My maternal grandfather, James A. Mitchell, served in World War II on the USS PC-1264, one of two submarine chasers run by a predominantly African-American crew. I have always had mixed feelings about this familial history. It is riveting to have history rushing through my veins. But I also struggle with the thought that his service is historic for the worst of reasons. Segregation was standard in the U.S. military during World War II, and the PC-1264 was no exception.
African-American soldiers were asked to fight and serve their country to defeat a foreign enemy, while they and other African-Americans were continually exposed to domestic enemies at home, in the forms of institutionalized racism and hate groups such as the Ku Klux Klan (which is still not labeled as a terrorist organization to this day). These soldiers were asked to put their lives on the line to defeat a foreign enemy whose Nuremberg Laws, used heinously to persecute Jews, were inspired by and fashioned directly from the Jim Crow laws that enforced racial discrimination in the U.S. beginning shortly after the 13th Amendment was ratified in 1865.
James Q. Whitman outlines this connection in his book “Hitler’s American Model,” one of Foreign Affairs’ Best Books of 2017. Whitman scours historical archives to demonstrate that the Nazis regarded the United States as “the leader in developing explicit racist policies of nationality and immigration,” and that they even viewed “American race laws as too harsh to be borrowed wholesale by Nazi Germany.”
So effectively, my grandfather was deployed to ensure that swastikas would come down even while traveling to and from a home country where Confederate monuments loomed large, as they do to this day.
My grandfather came home from World War II and could not enjoy the very freedoms that he put his life on the line to defend. He did not have voting protections (which should have been enshrined by the 14th Amendment). He had issues buying property. He was directed to restrooms and water fountains labeled “FOR COLOREDS ONLY.” His existence made him a target from more malicious forces within the U.S. than beyond its borders. Because he could take his military uniform off upon returning home but could never remove his skin color, Jim Crow remained a bigger threat to him for a much longer time than Nazi Germany.
National security is only as strong as the institutions, policies, and practices that protect all of its citizens. While the concept of national security is often considered to focus exclusively on external threats, protection from internal dangers is just as crucial. This duality should be present whenever national security is discussed. A reader cannot progress three sections into the U.S. Constitution without seeing the phrase “three-fifths of all other Persons.” This clause was used to ensure that enslaved persons were counted in population numbers for congressional districts. But the enslaved persons could not vote for their representatives and their representatives advocated directly against their interests, creating the illusion of representative government.
The legacy of discrimination and racism, and its willful blindness, has handicapped our nation to the point that many cannot bear to acknowledge it. Public debate and discussion about removing Confederate monuments and excising the names of Confederate generals from our military bases is contentious, even though every such monument and name is a tribute to treason, according to Article 3 Section 3 of the Constitution, which defines treason as “levying war against” the United States or “adhering” to or “giving “aid and comfort” to its enemies. And every member of the Confederacy levied war against the Union.
Without universal consensus on this history, including among those who have long dominated the corridors of power, it is no wonder that our institutions are largely homogeneous and misrepresent our society. Yes, we can tear down monuments and memorials to hypocrisy and treason. But until we genuinely, and personally dismantle the legacies, systems, and practices that those monuments and memorials represent, our national security will never be holistic.
As I look across the U.S. foreign policy and national security apparatus today, the same segregation that my grandfather endured is ever-present. Albeit, it is represented in a different and evolved manner. We have had African-American national security advisors and secretaries of state; an African-American secretary of homeland security, and even a POTUS. Some folks prefer the phrase “black faces in high places.” But the numbers still represent a few of us here and there, not enough of a bloc to have policies reflect our insights, expertise, and experiences across our history in the United States.
Nor is it enough to ensure that African-American citizens enjoy national security at home. Without a diversity of backgrounds and experiences at decision-making tables, the United States will have decisions that represent a monolithic ethos and not a representative sample of American experiences. If national security professionals do not take time to understand their friends, peers, and co-workers, they are unlikely to take time to fully understand their enemies.
The HBO series “Watchmen” intimately and masterfully examined intergenerational black trauma in a fictional universe related to a single event: the destruction of Black Wall Street in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in 1921. There was tremendous backlash from viewers about choosing the heinous actions of white supremacists to explain black trauma in their beloved comic book series. If fictional black trauma is cast aside like that, what can be said of the real trauma that lives in my heart and mind?
What do you think African-American service members are feeling and thinking right now as #BlackLivesMatter protests sweep the nation? Would the crew of PC-1264 feel the same? Does anyone even care how this affects morale among members of the military, particularly as the National Guard and military police were deployed alongside a smorgasbord of law enforcement agencies against peaceful protesters in Lafayette Square outside the White House on June 1, and as the president threatened to bring in active-duty forces who’d already been mobilized to within range of the U.S. capital? And as the forces in the square cleared protesters to make room for Trump’s photo op with the Bible in front of a church, they apparently fired tear gas (illegal in war) upon them?
If a nation truly has security, all of its citizens are at least equally protected from internal threats as from external ones. A large number of non-Black/Brown folks in this country generally enjoy security within the United States, and so they have the luxury of focusing largely on external threats. As a result, the internal threats to Black and Brown individuals continue to be neglected, as illustrated not only by the array of Confederate or other racist memorials and symbols still found across the United States, but also in the continuing and widespread egregious abuses and rights violations against people of color.
As an African-American, I am more likely to be killed by a police officer, the KKK, or the American healthcare system than al-Qaeda, ISIS, or al-Shabaab. It does not matter how strong the walls of a fort are if a plague is running rampant inside. Even if it is invisible, it will affect everyone eventually, directly or indirectly. This is a real detriment to our nation’s security, and the COVID-19 pandemic (yes, it is still here and did NOT just fade away) greatly exposed just how vast the issues are.
As a current member of the State Department, I often find myself in discussions and meetings with colleagues where I am the only African-American. None of these folks had a grandfather on a segregated submarine chaser in World War II. Most of them probably do not know that the PC-1264 existed. They will not understand the fear I feel when considering a seemingly simple activity such as sleeping in my own bed or going for a jog. Or the fact that my grandfather experienced these same fears more than 70 years ago. Yet, my African-American colleagues and I are asked to attack foreign policy and national security challenges and issues from a united front. How can we do that effectively when the vastly hypocritical, unaddressed history of the United States looms over every move we make?
The United States is a deeply divided nation. It is a tremendous shame that #BlackLivesMatter is anywhere near a controversial statement. If you cannot agree, defend, and say that my heartbeat matters as much as yours, there is not much common or middle ground for us to discover. Empathy is what makes us human; in fact, it is the most important attribute. But it is especially important in foreign policy and national security, because decisions are only as good as the ability to understand what is happening in both familiar and unfamiliar territory.
If the United States is serious about effectively addressing foreign policy and national security challenges and issues, it must do more to acknowledge, accept, and confront its flawed history. We Americans can only get there through perpetual, uncomfortable discussions to understand our differences, policy changes to ensure a holistic diversity of experiences are reflected in decision-making, and a keen awareness that our national priorities have left too many behind in the past.
(The views expressed by the author are exclusively his own and do not reflect those of any employer.)