What's the Point of Military Racial Sensitivity Training?

Not everyone who joins is ready for the neo-diversity of the military.

Posted Oct 04, 2020

During my time in the U.S. Navy (1972-1976), there were racial tensions swirling throughout the fleet. On U.S. Navy shore stations and onboard warships, racial unrest rose to the level of riot. In fact, as an enlisted man with Air Anti-Submarine Squadron 27 (VS-27), I was on board the USS Intrepid (CVS 11) during the race riot of January 1973 (1): 5,000 men on a ship carrying warplanes and tons of munitions, where suddenly seemingly out of nowhere, while at sea, there were some Black sailors and some white sailors randomly attacking each other. If you find that hard to believe, read Naval historian John Darrell Sherwood’s Black Sailor, White Navy, in which he reviews the Navy records documenting 350 major racial incidents between 1970 and 1975. (2)

Most of that racial unrest occurred because of racial prejudice (anti-group feelings) and bigotry leftover from the time when Black sailors were only allowed to be cooks. As the Navy moved to a true equal opportunity system, too many white sailors were resisting social change; letting their interaction behavior be guided by those old racial ideas. It became clear that the Navy had to rid itself of that active racial bigotry among its sailors.

Bigotry is anti-group behavior (3 & 4). Such behavior ashore and onboard ships was detrimental to the Navy meeting its mission obligations. To bring itself into the new reality of racial equal opportunity, under the leadership of Admiral Elmo Zumwalt, a program of racial sensitivity dialogues was implemented. All sailors, officers and enlisted, were required to participate in a racially mixed group sensitivity conversation that lasted two and one-half days. The point was not to change hearts and minds. The point was to help members of the Navy learn how to manage their intergroup attitudes and behaviors so that we would carry out our intense duties, working together in confined shipboard spaces, respecting each other.  

This was not propaganda. This was not anti-American. In fact, it was one of the most American things the Navy did. As Admiral Zumwalt famously put it, “… Ours must be a navy family that recognizes no artificial barriers of race, color, or religion. There is no Black navy, no white navy—just one navy—the United States Navy.” (2)

Not everyone who joins the military brings with them the social skills necessary to work respectfully and productively with the neo-diverse mix of people in our armed forces. “Back in my day…” it was race, but today’s 21st-century military personnel must adjust to neo-diversity; an intense, dangerous, interpersonal work situation where you must interact with (and sometimes take orders from) persons ‘not like you’ on some dimension; race yes, but also ethnicity, sex-of-person and sexual orientation (3 & 4). Racial sensitivity training in my day was done to ensure that Navy personnel could and would effectively carry out the mission to defend and protect our nation’s interest at home and abroad. With that same goal, with a neo-diverse armed force, sensitivity training today is done to ensure mission readiness.

In 1974, by order of Naval command, I was trained by the Department of Defense Race Relations Institute (5) as a facilitator of those racial sensitivity dialogues. Doing that work hit me like a calling. Taking on collateral (extra) duties to work with a number of the Navy’s racial awareness teams, becoming a volunteer member of the aircraft carrier USS Independence’s Human Relations (Shore Patrol) Advisor Watch to keep sailors on liberty out of all kinds of intergroup troubles, I had found my purpose in life. I found social psychology in the U.S. Navy.

Although that work was challenging and shaking the old racial ways of the Navy, the Navy hierarchy showed appreciation for me doing my part to push the Navy toward a new, more inclusive, fair and just work environment. Over two years (1974; 1975) from two different Commanders of Air-Antisubmarine Squadron VS-31, and also in 1975 from the Captain of the aircraft carrier USS Independence (CV 62), I received “Bravo Zulu” (Well Done!) letters of commendation for carrying out what the command leadership of the Navy considered a duty critical to mission readiness. I still have those letters of commendation (4):

W. S. Hodgins, Commander, VS-31, wrote: “I would like to express my sincerest appreciation to you, Petty Officer Nacoste, for your outstanding performance as a Squadron Racial Awareness Facilitator from April 1974 to the present (September 1974). By voluntarily donating your time and energy to the UPWARD [Understanding Personal Worth and Development] Program you have made a significant contribution to the Squadron’s Human Relations efforts.”

W. B. Warwick, Captain, USS Independence, wrote: “While attached to the USS Independence Human Relations Advisory Team and assigned as to Human Relations Advisor (HRA) Watches ashore, Petty Officer Nacoste your performance was outstanding. Your devotion to duty and outstanding efforts and expertise, along with your support of the Human Goals Program, were an important contribution to the morale and safety of the crew ashore, as well as being an important contribution to the United States Foreign Relations Effort, and were in keeping with the highest traditions of the United States Navy. WELL DONE! (Bravo Zulu!).”

I was and am proud to have served my country and Navy as a Racial Awareness Facilitator. I did that work to help ensure our Navy’s (social psychological) mission readiness to protect the interest of this nation as we Americans do our work to build a more perfect union.

References

1. Nacoste, R. W. (2010). Making gumbo in the university. (Austin, TX: Plain View Press) 

2. Sherwood, John Darrell (2006). Black Sailor, White Navy: Racial Unrest in the Fleet during the Vietnam War Era. (New York: New York University Press).

3. Nacoste, R. W. (2015). Taking on diversity: How we can move from anxiety to respect. (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books).

4. Nacoste, R. W. (2020). To Live Woke: Thoughts to carry in our struggle to save the soul of America. (Loyola University Baltimore: Apprentice House Books).

5. That Institute is still in operation at Patrick Air Force Base with the title Defense Equal Opportunity Management Institute (https://www.defenseculture.mil/). For a report of the research work done by the Institute, see Dansby, M. R., Stewart, J. B, & Webb, S. C. (Eds.) (2012). Managing diversity in the military: Research perspectives from the Defense Equal Opportunity Management Institute. (New York: Routledge).