“You do not take a person who, for years, has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him up to the starting line of a race and then say, “you are free to compete with all the others,” and still justly believe that you have been completely fair. Thus it is not enough just to open the gates of opportunity. All our citizens must have the ability to walk through those gates.” - President Lyndon Johnson, Howard University Commencement Address, 1965
Americans of color are dying from COVID-19 at a disproportionate rate to white Americans due to the accumulated effects of institutional racism at the federal and state levels.
The racist outcomes of deeply entrenched policy exist in the Marine Corps, as well. My goal is to illustrate those effects and to introduce a possible solution using the Marine Corps’ method for assigning occupational specialties to officers as a vehicle. I am a Marine in my heart for life, and my criticism comes from a place of love. The Marine Corps should lead the way for our nation with its ethics and moral courage. Here is an opportunity to do so.
The occupational specialty assignment process of Marine officers results in racist outcomes, and it illustrates how racist policy operates under the surface while powerfully reinforcing inequity. My realization unfolded over 30 years through study, introspection and hindsight. I was a part of that racist system as a “non-racist” and therefore complicit. Now I want to be a part of the solution as an “anti-racist.” Merely being non-racist allows the status quo of racist policy. Borrowing from Ibram X. Kendi: you are either racist or anti-racist. Being anti-racist goes beyond confronting overtly racist acts by racist individuals; it requires recognizing and acting against the subtle, quiet racism of deeply ingrained policy.
As a captain, I served as a platoon commander at The Basic School (TBS) where all Marine officers receive their occupational specialties after learning how to be provisional infantry platoon commanders. I directly participated in the occupational specialty assignment process four times between 1995 and 1998. The process remains the same today. Each class is divided into thirds by academic lineal standing from top to bottom. Available military occupational specialty (MOS) slots, such as logistics, infantry, artillery or communications, are allocated across the thirds so each occupational community gets its share of top, middle, and bottom third lieutenants. During this process, my fellow captains and I would gather in a room as lieutenants entered one by one to pick their desired specialty from what was available. The choices became more limited as lieutenants neared the bottom of their respective third until only one option remained. Naturally, the top lieutenants in each third usually got what they wanted. By this system, being the top of the bottom third was better than being the bottom of the top third.
I noticed black officers had higher representation in the bottom third as a percentage of their overall population when compared with white officers. I also noticed that most of the black officers did not select combat arms specialties (e.g. infantry, artillery, and tanks) and preferred specialties that produced a marketable skill for their post-military career, such as logistics or communications. Once all lieutenants made their selections, the data was sent to headquarters for approval. In my experience, the list was always sent back to move more minority officers into combat arms. This was the first time I became aware of minority quotas, even though I was likely a quota myself as a lieutenant. Although most of these black officers did not select combat arms, the institution forced them into the infantry, for example, to meet racial quotas. Putting officers into jobs they do not want purely because of their race is at odds with the noble intentions of that policy.
The struggle of minority officers I witnessed at TBS has never left my mind. Over time, I have come to understand the cause. TBS is a high-pressure environment where lieutenants are in direct competition with one another. The first three significant tests are swim qualification, rifle/pistol qualification, and land navigation. Many of the minority officers I led grew up in low socio-economic areas, typically poor urban neighborhoods. They did not have access to scouting, neighborhood pools or hunting. Many of my minority officers struggled with swim qualification. Ultimately, every one of those officers passed, but at a cost to their prestige, confidence, and lineal standing. The pattern remained the same for rifle/pistol qualification and land navigation. Furthermore, remediation and re-qualification attempts were time intensive, fostering a vicious cycle as the lieutenants fell behind in other topics. These three major evaluations occurred during the first third of TBS, and by the time those events concluded, reputations were set for the remainder of school and, one can argue, the remainder of their Marine Corps careers.
Another aspect of TBS that favors lieutenants from white middle- and upper-class families is the language we use in the Marine Corps, particularly among officers. We speak “proper” English, that is English deemed proper by those who have power and determine the standards. Even if no one ever said it out loud, those who struggled to write and speak “correctly” were not respected by the officer culture, a culture determined by white men over the past 244 years. If in doubt, visit the headquarters of any Marine organization and look at the photos of past and current commanders; almost all are white men. At Marine Corps Combat Development Command, a three-star level command aboard Quantico Marine Base, every past and current commanding general is a white male with one exception from the 1980s (Lt. Gen. Frank Emmanuel Petersen Jr., who was also the Marine Corps’ first African American aviator and general officer). Even at TBS, this pattern has only just been broken. White male culture is THE culture of the Marine Corps. Of all the books on the commandant’s reading list, only one specifically addresses race, that is “The Marines of Montford Point: America’s First Black Marines.” I can find no titles specifically addressing the perspective of women or their struggle for equality.
