Racism has Long Undermined Military Cohesion, Just as Gen. Milley Testified

tags: racism, military history, discrimination, culture war, critical race theory

Natalie Shibley is a visiting assistant professor at Wesleyan University and is writing a book about race, homosexuality investigations and notions of disease in the U.S. military between the 1940s and 1990s.

“I do think it’s important, actually, for those of us in uniform to be open-minded and be widely read,” said Army Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, at a House Armed Services Committee hearing on June 23. In what later became a widely circulated video, Milley responded to questions from Reps. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) and Michael Waltz (R-Fla.) about the teaching of critical race theory in the military. Milley explained that he found it “offensive” to describe service members as “being ‘woke’ or something else because we’re studying some theories that are out there,” concluding that “it matters to our military and the discipline and cohesion of this military.”

The idea that understanding histories and theories about race is important for military discipline and cohesion is nothing new. In fact, the hundreds of conflicts between White and Black troops during the Vietnam War, especially major incidents at Camp LeJeune in 1969 and Travis Air Force Base in 1971, prompted the military to launch an educational program that aimed to diminish such tensions through better understanding. The program did not achieve its promise, in part because of the very opposition to teaching service members about structural racism that is recurring today. Yet, the fact that such discussions are happening after a half-century underscores the necessity of addressing racism in our society and institutions, rather than curtailing its study.

In September 1971, the Defense Race Relations Institute opened at Patrick Air Force Base in Florida. The institute trained instructors in small group discussion methods so that they could return to their installations and run mandatory courses in what was called “race relations.” Sociologist Richard O. Hope, the first director of research and evaluation at the DRRI, explained that the training operated from the assumption that “racial conflict originates from prejudices, misunderstandings, and a general lack of knowledge among groups.” Therefore, the institute hoped to teach service members about other racial groups and to have open discussions about their prejudices, often confronting each other directly.

The DRRI drew heavily from academic research on race and racism. The initial curriculum had four sections: “Minority Studies,” (later renamed “American Ethnic Studies”), which was historical and sociological in focus; “Behavioral Sciences,” which discussed psychology, racism and social dynamics; “Educational Techniques,” which focused on discussion-leading skills and a “Community Laboratory Experience,” in which DRRI students spent a weekend in Miami visiting African American, Cuban, Puerto Rican and Native American neighborhoods, migrant camps and incarcerated veterans.

By 1974, the DRRI was producing its own manuals of information about different racial groups, including “Afro-American Culture,” “Asian Americans,” “Latino Studies,” “The Native American,” “Appalachian Studies” and “White Working Class Culture.” One manual, “Signs and Symbols,” reprinted articles that had appeared in major publications, including a satirical feature on White culture from the National Lampoon and an essay by Amari Baraka in the journal the Black Scholar outlining Black cultural nationalist Maulana Ndabezitha Karenga’s theory of Kawaida, an Afrocentric political and philosophical ideology.

As historian Say Burgin has argued, the institute took a fairly radical approach in both its course material and its method. For example, the DRRI provided instruction about the concept of “institutional racism,” coined by Stokely Carmichael and Charles Hamilton in their 1967 book, “Black Power.” By asking service members to be able to identify examples of this phenomenon, the DRRI adopted the perspective that racism was not solely individual, but also structural. The implication of the institute’s training was that communication between members of different racial groups was an important part of conflict resolution, but that it would not itself eliminate racism within the military or within American society.

Read entire article at Made By History at the Washington Post