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The ‘Military Melting Pot’ Has a Long History of Racism

Racism didn’t end with the Emancipation Proclamation or even the civil rights movement; and it exists today in our military.

The United States is currently experiencing its largest volume of protests since the civil rights movement. These protests — which are happening in every state — started in response to the murder of 46-year-old George Floyd; a Black man who died while Minneapolis police officer Derek Chavin forcefully kneeled on his neck for nine straight minutes. 

Crowds of protestors have gathered not only in America, but in countries around the world, demanding justice for Floyd and every other Black American wrongfully killed by police. They are a human sea on the streets. Among them, you can pick out signs painted in strong, clear words. 

“Stop killing us.”
“Am I next?” …
“Black lives matter.” 

The next minute, the sea chants. 

“I can’t breathe.” …
“Hands up, don’t shoot.” …
“Black lives matter.” 

Police brutality is what sparked the Black Lives Matter movement, but it’s not an isolated issue. It’s part of the larger problem of systemic racism in the U.S. And try as we might, it has bled into every facet of our society, poisoning us. No group of people, including the military, is immune.


Understanding Racism

Part of what keeps racism alive is that people don’t understand it very well. 

They think that racism is hatred. That racism is slurs. That racism is violent. All of these things are true — this is the racism that killed Ahmaud Arbery while he was out for a run, and the racism that kills so many others. But it’s not the only way to be racist. 

The sinister thing about racism is that most people who are racist don’t see themselves that way. People like Amy Cooper, who called the police on a Black man who was bird-watching in Central Park, don’t believe that they’re part of the problem. But implicit bias, on some level, affects us all; it exists in the form of stereotypes and ideas that have been planted in our heads from the moment we’re born. It comes from the media and the communities around us. It’s the reason for the majority of Black deaths in America: Someone sees a Black person, and immediately stereotypes them as dangerous. 

The fact is, Black Americans have never recovered from the trauma they endured at the hands of white slavers. It may have been over a hundred years ago now, but in the scheme of history, that’s not very long. Many of them are still caught in the web of socioeconomic inequality that, due to people’s implicit bias, can feel impossible to disentangle from. 

Racism looks like this: 

  • The fact that only 10% of American businesses are owned by people of color
  • Black graduates are two time more likely to be unemployed
  • Black students are three times more likely to be suspended
  • Black Americans are 30% more likely to be pulled over
  • Black Americans make up 40% of the prison population (only 14.6% of the U.S. is Black)

This is just a small piece of what it looks like to be Black in the United States. 

The History of Racism in the Military 

The military’s history of racism stretches back to the Revolutionary War, and hasn’t stopped yet. 

In that very first conflict in U.S. history, it’s unsurprising that Black people were made to fight. In the North, guns were slapped to their hands in exchange for personal freedom. In the South, slavers feared retribution too badly to allow their slaves to fight. 

The British used this fear to their advantage. Both the Royal Governor of Virginia and the commander in chief of British forces offered total emancipation to any slave who fought for the British. During this time, more than 100,000 slaves escaped and joined the British soldiers. The ones who survived the war were later evacuated to Upper Canada to maintain their freedom. 

Black soldiers continued to serve through the War of 1812; never treated as equals, but called upon in wartime when more bodies were needed. Of course, things started to shift during the Civil War. 

Although it can be imagined that the fight felt more personal, the war wasn’t seen as a means to end slavery — the main priority was preserving the union of all states. In 1862, Congress passed two acts which allowed the official enlistment of Black service members. But much of their service was relegated to hard labor, as the white soldiers didn’t believe they could fight effectively. 

After the Civil War, there was a push to allow Black students in the U.S. Naval Academy. One man was nominated — John H. Conyers, from South Carolina — and became a midshipman in September 1972. However, he experienced such extreme hazing and physical torment that he was forced to resign the following year. 

Related: The Only Female Buffalo Soldier


Post-Civil War Conflicts

In 1898, fighting broke out in the Philippines as the native population resisted U.S. colonization. To quell the resistance, the American government sent both white and Black regiments to the islands. But the Black soldiers were treated so poorly that many of them deserted, choosing to fight with the native Filipinos instead. 

The war ended in victory for the U.S., and the surviving Filipinos wouldn’t gain independence until 1946.