My white lieutenants who excelled at TBS did so because they worked hard. This fact is not in dispute. What is in dispute is whether the institution creates a level playing field for all officers. I believe the institution has not and does not. The institution is biased towards middle- and upper-class white culture. The institution perpetuates the unspoken narrative of white superiority by setting up minority officers for failure. It puts minority officers in occupational specialties they did not want or have not been thoroughly prepared for by the system. When officers pass through any headquarters across the Marine Corps, the silent message of racial and gender hierarchy is reinforced by the command photographs everyone sees on the walls. Meanwhile, our exclusive institution lauds its own inclusive meritocracy as it points to the handful of minorities and women who have made it to the top as shining examples. That minorities should be grateful for the opportunity, as some of my friends have actually said out loud, cannot be the end of progress.
TBS disavows racism, as it is non-racist. Yet, it falls short of being anti-racist because its policies continue to lead to biased outcomes. At TBS, the standards favor those from white middle- and upper-class culture; that is the way it is. I am not proposing the Marine Corps change existing norms of speech or lower existing standards. I propose that any officers needing a boost enabling them to compete on equal footing should be deliberately prepared by the institution before commencing TBS. Officers of any color and gender identified through pre-tests or surveys should attend a TBS preparatory course to become familiar with swimming, navigating and shooting, and to practice communicating according to desired norms before they are dropped into the mix. Such a program will better ensure minority officers are adequately represented across all MOSs and the use of mandated quotas can end. Such a program will result in genuine meritocracy. This is meaningful affirmative action.
In writing this proposal, I considered the Naval Academy Preparatory School (NAPS) model. The NAPS mission is “to enhance Midshipman Candidates moral, mental, and physical foundations to prepare them for success at the United States Naval Academy.” A 20 year-old study by Brian S. Fitzpatrick called “The Performance of Preparatory School Candidates at the United States Naval Academy” leads me to believe a TBS preparatory course is worth pursuing. The author concluded that NAPS was “successful in facilitating the graduation of these traditionally disadvantaged groups from a top-notch college.”
I am not the first one to recognize and identify the causes of minority officer performance at TBS. In an early 1990s “60 Minutes” interview of then Commandant Carl E. Mundy Jr., he raised the same observations about African American lieutenants faring worse at TBS than white lieutenants using the exact same categories I discussed here. Furthermore, the assistant commandant at the time, Gen. Walter E. Boomer, even pointed out the same causes for performance disparities that I do now: socio-economic background and lack of access.
Why, then, has the Marine Corps not adequately tackled this problem and only marginally improved the racial distribution among officers, particularly senior officers? The percentage of black officers within the officer population still lags far behind that of black Marines within the enlisted population (see “Marine Corps by Gender, Race and Ethnicity” published by the DoD’s Office of Diversity Management and Equal Opportunity, released in 2016). During my final active-duty assignment, I observed the mandated joint leadership education for new brigadier generals and rear admirals known as Capstone. In each of the three classes I witnessed, out of a group of 50 or so flag officers from all services, only one or two were of color and only one or two were women. The Marine Corps welcomed its first African American woman to the general officer ranks in 2018, 54 years after the Civil Rights Act. Among the active-duty ranks, there is currently only one black Marine general officer from the infantry community. General Mundy and General Boomer recognized the problem and its causes over a quarter century ago. Not much has changed.
Martin Luther King Jr., in paraphrasing the abolitionist Theodore Parker, said “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Maybe so, but not without deliberate force. Newton’s first law of motion, the law of inertia, states things in motion stay in motion unless acted on by a greater force. King himself was that force in bending our nation away from Jim Crow and toward civil rights. Perhaps this essay can be the start of introspection and real discussion on systemic bias within the Marine Corps. I know that the Corps, with its legacy of courage, is capable of changing the course of TBS toward a new, fair, and anti-racist system. With that accomplishment, the Marine Corps can be an example for all of America.
Thomas K. Hobbs is a retired U.S. Marine Corps colonel with over 27-years in uniform. A veteran of combat in Iraq, he now serves as a military contractor focused on training and education modernization.
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