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Shadows in the Ranks: Confronting the Hidden Racism Within America's Military

The military is often regarded as a paragon of equality and cooperation in American society, bringing together individuals from various racial backgrounds who work towards the common goal of fostering camaraderie and protecting the nation. However, beneath this facade of unity, race remains a complex and impactful factor that influences the experiences of minority military personnel. This article aims to explore the role of race in the military and its far-reaching implications on servicemen and women, highlighting the persistence of racism despite the perception of inclusivity. While the presence of diversity in the military and the collective pursuit of a shared mission contribute to the notion of a lack of racism, it continues extensively within the institution, significantly influencing opportunities and disparities among different racial groups. Furthermore, the desire to maintain harmony and prioritize the mission often suppresses open expressions of racism, making it challenging to identify and address underlying problems. Only by acknowledging and confronting racism can meaningful progress be made toward a more just future for all military personnel, and resultantly, a more equitable nation. 

Racist constructions persist in the military as a consequence of both the indoctrination of such values at formative stages of personnel development and training, in addition to the pre-existing biases of individuals across the spectrum of rank. To understand how this concept can be deceiving, an analysis of the military’s outward message is required. Jim Garamone of the official news site for the Department of Defense (DoD) emphasizes:

"The military is built around teams of service members banding together to accomplish shared missions […] “We who wear the cloth of our nation understand that cohesion is a force multiplier,” he said. [...] the U.S. military is a cohesive team consisting of people of different races and genders and religious and sexual orientations working to accomplish their mission and peace in the war, all over the globe. Equality and opportunity are matters of military readiness, not just political correctness."

Presenting a facade of complete unity masks the underlying discrimination because outsiders looking in only see the larger picture wherein individual instances of racism are irrelevant or are not enough to draw a correlation. In essence, issues of race can be passed off as simply a bad soldier rather than a structural problem, because in a world where the idolized American military seems completely unified, such a substantial problem proves unfathomable.

Racism in the military has extensive roots in American history, most prominently during the Second World War. While media portrayals of the war suggested a diverse military, routinely fitting in African Americans and other minorities, the reality was that advancement in the institution was grossly disproportionate, as power was largely reserved for white Americans. Commonly held beliefs among highly ranked officers that black Americans performed worse as soldiers, or that Japanese Americans colluded with their ‘homeland,’ led to increased and worsened racial divide that set a precedent for continual discrimination, notwithstanding the military’s more positive sentiment about diversity in the modern world.

Moreover, another historical factor that continues to the modern day and perpetuates racist ideology in the military is the intense vilification of other populations in the international community, a dangerous method of training that facilitates racist outlooks internally. For instance, acclaimed authors Jordan Camp and Jennifer Greenburg explain that the American counterinsurgency strategy is based on a hegemonic stance, one achieved through “racist constructions of the enemy […] produc[ing] consent to brutal counterinsurgent practices such as terror, torture, confinement, and surveillance, as well as tactics such as sanctions, seizing government assets, and coordinated political attacks across media outlets.” After soldiers undergo training that propagates such methods and perspectives, there is no discernable reason why racist beliefs that impact often innocent members of the international populace, will not affect domestic minorities who reflect the very diversity of the global stage. This is further exacerbated by the lack of diversity among highly ranked officials in the military who have the authority to control the narratives fed to soldiers. When high-level positions are largely occupied by white males, minority soldiers feel obligated to drop claims of racism for fear of no resolution, or worse, action being taken against them. Much data corroborates this narrative as over 39% of American troops who chose to not report a case of racial discrimination thought it would exacerbate their situation.

However, it must be delineated this is not a problem of our history, but rather one influenced by it. As outlined in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, virtually all employers cannot consider race a factor in hiring decisions, yet the military is exempt. The primary motivation for this exemption is the widespread—albeit false—understanding that “the ability to address grievances to civilian courts would undermine the discipline necessary for accomplishment of the military mission.” In a world that makes it difficult for individuals to take legal action against discrimination in the context of ‘hurting the mission,’ minorities see their only path to endure till the end of their service, as the justice system integrated within the military itself offers little protection against retribution, and even less opportunity to pursue justice.

