"Words are, of course, the most powerful drug used by mankind" ~ Rudyard Kipling
In the summer of 1918, the all-black 92nd Infantry Division was training at several U.S. military installations in preparation for shipping out to France to fight in World War I. Because some of these training sites were located near U.S. cities where segregation was strictly enforced, military brass was concerned about what might happen when soldiers not used to segregation visited these cities. Because, at that time the U.S. military itself subscribed to many racist attitudes, it did not take a principled stand against the segregationist policies of these southern cities. Instead, on March 28, 1918, General Charles C. Ballou issued the following shameful order:
Headquarters 92nd Division
Camp Funston, Kansas, March 28, 1918
- It should be well known to all colored officers and men that no useful purpose is served by such acts as will cause the ‘color question’ to be raised, It is not a question of policy, and any policy that tends to bring about a conflict of races, with its resulting animosities, is prejudicial to the military interest of the 92nd Division, and therefore prejudicial to an important interest of the colored race.
- To avoid such conflicts the division commander has repeatedly urged that all colored members of his command, and especially the officers and noncommissioned officers, should refrain from going where their presence will be resented. In spite of this injunction, one of the sergeants of the Medical Department has recently precipitated the precise trouble that should be avoided, and then called upon the division commander to take sides in a row that should never have occurred, and would not have occurred had that the sergeant placed the general good above his personal pleasure and convenience. The sergeant entered a theater, as he undoubtedly had a legal right to do, and precipitated trouble by making it possible to allege race discrimination in the seat he was given. He was strictly within his legal rights in this matter, and the theater manager is legally wrong. Nevertheless the sergeant is guilty of the greater wrong in doing anything, no matter how legally correct that will provoke race animosity.
- The division commander repeats that the success of the division, with all that success implies, is dependent upon the goodwill of the public. That public is nine-tenths white. White men made the division, and they can break it just as easily if it becomes a troublemaker.
- All concerned are enjoined to place the general interest of the division above personal pride and gratification. Avoid every situation that can give rise to racial ill will. Attend quietly and faithfully to your duties, and don’t go where your presence is not desired.
- This will be read to all organizations of the 92nd
By Command of Major-General Charles C. Ballou
This post was extracted from my historical novel A Place near the Front, a story based on the World War I exploits of Gordon Herbert, a bronze warrior who lived through many events such as the one described above.
Today, the burden of defending our nation is carried by an increasingly smaller segment of our population. Even though all Americans benefit from the protections provided by the military, only 1 percent of the American population currently makes the sacrifice of laying down life and limb for our country. Far too many are being forced into repeated tours of duty, sometimes as many as six deployments. This repeated combat exposure to our troops is why 25 percent of America’s active duty military personnel suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). It is why the Army’s current suicide rate is far above the civilian rate at 22-per-100,000. The rate for the Marine Corps is even higher.
When I served in the U.S. Army in the 1950s, the total number of active duty soldiers was 1.5 million. In those days, new recruits were brought into the service either by the draft, or by volunteering, as I did. The draft ended in 1973, leaving today’s army and all other branches of the military as all-volunteer. Today’s army numbers approximately 500 thousand, one third the size when I served. And even though we are currently engaged in the longest running war (now more than ten years with no end in sight) in the history of the nation, we are fighting with the smallest army in the nation’s modern history. This means that fewer and fewer troops are serving in more and more deployments. Because of these multiple deployments, these troops face greater odds of being wounded or killed in combat, or of returning with some form of disability than ever before.
In recent times, with the U.S. facing persistently high unemployment, the military has become a major source of training and employment for many Americans. And since non-white Americans experience a higher rate of unemployment than do white Americans, the composition of the army as well as the rest of the military has seen a marked change in its racial composition. As a result, Americans of color bear a disproportionate burden of the fighting and dying simply because opportunities in civilian life are not available to them.
For this reason and many others, the U.S. should institute a system of universal service where all young people must perform two years of national service, either in a branch of the military or in a civilian program such as the peace corps or AmeriCorps, a network of nonprofit community organizations and agencies that take on assignments in the fields of education, public safety, healthcare and environmental protection. Countries such as Mexico, Finland, Switzerland, Brazil and many others around the world have already implemented such programs.
