC News, 17 November 2020.
5. Robert O’Connell, “Did Colin Kaepernick Really Insult the Troops?” The Atlantic, 30 August 2016.
6. ADM Michael G. Mullen, USN (Ret.), “I Cannot Remain Silent,” The Atlantic, 2 June 2020.
7. Tom Dreisbach and Meg Anderson, “Nearly 1 in 5 Defendants in Capitol Riot Cases Served in the Military,” NPR, 21 January 2021.
8. James Baldwin interview on “The Dick Cavett Show,” 16 May 1969.
9. Helene Cooper, “African Americans Are Highly Visible in the Military, But Almost Invisible at the Top,” The New York Times, 9 June 2020.
10. Cooper, “African Americans are Highly Visible in the Military.”
11. Luis Martinez, “Defense Secretary Esper Effectively Bans Confederate Flag from U.S. Military Bases,” ABC News, 17 July 2020.
12. Robert J. Schneller Jr., “The First Black Midshipman at the United States Naval Academy,” The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, no. 48 (Summer 2005): 104–7.
13. Blake Stilwell, “This Is the First Black Graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy,” We Are the Mighty, 29 April 2020.
14. “Gordon Paiea Chung-Hoon,” Naval History and Heritage Command, 16 March 2021; “Hispanic Americans in the United States Navy,” Naval History and Heritage Command.
15. “Janie Mines ’80,” United States Naval Academy Alumni Association and Foundation.
16. Hasan Kwame Jeffries, “Teaching Hard History,” The Southern Poverty Law Center, 31 January 2018; and Emily Guskin, Scott Clement, and Joe Heim, “Americans Show Spotty Knowledge about the History of Slavery, But Acknowledge Its Enduring Effects,” Washington Post, 28 August 2019.
17. Alia Wong, “History Class and the Fictions About Race in America,” The Atlantic, 21 October 2015.
18. Camille Phillips, “Texas Student Will Soon Learn Slavery Played a Central Role in the Civil War,” NPR, 16 November 2019.
19. “Naval Academy Releases Student Body By State,” WBALTV, 8 September 2014.
20. “Class of ’20 Inaugural Diversity & Inclusion Studies Minors,” West Point.
21. Henry Louis Gates Jr., “What Was Black America’s Double War,” PBS.
22. History.com editors, “This Day in History: Emmett Till Is Murdered,”
History.com, 9 February 2010.
23. “Community Remembrance Project,” Equal Justice Initiative.
24. “Three Books,” Stanford University.
25. Andrea Scott, “Here Are the 46 Books on the 2020 Marine Commandant’s Reading List,” Marine Times, 20 October 202.
26. Amanda Macias, “The Extraordinary Reading Habits of Defense Secretary James Mattis,” CNBC, 15 September 2018.
27. James Baldwin, “The American Dream and the American Negro,” The New York Times, 7 March 1965.