These practices are not purely speculation as outreach conducted in the military captures the damaging trend. In 2017, the Workplace and Equal Opportunity Survey sent out to active-duty soldiers revealed that 31.2% of African Americans, 23.3% of Asian Americans, and 21.0% of Hispanic Americans in the military experienced “suffering” from racism or harassment. Such data demonstrates the alarming prevalence of discrimination, confirming that the issue is not merely anecdotal but a significant concern that demands immediate attention. Beyond statistical evidence, however, personal accounts gathered from hundreds of veterans during our research for this project further corroborate the existence of racial bias and its impact on servicemen and women. These long-form interviews we conducted shed light on the lived experiences of military personnel, providing firsthand narratives of the challenges faced by minorities. Certain veterans identified extensive verbal and physical abuse, unfair promotions or discharges, and harassment, contributing to an unwelcoming environment, even prompting occasional conflicts.

The result of widespread but muted discrimination across the American military is the subjugation and mistreatment of minority individuals, both in a general sense, and specifically in areas paramount to quality of life: Health outcomes and sexual assault. Despite a significant body of research on the harmful health impacts of racism in the general population, there are few studies on how racism affects the health and well-being of American service members. However, research from the general populous provides the following indication: Being subjected to racial or ethnic discrimination has a negative impact on one's physical and mental health, contributing to diseases including hypertension, cardiovascular issues, obesity, anxiety, and depression. Physiological alterations and high-risk behaviors, such as binge drinking, have also been linked to such prejudice, and as it turns out, alcohol abuse and mental problems are incredibly prevalent post-service among veterans. Extrapolating wider population data to the military is a logical extension as it is a diverse workforce notwithstanding a veneer of unity.

Furthermore, the issue of sexual assault rivals the disparities in health outcomes that are largely influenced by race and the prevalence of discrimination. Because minorities have minimal capacity to speak out, they are inherently perceived as submissive, catalyzing attempts at sexual coercion. In terms of relevant literature, minority women, particularly African Americans, have been found to experience more sexual advances than their white counterparts, and it must be acknowledged that those of higher rank, typically white individuals, experience considerably less assault. One case of sexual assault that demonstrates this trend well is that of Vanessa Guillen. She was an inspiring soldier of Latin-American descent, who was confronted with repeated sexual harassment and assault, and was eventually murdered by a male soldier near Fort Hood. Though her case brought sexual assault to the vanguard of discussion over military reform, little regard was given to her exploitation as a minority woman, hence simply implementing measures to counter sexual assault overlooked her experiences influenced by intersectionality. In reality, nothing changed the fact that minorities have to be submissive and not report incidents, especially with regard to assault, as the justification for sexual advances towards them could be based on racist ideology, which is rarely adequately redressed by the military justice system.

Racial diversity has been a strong point of the American military’s strength despite the problems that arise from indoctrinating notions of cohesion without taking into account differences between the experiences of individuals. This manifests in the extensive suppression of racism in the service, as a singular focus on a mission induces ignorance and an attitude that if the mission succeeds, I did my job, irrespective of the means to that end. To embody the ideals of unity and cooperation fully, the military must confront the barriers of racism that hinder the full potential and contributions of its diverse workforce. Embracing diversity is not merely a matter of political correctness; it is an essential aspect of building a service that is resilient, adaptable, and genuinely representative of the nation it serves. By acknowledging the past, confronting the present, and forging a future of inclusion and respect, the American military can stand as a beacon of hope and progress for generations to come, triumphing not only on the battlefield but also over the subtle enemy within - the specter of racism that lurks in the shadows of supposed camaraderie.

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