reason demands you define your terms
It’s July, so I guess it is time for another overwrought ethno-masochistic virtue signaling article by CDR Wolf Melbourne, USN. You can read last year’s here where he strangely implies guilt on everyone, and this year’s here where he's making another run, both in Proceedings … if you are so inclined.
A few of you asked my thoughts and being that I’m not one to ignore the audience, here you go.
In its reaction to the death of George Floyd, the Navy has had to face the deficit between its own ideals and its reality. Despite many pioneering and rightfully laudable advances in racial equality and a genuine desire to be meritocratic, it remains clear the Navy continues to be weighed down by the effects of systemic racism. Many of these effects have been expressed courageously in the pages of Proceedings. The need for Black officers to “wear masks” and “carry burdens” and the fact that White officers inequitably “profit from the status quo” are all, as Baldwin would believe, truths we need to accept before we can hope to overcome them.
Yes, he likes to quote Baldwin, a lot. Just like last year, for some reason Melbourne REALLY wants people to know that he read someone many of us first read in high school or college. For me, I read Baldwin first in 1984.
While the impetus to make substantive change is present, and the emotional moment of today is focusing our collective mind, Navy leaders urgently need to talk openly about these truths, plan how how to address them, and, most important, start acting. Otherwise, the Navy will simply fall back on old habits, and initiatives such as Task Force One Navy will either fail or disappear into bureaucratic oblivion like each preceding effort.
“Start acting.” We get a lot of vague calls for action from Melbourne, but he never really outlines exactly what that means to him. How would he operationalize bending the numbers to what he wants them to be?
Not what they are, what their objective levels are … but what appears to be a desire to the US Navy to perfect align with the nation’s demographics, as if that delta in itself represents racism somehow. I know that is how Kendi defines racism, but that does not make the Navy racist any more than medical school or the NBA is.
All Navy officers, but especially White officers, owe this effort a debt. A debt stemming from decades of looking the other way, being oblivious, and making excuses. It is well past time to reconcile the deficit between our ideals and our reality—between what we say and what we do. This debt needs to be paid. It is what we owe.
No. No they don't. Melbourne can speak for himself here. Personally, I don’t know how you look in the eye a new Ensign born in Bosnia in 1999 and tell her she somehow owes a debt to her shipmate next to her born in Nigeria the same year … all based on something as meaningless as the color of their skin - when you in all your white Commanderness stand there knowing full well black LCDR were left behind in the crunch at the CDR selection board you made it through.
...why does the Navy continually get such racially disparate outcomes in its officer demographics?
In 2020, Black officers made up 7.5 percent of all ensigns in the Navy, yet only 2.8 percent of all flag officers. White officers make up 75 percent of all ensigns and 90 percent of flag officers. Over the course of an average career, Black naval officers lose rank and positions of power while their White colleagues gain and improve on their already substantial position. As the Task Force One Navy final report states, “Our officer corps remains overwhelmingly white and male and . . . is not representative of the U.S. today [emphasis added].”
As we’ve discussed here for over a decade, the US military and the Navy is on the receiving end of the nation’s cultural and educational production line that brings men and women to adulthood. It is at that point that they intake the Navy.
For most officers via NROTC and USNA, (the ones entering today were in diapers when we invaded Iraq in 2003 BTW) they enter at about 18 years of age.
If you want to be so retrograde as to first look first at someone race and ethnicity – which is what Melbourne seems to want to do - there are certain objective entering criteria for officer program selection you have to recognize. There are more, but let’s just pick three; high school diploma; criminal history; standardized testing scores.
In these areas there are significant group differences which are not the fault of the Navy – nor its Sailors. Blaming them for this is at best illogical, on average sadistic bullying, at worst bearing false witness.
As Melbourne is obsessed with externalizing his white guilt as contrasted to African-Americans (black) - (mostly ignoring “Hispanics” and Asian-Americans (AAPI), and the growing cadre of mixed-race Shipmates), let’s look at that difference … but I’m still going to pull in the AAPI numbers in where possible because in almost all categories their objective desirability is greater than that of whites.
What do these facts inform us about the utility of Melbourne’s feelings? Simple; at the point the first objective filters finish their sorting, there will be a significance divergence in eligibility for consideration for commissioning by race.
As a percentage of the population, there will be many more AAPI available, slightly more than average non-“Hispanic” whites, slightly fewer “Hispanics,” and significantly fewer blacks.
Those are just the numbers. Numbers are not racist any more than the sun’s ability to burn my fair skinned daughter more than her olive skinned sister is racist.
