Dealing with racism in the military

Retired Lt. Gen. Vincent Stewart says his military career was dogged by subtle and overt acts of racism -- the George Floyd killing spurred him to speak out.

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Our next guest rose to the rank of lieutenant general in the Marine Corps, and retired having directed the Defense Intelligence Agency. He says his entire military career was dogged by both subtle and overt acts of racism. He says the George Floyd killing spurred him to speak about it publicly. Retired Lt. Gen. Vincent Stewart talked about the important moment happening now and more with Federal Drive with Tom Temin.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: You wrote in Task and Purpose that the George Floyd episode, the killing of George Floyd by the police officer in Minneapolis, kind of galvanize something inside you — tell us what happened.

Lt. Gen. Vincent Stewart: There are two images that I look at. First image early in the confrontation with officer Chauvin’s knee on the neck of George Floyd, really kind of burned into my brain, the first image of you look at the faces of the two individuals involved, and in the case of the officer, there is anger and rage and domination of this subject. At the bottom of the picture is George Floyd, the fear and dread and panic, and it’s palpable as you see the two faces in this confrontation. And then the second image is further on into the encounter where George Floyd’s lifeless body, eyes closed, don’t know if at that point he’s dead, but he’s lifeless and there’s no energy in his eyes anymore, his eyes are closed, and officer Chauvin on top, casually, cavalierly kneeling, continuing to kneel on his neck, waiting for something. And when you look at those two images, you can’t help but go, what in the world is going on in our country where you can see this played out and if it didn’t touch you then I question your humanity, because it showed the murder over an eight minute period, the murder of an African American male who was handcuffed, who was on the ground with several officers around him being systematically murdered. And that moved me more than anything that I’ve seen in the last several years. And at that moment, I knew I could not be silent. I had to speak out. I had enough positional authority and enough reputational value that the words that I spoke next would or could have an impact. But those two images are just burned into my head, I see them almost every day because I talk about this almost every day now and that caused me to move.

Tom Temin: And your article in Task and Purpose which went deep into your own childhood and your experiences as an immigrant from Jamaica, as a child coming to the United States. Has that publication had an impact at this point? Have you had any feedback from it?

Lt. Gen. Vincent Stewart: The feedback has been overwhelmingly positive to be truthful, because I think it opened up my wounds and allowed me to share my wounds with the broader American public. And that’s the reason why I really did that becauseas I as I kind of walk through my life, I don’t think many Americans have the appreciation for when a person of color walks out of his home or her home. We can we can pretend that we’re all colorblind, but it is impossible to not see that it’s not just a tan that that is a darker person, and the implications of the impact of that is you’re automatically I think, treated a little bit differently. This doesn’t imply that all white people are racist or their bigoted — but you can’t hide the color of your skin. A Polish American and Irish American a German American can blend in, I can’t blend in. And so being able to walk through the history of encounters, overt, covert, blatant bigotry and hatred and racism was important to just have the average American walk just for a moment in my shoes or in the shoes of any other African American. I couldn’t just go it’s horrible for us and we feel bad about it and life’s tough for us. I had to show the pain that went through each of these encounters, and I could give you 100 more of those encounters. And I just wanted to open that up to the the the average American, another demographic that says this is painful. This is what every African American goes through every day, hour after hour, day after day, week after week, it’s got to have a psychological impact on you if you endure that throughout your lifetime.

Tom Temin: In your article, you mentioned a lot of incidents that happened after you join the military, and even after you started rising through the ranks. I guess that’s surprising, given, well we know more now in the last couple of months, and perhaps generally was known before that, but here it is, in the second decade of the 21st century.