As U.S House of Representatives member Charles Rangel, himself a decorated Korean war hero, points out in his Universal National Service Act, originally introduced in 2003 after his opposition to the invasion of Iraq, the legislation provides an opportunity for all of our children to be able to say with dignity that they honorably served their nation. He notes that for the civilian service, we wouldn’t be starting from scratch, but instead building on the current community service infrastructure that we have through national programs like AmeriCorps or other local initiatives. From helping to rebuild New Orleans, providing security at our nation’s ports, or working in areas of extreme poverty in this country, there are plenty of jobs that will not only help our young adults learn about their country, but also provide them with invaluable experiences and training that will enrich their lives. Just like the Peace Corps, but for our nation, the universal national service would a positive bonding experience for an entire generation to give back to their country.
Most importantly, participating in a universal service program would not only mature our children, but it would give them an enhanced sense of community or “skin in the game,” an important element missing in the empty rhetoric of so many self-proclaimed patriots and flag-wavers, many of them in positions of national leadership. If all of our elected leaders knew they and their families had to have skin in the game and couldn’t dodge heir responsibilities with endless service deferments or fake claims of injuries and disabilities, you can be sure they would not be so inclined to get us into so many unnecessary wars.
The heavyweight fights between Joe Louis and Max Schmeling in the 1930s were two of the most anxiously anticipated and highly viewed events in the sports history. In time, the Brown Bomber would become the world’s first black heavyweight boxing champion since Jack Johnson in the early 1900s. And in Nazi Germany, Max Schmelling, the former world champion, was touted as an example of the Aryan racial superiority. In the run-up to the World War Two, their matches came to be seen as representative of struggles between American democracy and Nazi fascism.
In the first fight on June 19, 1936, the German fighter defeated Louis by way of a 12th-round knockout at Yankee Stadium. The loss devastated Louis but also motivated him to further refine his skills so that he could seek vengeance at a later date. International events leading up to the rematch added an air of mystique, with tensions between the United States and Nazi Germany growing more strained each day. Further, the U.S. was still recovering from the Great Depression and the bout between the boxing giants served as a necessary distraction.
When the two met for their return match in 1938, Louis had already beaten James Braddock for the heavyweight championship, but the Schmeling defeat still rankled him and he stated to the press: “I will not consider myself champion until I defeat him.” When they stepped into the ring for a second time, Louis was not just a symbol of black pride but also America’s champion against a formidable foreign power. He was patronizingly referred to by many white Americans as: “A credit to his race.” Schmeling was also revered in Germany but struggled with the responsibility placed on him by the Nazis.
Despite the public’s perception, Schmeling never once claimed allegiance to Hitler or Nazism and even dared to have a Jewish manager in his corner. Although proud of his German nationality, he denied the Nazi claims of racial superiority: “I am a fighter, not a politician. I am no superman in any way.” In a dangerous political gamble, he refused the “Dagger of Honor” award offered by Adolf Hitler. In fact, Schmeling had been urged by his friend and legendary ex-champion Jack Dempsey to defect and declare American citizenship. To the German fighter’s dismay, the Nazi propaganda machine predicted that Schmeling would soundly defeat Louis thereby again reaffirming Aryan superiority.
But the second fight was a completely different story. The hard-punching and determined Louis attacked Schmeling from the opening bell with punishing accuracy, delivering devastating blows that caused the German to wince audibly and hang on to the ropes to keep his footing. Schmeling had been floored three times when the referee stopped the fight in two minutes and four seconds of the first round calling it a technical knockout.
Reaction in the mainstream American press, while positive toward Louis, reflected the implicit racism in the United States at the time. Lewis F. Atchison of The Washington Post began his story: “Joe Louis, the lethargic, chicken-eating young colored boy, reverted to his dreaded role of the ‘brown bomber’ tonight”; Henry McLemore of the United Press called Louis “a jungle man, completely primitive as any savage, out to destroy the thing he hates.”
Louis went on to continue a long and storied boxing career eventually becoming national hero. When questioned by prominent blacks about whether African Americans should serve against the Axis nations in the segregated U.S. Armed Forces, Louis said, “There are a lot of things wrong with America, but Hitler ain’t gonna fix them.” He would go on and serve the United States Army during World War II, mostly visiting soldiers in Europe to provide them with motivational speeches and with boxing exhibitions. He kept defending the world heavyweight title until 1949, making twenty five consecutive title defenses – still a world record among all weight divisions.
Sadly, Joe Louis fell on hard times after his boxing career and was doggedly pursued by the U.S. Internal Revenue Service for what they claimed were unpaid income taxes. The IRS never counted, against those alleged back taxes, the many charity fights he fought while in the army to entertain U.S. troops. Schmeling despite falling out of favor with the Nazis went on to have a long and successful business career.