In addressing this disparity there are only two approaches. The first is passive. It argues the Navy’s policies and performance to date are sufficiently equitable. The Navy is objectively meritocratic and color blind, and any racial imbalance is largely explained by forces out of its control. Over time, these imbalances will right themselves. This approach further argues it is not the Navy’s role to be a social experiment in correcting the inequities present in the larger society it serves. Doing anything more risks weakening the Navy by sowing confusion, undermining morale, and unnecessarily distracting the service from its central warfighting mission.
The other approach is active. It argues there is something systemically racist occurring in how the Navy recruits, retains, and promotes Black officers. The disparity in demographics indicates the Black officers who do make it into the top ranks do so despite systemic racism, not because the service is free of it. This approach stresses that the reality Black Navy officers face is not a new one. It goes back at least as far as 1948, when President Harry S. Truman signed Executive Order 9981 ending segregation within the armed services, if not all the way to the founding of the Continental Navy. Doing nothing more means institutional acceptance of the Black officer’s second-class status.
Again, Melbourne does not define what he wants or defines as “active.”
Melbourne does not want to have a conversation on this topic, he wants to dictate. If you don’t align with him .. well … here is the bifurcation, the lack of nuance and critical thinking typical of the radical “NO CENTER!” Red Guard thinking.
There is no middle ground between these approaches to the question of racial disparity in the Navy’s demographics. An honest accounting of today’s reality and the history that led to it must drive Navy leaders to stand on difficult, but moral, ground, acknowledging that the service has a systemic racism problem that requires sufficient attention and resources be paid to rectify.
You either agree with him or you are a red in tooth and claw racist. This mindset is not open to reason – it is a bully’s emotional desire to dominate.
More damning than its officer demographics has been the Navy’s utter lack of curiosity about why they remain so persistent. Until it contracted with the Center for Naval Analyses late last year to analyze the challenge of minorities shifting out of the core warfighting communities at a higher rate than their White peers, the Navy had never sought or conducted a comprehensive study of how Black, female, and other minority officers progress through their careers. Albeit late, this is the type of question the Navy needs to start asking more, because, as Irish poet James Stephens said, “We get wise by asking questions, and even if these are not answered we get wise, for a well-packed question carries its answer on its back as a snail carries its shell.”
This is just silly and not grounded in reality. We had these conversations with senior leadership in my NROTC unit in the 1980s, and throughout the next 2+ decades in uniform.
Let’s return to the central critique I have with Melbourne’s earnest concern with the disparity of numbers relative to self-identified racial classifications: that it is not the Navy’s fault nor the fault of today’s serving officers.
If someone wants to fix that problem, accusing the Navy of being worm-ridden with racism is not only on morally shaky ground and contrary to the facts – it is avoiding the real source of the problem in the 3rd decade of the 21st Century; our nation’s educational and cultural failures in raising children to adulthood.
That is where Melbourne should point his attentions, but instead he desires to place all of this peers and his Navy under the shadow of a yet clearly defined and demonstrated systemic racism. He demands action, but never says what action he wants.
Besides the challenge of the entering argument of objective criteria (criteria BTW, that are proven indicators of success), there is the issue that well meaning people need to accept; people have choice and agency. Throughout our nation, civilian and government organizations with the best intentions desire their organizations to “look like America” too. As such, they have specialized recruiters who aggressively recruit minority candidates who meet the objective criteria for success (side-note, a high school classmate of mine has made an exceptionally good career doing just this). They come for those with military experience aggressively. The pay, positions, and – in the late 20s-early 30s offer of staying home to properly raise a family – it is hard to say no to greener pastures.
Shipmates of mine were swept up in the 90s. I don’t blame them, I congratulate them. The fact that their leaving cuts a few percentage points off the number of minority candidates at the top of their peer ranking does not mean the Navy is more racist. That isn’t how this works. They’ve all done very well. High demand, low density marketplaces are hard to compete in.
Melbourne’s arguments are a bit threadbare and worn. We’ve discussed them here for over a decade. I don’t think that we should establish as a baseline for talent management racial essentialism as Melbourne does. I think it is not just unfair to do to people born this century, but it is corrosive to building unity that we need as a fighting force. I will give him the benefit of the doubt that he means well, but he is creating more heat than light. I would offer that he should examine the problem with a wider aperture.
I’ve lived and worked all over the world and I’ve lived in states in all corners of our nation. The US Navy is the least racist place I have ever been associated with. That is something we should be proud of, even talk about, but we don’t – mostly because people like Melbourne want to accuse everyone not aligned exactly with their theory as being bad actors. Perhaps it is because Melbourne is so narrowly read. I mean, we get it – you’ve read Baldwin. You don’t have to quote him four time in this year’s article alone. Embrace a little intellectual diversity and read, oh I don’t know, Thomas Sowell.