Tennis great and Army officer Arthur Ashe once said “Being a Black man is like having another job.” That’s not one of the quotes you’re likely to find on the web: perhaps because it’s so not “inspiring.” Instead, his quote about not letting racism and sexism stop you from doing your best is prominent. In effect, this mindset puts the burden on the victims, not the perpetrators, to deal with those issues. Being a minority of any type in the military can often feel like having another job, and that can be a heavy burden to bear. You’re part of the team, but often stand apart nonetheless, at least in my experience.
Ask any woman, ethnic or racial minority, religious minority, or LGBT member if they have ever felt isolated while in military service and the answer will likely be yes. Being “different” can sometimes make you a target, or a source of suspicion, particularly in times of stress in the greater society, or within the unit in which you may serve. Poor leadership can exacerbate the problems, as you have likely seen. Good, courageous leadership can alleviate problems, but it is often in short supply where racism and sexism are concerned. Too often, if you’re brave or naïve enough to complain, the leaders identify with the transgressors rather than the victims. Even a cursory look at the discrimination (if you can find them) and sexual harassment/assault statistics will bear this out, whether military or civilian.
I am heartened to see that minority veterans are beginning to tell their personal stories about their service. The military leadership can learn a great deal from these stories, if they choose to listen. Anecdotes and snippets in reports, surveys and investigations cannot give you a full picture of what a tour of service or a full career can mean to a the emotional well-being and mental health of a team player who has to constantly battle for his or her place on the team. Many of these stories are not pretty, but they need to be heard.
After licking my wounds for twenty years and trying to make sense of what I had endured, I wrote Black Officer, White Navy to tell my own story, and that of my father, what little of his story I actually know. There are more than one hundred years of military service in my family, with my father and his sons accounting for fifty years of that service. Because of his own naval service, and the Navy’s long and well-documented history of racism, my father refused to sign the papers for his seventeen year-old son to join the Navy. I outmaneuvered him and joined anyway, planning to prove him wrong and 1970’s CNO Admiral Elmo Zumwalt right. Zumwalt famously eliminated official racism and discrimination in the Navy, but tradition dies a slow death. My father died before I could tell him he was both right and wrong about the Navy.
Beginning in 1975, as I fought my way from seaman recruit to surface warfare lieutenant commander, I was helped by many people who saw my potential and relied on and rewarded my good performance in each of my assignments. Conversely, I had to fight (sometimes literally) my way past the racism and discrimination I experienced along the way. I sometimes paid a heavy price as my superiors turned a blind eye to the obvious. I often felt like being a black man was my extra job. In my last tour, after first being inexplicably relegated to a low-level job, (before I had even spoke to my new boss) I was then quickly given two department head jobs vice the one department head job I had been ordered in to assume. Once he actually talked to me about my background, I literally did get an extra job, with no increase in pay. It was simple racism, both ways. The first decision was based on how I looked; the second on what I could contribute. This was more than forty-five years after President Harry S. Truman desegregated the armed forces. Back in 1995, there was still much work to be done.
The “Me Too” movement has highlighted long-simmering problems and frustration, as did the 1991 Tailhook Scandal during the mid-nineties. The Department of Defense does not currently report to Congress nor does it release to the public statistics on racial discrimination. I had to file a Freedom of Information Act Request (FOIA) to get many of the statistics I reveal in my book. Much of what I learned was both revealing and alarming. As any veteran knows, “You get what you inspect, not what you expect.” Perhaps it is time to take a look at what is going on in the services. The signs indicate that trouble may be brewing.
“Black Officer, White Navy” tells what it was like as the country veered to a more conservative posture, which included a backlash to the gains and “social intrusion” as Blacks and other minorities assumed greater rights of citizenship and service. Failure to guard against divisions along race or gender can lead to a deterioration of unit cohesiveness and teamwork, as has been evident many times in the past when differences were stressed rather than embraced. Let’s hope that the current military and civilian leadership does not have to relearn the lessons of the past.
~Reuben Keith Green is the award winning author of Black Officer, White Navy. He is a retired naval surface warfare officer who began his career as an enlisted man and transitioned to officer status after nine years of service. His book was awarded the 2018 Book Award for Autobiography from the African American Historical and Genealogical Society, and the NABE Pinnacle Book Achievement Award for 2018. His website is www.reubenkeithgreen.com