Best Defense

Racial inclusion and diversity in the armed forces: Some thoughts on today

Despite serving in every major conflict in American history, a policy of segregation reduced African Americans to second-tier soldiers and citizens for nearly 170 years.


By Sebastian J. Bae
Best Defense Council of the Former Enlisted

As the country is embroiled in a sea of racial tension, constantly battered by the latest revelation of police brutality or racial discrimination, the military has largely stood above the ugly fray — an island of calm. As the most trusted institution in America, the military understandably does not want to be drawn into the damaging public relations war countless American police departments have found themselves in. After all, who wants their clean-cut, medal adorned war heroes to be secret racial bigots? No one. However, to feign historical amnesia of the military’s racially motivated policies or to deny the legacy of those policies on the present does a terrible disservice to the military and the country.

Despite serving in every major conflict in American history, a policy of segregation reduced African Americans to second-tier soldiers and citizens for nearly 170 years. Not until President Truman’s Executive Order 9981 in 1948 did the military take purposeful steps towards racial equality in the armed forces. The last segregated unit was abolished in 1954, although some persisted in the National Guard and Reserves into the 1960s. Similarly, during the Second World War, the military, suspicious of saboteurs and spies, purged Japanese Americans from its ranks. At the same time, an estimated 120,000 individuals of Japanese ancestry were forcibly interned in designated “military areas.”

No doubt some will throw their arms in the air and decry, “But that was in the past! There’s no racial discrimination in the military today. There’s no black or white, we’re all green.” This common party line is part truth and part wishful thinking. For at its core, the statement argues the deep-seated consequences of race in America have been vanquished by the unflappable moral character of a band of brothers forged in combat. And to be fair, combat can create life-long bonds between the most disparate groups, often overcoming social, economic, religious, and racial barriers.

However, to believe racial discrimination ceases to exist in the military is a lie — and a dangerous one. In 2011, the suicide of Pvt. Danny Chen in Afghanistan raised troubling allegations of racial abuse by his peers and superiors. According to accounts after his death, members of Pvt. Chen’s unit routinely used racial slurs like “gook” or “chink,” in addition to physical abuse, to single out Pvt. Chen — the only Chinese American soldier in the unit. And more recently, the controversy surrounding a group of African American West Point cadets brandishing a closed fist in the air has revealed unsettling racial tensions lurking within the Armed Forces. Whether one believes the act is judicially punishable or simply a non-event, it doesn’t really matter. The reactions to the photo speak more to the racial perspective of the military than the raised fists themselves, which range from comparisons to the Nazi salute to measured sympathy to the struggle of excelling in a white man’s world.

And for those who are undoubtedly muttering, “These are isolated incidents, not reflective of the Armed Forces as a whole,” I have some disturbing numbers for you. According to a 2016 Congressional Research Service Report, whites comprise 88.9 percent of the General/Flag Officer rank, while only comprising 78.4 percent of the country demographically. In comparison, only 1.7 percent of the same rank are Hispanic, despite comprising 15.7 percent demographically. And of the six combatant commands, four are white, one is Asian, and one is black. The numbers do not reflect a reality of racial inclusion and diversity in the Armed Forces, especially at the highest ranks.

In my six years in the Marine Corps, I passed countless walls adorned with command photos, sporting the faces of commanders in neat rows, a clear demarcated hierarchy. And in every instance, the commander was almost always white, paired next to a stern faced black Sergeant Major. The sight never disturbed me when I was in uniform; there was an uncanny normalcy to it — each face in its expected place. And maybe reducing people to racial labels in a soulless calculus is not the best way to insure diversity and inclusion in the Armed Forces. But shouldn’t the force dedicated to defending the nation resemble it? So, shouldn’t one of those faces resemble my own and Pvt. Chen’s?

Sebastian Bae is co-holder of the Marine chair on Best Defense’s Council of the Former Enlisted.

Photo credit: Stars and Stripes

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at Twitter: @tomricks1

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