The two boxers developed a friendship outside the ring, which endured until Louis’ death on April 12, 1981. Toward the end of his live, Louis got a job as a greeter at a Las Vegas casino, and Schmeling flew in to visit him every year. Schmeling reportedly also sent Louis money in Louis’ later years and covered a part of the costs of Louis’ funeral, at which he was a pallbearer. Schmeling died 24 years later on February 2, 2005 at the age of 99.
My previous blog post, “Denying Racism is the new Racism” (July 28, 2017) generated a lot of commentary. Most of it supported the central theme of the post, that racism, while not as prevalent in American culture as it once was, is still with us. Today racism often appears in more subtle forms, such as in the denial of its existence. I find such views almost unbelievable considering America’s painful history in matters of racial injustice, history that is readily accessible to anyone who wants to know about it. I responded individually to several of the questions posed in response to my blog, but since several of the questions followed a similar pattern, I thought it would be helpful to answer them all with a deeper dive into the topic and to share my response in an additional blog post.
I am the son of an immigrant, a black man from the Caribbean Island of Trinidad who came to this country 100 years ago to seek a better life. He found it and earned his citizenship as a soldier on the battlefields of World War One. Despite the racism and physical violence he experienced in the U.S. as both an immigrant and a person of color, my father found the opportunity he sought and was always happy he came to the U.S. I tell his amazing story in my novel, A Place near the Front. I share his views and am also happy to be an American. Although I grew up in the late 1930s and 1940s when racism and discrimination was still rampant, and there were many places where people of color could not live, work and in some cases vote, we have made much civil rights progress since those days. In my view, this is the country in which opportunities are best for me and my family to live full, free and complete lives.
In recognizing the many great attributes of American life, I don’t close my eyes to the nation’s two original sins, how it was built on land stolen from native Americans and built on the backs of slave labor. Despite the long-lasting impact of those indelible blemishes, America has come a long way toward making itself a land of opportunity for all. But as I pointed out in the previous blog, for every step forward we make in advancing the freedoms of one segment of America, there is another segment that may see such gains as their loss. When one group of citizens gains the right to vote, another may have the feeling that their vote has been diluted and now doesn’t count for as much. Or when one group gains access to improved schools, another may lament their reduced access if the overall school size does not increase.
When one segment of American society perceives it is losing ground in the public arena, it usually pushes back. This explains why advances against racism and intolerance are often followed by unexpected reversals. I discussed those kinds of reversals in my previous blog. But one of the most recent and subtle forms of pushback is the denial of racism itself. While some of this denial seems to be the self-serving rhetoric of those unwilling to acknowledge how they, as a privileged class may have, for generations, benefited from the repression of other classes, I will now respond to a few of the questions posed in rebuttal to my blog.
Reader rebuttal comment #1 – “Everybody is sick and tired of the same old crap! Get past it!”
Wouldn’t it be nice if we could get past this crap. But we can’t, because in case you hadn’t heard, hate crimes are on the increase in the U.S. and we’re not talking about ancient history. This is happening today! The FBI reported a 15% increase in hate crimes in 2015 over the previous year, and in 2016 and 2017 increases are even higher. The nooses I talk about in my post were displayed within the last few months. With the alarming recent increases in hate crimes, these shameful symbols have to be taken seriously. I’ll bet you wouldn’t get over it so quickly if your child was the college student that was being threatened with lynching.
Reader rebuttal comment #2 – “The people screaming racism are just as racist as the people they are accusing”
The late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously once said: “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.” Hard data on hate crimes presented by the FBI cannot be placed on the same level as crackpot opinions shared in internet videos. The facts about racism cannot be denied, and to ignore them would be irresponsible. Your denial of them is a great example of my post: “Denying Racism is the New Racism.”
Reader rebuttal comment #3 – “Many groups have faced discrimination. why do blacks think they are so special?”
It is true that many groups, especially immigrants, have been subjected to cruel and unlawful treatment that America should have never allowed. But it is absurd to deny the uniqueness of discrimination against African-Americans, how we were owned as property and used as beasts of burden and breeding machines. No other ethnic or racial group has been subjected to this kind of brutality other than native Americans.
Reader rebuttal comment #4 – “Black on black crime runs rampant in many U.S. cities. How can you complain about racism when you do so much violence to each other?”
Black on black violence is a shameful situation in America and cannot be excused or tolerated no matter the reason. Blacks don’t live in substandard ghettos by choice, but are there because there are no opportunities to live anywhere else. And experts in human behavior have long known that when a disadvantaged group is penned up in substandard living conditions and denied the educational and job opportunities necessary to improve their lot, they often take out their frustrations in violence against each other. This doesn’t excuse the behavior, but any group so restricted is likely to behave in the same manner. Elimination of racist barriers to education and employment will go a long way to reduce imprisonment in violent inner city situations.