Lt. Gen. Vincent Stewart: It shouldn’t be surprising because our military is drawn from the American people. So you have folks who come from all sections of society, all who may have learned about racism in a positive way, don’t be racist, or those who have learned about racism that says some other group ethnic group is inferior. So it shouldn’t surprise anyone. If we draw from the fabric of our society, we’re going to draw x percentage of people who will not like people of color and x percentage of people will go they’re okay and I just need them to perform. In my service, we’ve always said, it doesn’t matter whether you’re black and white, we’re all green and different shades of green. But even the fact that we say different shades of green implies something, and maybe the darker shade of green, the lesser person you are, I don’t know. And I know we always have encouraged folks to be performance based and we say if you can execute your job, then we’re okay with that. But the reality is that sometimes there are people who, they won’t wear a white robe and a hood, but they have certain beliefs. And it is almost impossible to measure that — and here’s how I’m thinking about this now — if you’re running a course and you have a 5 to 10 mile per hour tailwind, you can probably navigate that course a little bit faster than you would if you had a 5 or 10 mile per hour headwind, and that 5 or 10 mile per hour headwind might be imperceptible, but it still slows you down. And so if we’re drawing from our society, we should not be surprised at a percentage of those that we draw from society will have bias towards people of color, will have some racist tendencies, and it will manifest itself in slowing down others with just a very subtle headwind.

Tom Temin: And I guess maybe the hopeful note in what you have written was that too you named three white men of privilege, in your words, generals that actually helped your career in an active, ongoing way. Tell us about them.

Lt. Gen. Vincent Stewart: And those are the three that I call out, but there may have been others. There may have been some that I didn’t see giving me a 5 mile per hour tailwind also. But what these three gentlemen in particular did was spend quality time with me. Spending time understanding who I am, building a relationship with me, and helping me to think through the next best thing and the next best approach to being successful. They didn’t have to do that. I don’t know what they saw in me. General Rusty Blackmon was the first one who ever indicated, and I was a colonel at the time, who ever even suggested that I could be a general officer. It wasn’t something I thought about, I guess maybe I thought about it, but I didn’t dwell on it. But to hear someone who at the time was a three star, who at the time would have been very competitive to be the next Commandant of the Marine Corps, suggesting that you could be a general officer and here’s what you have to do. Joe Dunford writing on my evaluation, a future director, Defense Intelligence Agency. Those are powerful language when you put that in front of a board that says a guy like Joe Dunford thinks you have the potential to be a three star and be a director of the agency. General Amos was spending time talking about my potential and sponsoring me for nominating me, in fact to be the director of DIA. So those at the top of the pyramid were very, very influential people in my life., but there probably are others that I could call out that earlier in my career, if I look back, probably was very helpful

Tom Temin: For those young black people, or people of any color that’s other than white that is joining the military now, what would you tell them from your experience?

Lt. Gen. Vincent Stewart: I would tell them that it’s it’s more than just hard work. You have to put in the work, you have to be credible, you have to comply by, follow the rules and guidance that comes from your seniors — you got to be prepared. One of the things I’ve always told folks that I don’t know that I was ever the first choice, but I always wanted to make sure at the end of the my assignment, folks would look back and go, yeah he wasn’t the first choice, but he was the best choice. So you’ve got to perform. Nothing’s going to be given to you because jeez we feel guilty that you had you’re a person of color. You’ve got to perform. You’ve got to find people who are good examples, and one of the things I stress now is the difference between seeing an example of someone, you can see a picture of someone or you can read about somebody and say, okay I’d like to be like that person. And the difference between the example and the mentors, just because you like the way I look, doesn’t make me your mentor. The mentorship relationship is a personal interactive relationship. And so how do you find good examples that you can follow and try to emulate? And how do you find the individuals that believe enough in you, in your potential, to truly be a mentor, to build a relationship, to know what your strengths and weaknesses are, to help guide you — and oh by the way be a good example. So you’ve got to put in the work. Nothing’s going to be given to you. Don’t take on the victim status, and I think sometimes we have to be very careful that we don’t make ourselves victims. The man isn’t always out to get us. And if you can have a positive approach to life you’re going to do just fine.

Read Lt. Gen. Vincent Stewart’s article here.

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