Racism in the military

Such injustices must come to an end

March 1, 2009

Throughout the history of the U.S. military, one contradiction remains constant: In every single conflict in which the U.S. military has engaged, from the Revolutionary War to today’s “War on Terror,” many of the soldiers who have fought and died for the United States in the name of freedom are themselves denied basic rights and freedoms by the very country they are “defending.”

African Americans, who have fought in every conflict in U.S. history, have constantly been sent to fight by a system that is directly responsible for their oppression. African Americans fought for the independence of the United States from the British Empire only to remain bound in slavery in the “free world.”

African American soldiers played a critical part in defeating the Confederacy during the Civil War, only to again be disenfranchised and reduced to virtual slaves by the late 1870s. Black soldiers risked their lives wearing the uniform of the U.S. military in World War I and World War II, only to return to lynchings and discrimination. They were forced to fight in Vietnam, while in the United States they were being attacked with dogs and fire hoses for demanding equality.

More recently, African American soldiers have died in the deserts of Iraq and mountains of Afghanistan. At the same time, the government that sent them halfway around the world left survivors of Hurricane Katrina to drown in New Orleans, and the NYPD murdered Sean Bell the night before he was to be married.

Legacy of racism persists

Racism within the military has also been a constant reality. The military was officially segregated until 1948, but the legacy of racism continues to hold strong. In the largest survey of racial attitudes ever conducted within the armed forces, the Washington Post reported that 75 percent of all people of color in the military “complain that they have experienced racially offensive behavior, and less than half expressed confidence that complaints of discrimination are thoroughly investigated.” Almost 20 percent of African Americans and 13 percent of Latinos report being given “inferior assignments or evaluations because of racial bias.”

Black and Latino youth are specifically targeted by military recruiters because they know they can take advantage of the fact that they have few opportunities after high school. The great hypocrisy is that the conditions that generally drive people of color to join the military—lack of access to a quality education, jobs and job training, health care, and housing—exist because of the racist and capitalist nature of this government and the system it defends. The U.S. government then, in turn, exploits those conditions to lure young people into the military. While a formal draft no longer exists, there is a type of economic draft in operation: If you are not from a privileged background, there are few opportunities besides the military. Privileged youth go to elite colleges, while the working class goes to war.

No economic justice, but money for war

This government will shoot down any social program that benefits oppressed communities, but will spend billions of dollars to recruit from those very communities. African American soldiers are fighting for a country that offers them nothing but dilapidated schools and a discriminatory job market. Latino soldiers are fighting for a country that is viciously racist towards immigrants from Mexico, Central America and South America, and which sends ICE agents into their homes in the middle of the night to terrorize, deport and split apart immigrant families.

Not only are people from these oppressed communities fighting on behalf of a racist system, but wars in which they are fighting further racist ideology. From the birth of this country, racism has long been a tool of the U.S. government to justify the killing of innocent people. The U.S. military called Native Americans “savages” to justify their extermination (the same word used to justify the mass enslavement of Africans). The Vietnamese were labeled with all kinds of racist names to justify the massive indiscriminate killing of countless peasants. Today, “Haji” is used to belittle and dehumanize the people of Iraq and Afghanistan. The intense racism used today to vilify Arab and Muslim people is the same racist strategy used to justify the oppression of people of color in the United States. In reality, the people of Iraq and Afghanistan are our sisters and brothers, with whom we have much more in common than the billionaires who send us to war.

The institutional and systemic racism in the United States, the racism within the military, and the racist nature of the “War on Terror” all leads us to one conclusion: We should take no part in this government’s agenda. We should refuse to kill other people of color also oppressed by the U.S. government. When Muhammad Ali was drafted during the Vietnam War, he refused to go. The response he gave should be on the lips of every soldier in the U.S. military: “No, I am not going 10,000 miles to help murder, kill and burn other people to simply perpetuate the domination of white slave-masters over dark people the world over. This is the day and age when such evil injustice must come to an end.”


Related stories