Reader rebuttal comment #5 – “Nothing prevents people from changing and improving their living conditions. Why don’t black people do this and stop complaining about racism?”
Finding and accumulating the resources and assets necessary to overcome longstanding inequities created by racism, and to lift oneself into a higher standard of living is always possible, but to do so can require exceptional skills and strengths. It would be great if every person of color living in substandard conditions had the exceptional resources required to pull off such an escape. But that is not realistic, and shouldn’t have to be. One shouldn’t have to possess exceptional skills in order to live a normal life. In mainstream America, citizens are not expected to be exceptional to live a fulfilled life and be a productive member of the American society. Expectations of Americans of color should be no higher.
This past May, the talk around American University should have of graduation, internships and students’ plans for the summer. Instead, it was about nooses and bananas. As CNN and other news outlets have reported, administrators at the Washington, D.C. school have been meeting with students and addressing a litany of demands after someone earlier this month sneaked around campus in the middle of the night hanging bananas from nooses.
If the banana hanger’s intent wasn’t clear — and to most students, it was, considering later that day a black woman took the student government’s helm for the first time ever — the dangling fruits carried ominous and frightening messages.
One said, “AKA Free” a shot at Alpha Kappa Alpha, the nation’s oldest African-American sorority of which the new student government president, Taylor Dumpson, is a member; another said “Harambe Bait,” a reference to the Cincinnati Zoo gorilla killed last year after dragging a child through its enclosure.
“We … urge American University to strengthen the security measures on campus to keep its SGA President, who also is an Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority member, other Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority members and African Americans on campus safe,” the sorority said in a statement.
The United States likes to think of itself as a nation of hope and idealism, a still-young, proud republic that is ever reaching for great goals. America’s first settlers believed this and on the eve of his election to the presidency in 1980, Ronald Reagan spoke of his commitment to the vision of the nation as a “shining city on a hill.” America had survived its original sin of slavery and lived through the civil war. The eras of legal racial segregation and public lynchings described in my World War One historical novel, A Place near the Front, were over, or so we thought. We were confident we would never return to those dark days. Certainly, the election of the nation’s first black president proved that we were now in a post-racial era. When President Obama stated in his farewell to the nation that “we’re not where we need to be,” he also said, “The long sweep of America has been defined by forward motion, a constant widening of our founding creed to embrace all, and not just some.”
But within the civil rights movement, for every disadvantaged group that enjoys new rights and privileges, there is another group that perceives itself to have lost privilege and status in society. With that loss comes push-back. Just as the civil war resulted in the freeing of slaves and voting rights for black citizens, the inevitable pushback quickly reversed the trend to elect black public officials and ushered in the era of Jim Crow and lynching. Voting rights gains of the 1960s resulted in a “get-tough-on-crime” era during which blacks were disproportionately incarcerated. Most recently, the election of the country’s first black president was followed by the election of a president that has expressed anti-group feelings about multiple groups of people: Mexicans, Muslims, Disabled, Women, and who has begun to implement new policies that disadvantage these groups.
As noted in the recent New York Times opinion piece: Racial Progress Is Real. But So Is Racist Progress, The new president and his supporters, acting to reverse some of the gains of the above groups “…succeeded in putting new racial barriers in place, new discriminatory policies in our institutions. And they succeeded in developing a new round of racist ideas to justify those policies, to redirect the blame for racial disparities away from their new policies and onto supposed black pathology. They embraced the post-racial idea and stamped it onto Mr. Obama’s forehead. They persuaded the Supreme Court to overturn federal preclearance of new voting laws, since the nation was post-racial. They instituted new voter restrictions aimed at African-Americans ‘with almost surgical precision,’ to quote the appeals court that struck down North Carolina’s voter identification law last summer. Voting restrictors justified their new laws by claiming corruption in the voting process, deftly redeploying the old racist idea of the corrupt black politician. And all of this forward motion of racism yielded the presidency of Donald Trump and a Republican Congress, just as all of the forward motion of racial progress since the 1960s yielded President Obama and the diverse congress of protesters.”
In America’s increasingly diverse ethnic landscape, amid new kinds of conflicts between groups brought about by social media and the 24-hour news cycle, many Americans are nervous about their daily lives and feel increasingly insecure as other groups push for and secure new rights and privileges. An increasingly politicized public is divided not so much on political differences as on group ethnic and nationalistic differences.