Somewhere around 1990, I drove down to Columbus, Mississippi, to see one of my good friends. He was stationed at the Air Force Base there. He was in pilot training. I was driving on what I believe was a small highway, and I remember being afraid. I was an Air Force Academy graduate, 24 or 25 years old, a first lieutenant. I’d had weapons training, taken judo, unarmed combat, and wrestling, but I was tangibly afraid. Why? Simply because I was a black man driving alone late at night in Mississippi. I remember thinking, what if my car broke down and I had to walk up to one of these houses and ask for help? I remember at least one house having a prominently displayed, well-lit, Confederate flag flying outside. Certainly, I couldn’t turn in there for help. I might get shot before I made it up the driveway.
My grandfather was born in Grenada, Mississippi. What made being in Mississippi scary? Everything. Everything I had been told in my upbringing. Everything that I had seen in the black and white movies in high school history classes about racism in the South. I had come to Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi, Mississippi, a few years earlier for training. One day when I was out and about, I passed the Jefferson Davis museum. I was shocked. I couldn’t believe it. How could they have a museum for the president of the confederacy?!
The existence of the museum reaffirmed that there were still sentiments and views in the South that I needed to be wary of. As a pre-teen or early teenager, I remember thinking that all white people over a certain age must be racist. How else could the brutal racism in the 1950s and 1960s, when my parents were children, have been so pervasive, so much a part of a black person’s everyday life without all white people being complicit? All these things were part of my makeup, upbringing, acculturation, and understanding of America. That’s what was driving with me, fueling my fears that night 31 years ago in Mississippi.
My experience with white classmates in high school and with white classmates, roommates, and friends at the Air Force Academy helped me to begin to take white people more at face value and on an individual basis. My close proximity to people outside my race and my Christian faith broke down many stereotypes, dispelled many fears. However, Mississippi’s reputation and the reputation of how black men were treated in the South towered over all of that. Yes, I had proven that I could have great relationships with white people who had “gotten to know me.” But what of those who didn’t? What of those “older racist people,” those “people from the South?”
I had many racist, discriminatory and unfair experiences during my Air Force career. Those experiences, which impacted my permanent record and, to some extent, my career success, did not shake what I had learned during high school and at the Academy. Namely, at least in the military, I could have some hope, some degree of confidence that the white people I encountered had been exposed to enough black people to break down some of their stereotypes and biases.
That was the lesson my father taught me. That when the white people he knew just took the time to get to know a black person, a lot of the support for racism crumbled. Yet within my father’s lesson was support for the distrust of white people who hadn’t “gotten to know” a black person. As I spent most of my adult life, 28 years in a blue uniform or living in a house on an Air Force base, I didn’t have to worry that much about white people outside the base.
Fast forward from my experience 31 years ago to December 5th, 2020. A young black and Latin officer, an Army Lieutenant, in uniform, is driving down a dark road. A dark road in what many might consider the “South,” in Windsor, VA, 70 miles southeast of Richmond. He is signaled to pull over by the police. Perhaps he grew up like me. He was the age of one of my children. Perhaps he had a father like me and a grandfather like my dad who had warned him to be wary of police officers, especially outside the base. Army 2nd Lieutenant Caron Nazario decided not to pull over until he could get to a well-lit area.
“On Dec. 5, 2020, Windsor police officers Joe Gutierrez and Daniel Crocker pulled over U.S. Army 2nd Lt. Caron Nazario, who is Black and Latino, while he was dressed in uniform…
According to the report Officer Crocker submitted after the incident, Crocker said the driver was "eluding police" and he considered it to be a high-risk traffic stop.
Nazario wasn't eluding police, he was trying to stop in a well-lit area for his safety and for the officers' safety, according to the lawsuit.
Gutierrez acknowledged that Nazario's decision to drive to a lighted area occurs "a lot ... 80% of the time," and that the maneuver informed him that Nazario was "at least 80% probability, a minority," the lawsuit claims.”
It turns out that not only was it possible that 2nd Lt Nazario’s upbringing was similar to mine, the arresting officer said that 80% of the time, minorities take similar actions. It’s so prevalent for minorities to think and behave this way that the officer was 80% sure that the driver was “a minority.”
Even though the officer knew that minorities take these types of precautions 80% of the time, he classified it as a high-risk stop. Further, he continued to treat it as a high-risk stop even after it was clear that the temporary tags in question were in the back window and after he could see the driver was a minority. What’s most disturbing is that he continued to treat it as a high-risk stop even after he (as a veteran) could see that Lt. Nazario was in uniform and after he realized he was a commissioned officer. Further, the officers drew weapons and pepper-sprayed 2nd Lt Nazario, and after he put his hands up, this happened:
“When he finally got out of the car the video shows the officers repeatedly telling Nazario to get on the ground and then force him down, according to the lawsuit.
The officers struck Nazaro with their fists, knees and hands, forcing him onto his face and placed him in handcuffs, according to the lawsuit.”
This is the State of the Union outside the base. This is the era of Derek Chauvin and George Floyd, Philando Castile, Ahmaud Arberry, and so many others. I am 56 years old. I don’t remember hearing of high-profile cases like these when I was Lt. Nazario’s age. I tended to place these types of horrific incidents in my parents’ era. As I have begun to do more research, however, and reflect on how I lived my life, I realize that these incidents are not some new phenomenon.
In my book, “The Making of A Great America Uprooting the Spirit of Racism,” I share that the fact that I lived most of my adult life on an Air Force installation shielded me from incidents and experiences like this. Other than Rodney King, I don’t remember the types of things we are seeing. In my research for “Uprooting the Spirit of Racism,” I reviewed dozens and dozens of incidents on a scale of severity akin to Lt. Narazrio’s up through fatalities similar to George Floyd and Philando Castile.
I believe that the explosion of cable news networks and social media outlets, the advent of body cams, and the proliferation of cell phones have served to show what many in the minority community have known all along: that this type of treatment of minorities is not new. I didn’t know it because, quite frankly, I didn’t live in the minority community. I wasn’t living in the environment that my African American peers outside the base were living in. I was living in an Air Force-blue bubble, a controlled environment where the racism I experienced was at best career-threatening, never life-threatening.
But what about racism in the military? Don’t the people in the military come from outside the base? I found a quote that captures where I am going with this thought:
“The U.S. military can be thought of as a microcosm of American society, bringing in people from diverse backgrounds and history to defend one nation. Military leaders must address the same issues and concerns as those found in the civilian world, including exclusion, segregation, and discrimination. In some cases, the military has led the nation by creating policies of inclusion before civilian laws required them to do so. In other causes, the military has lagged behind the larger society.”
I believe that the Air Force is grappling with “the same issues” of racism and discrimination that have experienced a resurgence in our nation. I believe the military Services and military commissioning programs “lead the nation” by forcing disparate ethnicities together to experience each other’s cultures, thereby helping to dispel stereotypes and diminish the effects of racism. However, there are areas where the military and specifically the Air Force, “lag behind the larger society.” These issues are the focus of this book.
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