I recognize that some people have lived their lives without actually witnessing systemic racism, or even reflecting upon what systemic racism means. And there are clearly blessed, privileged people have never considered how the system that protects their privilege could oppress people who don’t look like them.
Some of these people respond with fear and hostility when they hear “Black Lives Matter” or anything besides white, cis-hetero Christian lives “matter” because they see the other counting as a threat to their way of life but somehow don’t think that equals racism because “all lives matter,” duh. The bottom line is that they have no empathy for anyone who exists outside their own narrow experiences, and that their communities have dehumanized the “other” in order to feel better about that absence of empathy.
As a Naval officer, I witnessed systemic racism every day. I saw young black, latino, Native American, and white men from a variety of backgrounds, and I saw the similarities in the disadvantages they had come from before military service that weighed them down. And I saw most of them rise above them, and try to move forward. But I also saw how differently they were treated by the system as a whole, and it was often a lot different depending on race.
I worked with a sailor, an up-and-comer who had made rate as a boatswain’s mate, whose self-assuredness and bearing attracted negative attention from certain members of the crew–including some in the Master at Arms division. I remain convinced to this day that he was busted on a drug test because of a sample swap. I saw white sailors who were caught on command sweeps given light non-judicial punishment, and black sailors who ended up in the brig.
When I hear the words of our new Secretary of Defense, I’m glad to hear that extremism is on the radar now. But I still think DOD has to have a reckoning with structural racism. It may not be the military’s role to repair the damage done by poverty and societal racism as a whole, but the DOD could certainly do more to help all service members reach their potential.