World War I was largely fought without Black Americans. In fact, it was only in 1932 that they began to serve regularly in the U.S. Navy, though only as stewards and mess attendants. But during World War II, over 1 million Black Americans served in segregated units. They formed the infamous Tuskegee Airmen, and some served as Navy Seabees. But still, they were treated as second-class citizens; frequently name-called by commanding officers and forced to give up their seats for white soldiers. 

In 1948, Executive Order 9981 officially ended segregation in the military, and it was supposed to end racial inequality. But, even with rights under law, Black service members endured in a military fraught with white nationalism: The belief that the U.S. historically belongs to white people and should remain that way. 

Read More: The History of Black Americans in the Military


White Nationalism in the Military

Before President Truman’s executive order, racism ran rampant in the ranks. And the full integration of Black service members did little to dissuade it. Ku Klux Klan members had served in the military for decades — with entire chapters stationed in the same posts, such as on the USS Tennessee in the 1920s. 

During the Vietnam War, Klan members serving overseas dressed in makeshift robes and loudly celebrated the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Klan members celebrated at home, too, which resulted in a period of extreme racial violence in Camp Lejeune

Klan presence in the military continued to be a problem through the 1970s, with Marines holding Klan meetings at Camp Pendleton. In ‘79, a Klan rally in Virginia Beach was widely attended by white service members. If fights broke out, disciplinary action was usually taken against the Black service members, while the white participants were simply transferred or went without punishment. 

In the 1980s, the Pentagon finally banned military members from joining extremist groups like the KKK. However, since then — despite various racially motivated shootings and bombings committed by service members and Veterans — critics say that it has ignored the problem of white extremists within the military, choosing to classify it as a non-issue. 


Racism Thrives in the Non-Progressive, Non-Actionable Military 

According to a 2019 Military Times poll, more than one-third of active duty troops had personally witnessed white nationalism or racism within the military in recent months. More than half of minority troops said the same. Given that the military is often considered a “melting pot” of different cultures and ethnicities, this may be surprising to some. 

The poll showed that enlisted members were significantly more likely to witness racism, probably among other enlisted members. Respondents cited racist language, swastikas drawn on service members’ cars, and white supermacist tattoos and stickers. 

Almost half of all troops surveyed said that white nationalism is a significant national security threat.

In a time where racial tensions in the U.S. are very high, the threat of white nationalism in the military should be taken seriously by officials. It should not be glossed over or brushed aside. If it’s not addressed, not controlled, then racist slurs and graffiti could very quickly devolve into further violence. 

“We also know that hate groups and white supremacy groups are actively recruiting military members,” said Cassie Miller, a research and investigations specialist for the Southern Poverty Law Center. “If they want to use violence to push the country into a race war, they need people with a knowledge of firearms, explosives and other military skills.”


How To Help Combat Racism

You may have heard the saying: The first step to recovery is acceptance. This rings true with many things. The first step to healing the nation from the plague of systemic racism is by accepting that it does, indeed, exist. 

After the acceptance, comes action. 

Here are some ways that you can actively fight racism and uplift Black Americans: 

  • Listen to people of color. They know their struggles better than anyone else. It’s your responsibility to actively listen and update your knowledge on Black issues. It’s OK to receive information that challenges your beliefs; do your best to react compassionately and not defensively. 
  • Educate. Teach your community about the barriers to success for Black Americans; in this process, advocate for respectful and constructive conversations that bring people together, rather than tear them apart. You can do this through social media, over the phone, or even in person. 
  • Sign petitions, make phone calls, and write letters. Not everyone wants to protest. One way you can make your voice heard is by signing petitions for justice and change, and contacting your state and city representatives via phone, email, or mail. 
  • Donate. Decide what’s most important to you, and put your money behind it. Here are some popular organizations that need funding:
  • Go to a protest. If you’re willing and able, attend a protest to make your wave in the ocean of people demanding justice for the Black Americans killed by police. The goal is not only holding offending cops accountable, but a complete reform of the justice system and how the government treats Black people as a whole.
  • Support your Black friends, coworkers, family, and acquaintances. This is an incredib
    ly painful time for Black Americans. They are watching people who look like them being killed across the country. Their communities are simultaneously angry, in mourning, and afraid. Let them know that you see their pain and share it, and will do what you can to support them. 


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