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The Military’s Myth of Black Freedom

Black people’s conscription into America’s endless war-making machine only ensures they will never be safe.

Illustration by Adobe Stock

Black people, we were never patriots; we were pragmatists,” a friend said to me recently when we talked about both of our grandfathers’ years of military service and their reverberating effects in our lives. In a lot of ways I agree with her. While class mobility certainly drives many Black people into the military, it would be disingenuous to claim our participation is purely mercenary. The United States military promises Black people stability via economic security. However, there is an implied second promise: that through military service, Black people can access honor in our daily lives, in a country that does not treat us honorably as the default. But decades of Black participation in the U.S. military have highlighted the ways that this country has never intended to make good on either of these promises. 

My grandfather chose the military to continue a family legacy started by his father and other family members, and presumably to ensure that his future children and grandchildren would have access to the middle class. For most of my life—as a Black woman from the South, raised in a military town—I also believed in the guarantees made to Black military families. It took me far too long to understand that the drumbeat of war could not be relied upon. In fact, for Black people, the only thing that our conscription into America’s perpetual war-making machine actually ensures is that we will never be safe. 

In reflecting on the storytelling that existed in his own family about the military, Dr. Daris McInnis, a Black U.S. Army veteran and professor of education at West Chester University, says “I don’t come from a family of doctors. I don’t come from a family of college graduates. … So for my family, it seemed like people who joined the military really created a new life for themselves.” His father joined the military when McInnis was 5 or 6, sending the family to live on military bases around the world. His uncle didn’t graduate from college but made six figures as a military contractor after 20 years in the military. As a child, this kind of luxury was amazing to McInnis. 

McInnis graduated from college in 2008, matriculating directly into a recession. He had no job prospects where he lived in West Texas, even with a newly minted B.A. in business. But the one industry that was always hiring was the U.S. military. McInnis recalls his Army recruiter, a Black woman, saying, “Sure, you can come be an officer, you can … command troops when you’re 22 years old.” To a young person, such promises were seductive; he “could go straight in as an officer … I would essentially outrank my dad. Which is really cool.”

McInnis was also swayed by the fact that his student loans would be forgiven by joining the Army. In one fell swoop, the U.S. Army offered him and thousands of other military recruits like him stability at a time of deep global uncertainty and a status that his own parents had not achieved after decades of work. 

The military also assured recruits that they would be making their country and the world safer by signing up. This is precisely what motivated Kyle Bibby, interim chief of campaigns and programs at Color of Change and a former Marine Corps infantry captain, to enlist. For Bibby, who grew up in New Jersey, the events of Sept. 11, 2001, felt way too close to home. “We lived right next to a train station where people every day commuted in and out of the city into lower Manhattan and Midtown. There are people I knew who, for that day, had no idea where their parents were. And my way of coping with the fear was really trying to find some level of control.”

Bibby thought he “found control through joining the military.” But, “You learn very quickly, you are not in control in the military.” Bibby learned firsthand upon enrolling at the Naval Academy that talk of meritocracy and rhetoric about earning your place through honorable service had its limits—especially for Black people.

It’s a sentiment that is echoed over and over again in Black veterans’ accounts of their experiences in the military. Despite the military becoming the first major U.S. institution to desegregate in 1948, the racism Black soldiers face and their inability to achieve the rank of their white peers is well documented. So too is the mistreatment of Black veterans when they return to the U.S. from military tours.

This is in part why Bibby cofounded the Black Veterans Project, alongside fellow veterans Daniele Anderson and Richard Brookshire. Brookshire, the organization’s CEO, views his advocacy on behalf of other Black veterans, at its core, as reparations work. “It is essentially trying to build out a framework for reparative justice looking at the history of benefits obstruction that Black vets have faced historically.” To Brookshire and the Veterans Legal Services Clinic at Yale Law School’s calculations, Black veterans are owed big—to the tune of billions of dollars—for decades of disability-benefits denials based on race. 

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Despite racial discrimination during and after their service, Black people are overrepresented in the military—a fact that pushed Dr. Nikhil Pal Singh, professor of social and cultural analysis and history at New York University, to pursue his current study of race, militarization, and policing. He wants to understand Black people’s overwhelming presence in prisons and the military, which he calls “two of the most violent institutions in American life.”

Singh’s work highlights the inextricable links between U.S. militarism abroad and the overpolicing and incarceration of Black Americans at home. According to Singh, “Throughout U.S. history, militarism and racism have augmented one another in a tightly bound reciprocity.” And even if the U.S. military and local police forces are racially diverse, Singh contends that they “function in certain ways [in which] it doesn’t really matter who the personnel are.” He sees them as operating with a “kind of supremacism, a kind of impunity, a kind of ability to enforce racial order that now enlists significant numbers of people of color to do it.”

In the years since the police killing of Mike Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, which spurred the Movement for Black Lives, much has been written about the militarization of police forces in cities big and small across the country. Singh says this can be traced back to anti-war protests of the 1960s, which “is really the first time you begin to see the National Guard called in to basically quell uprisings in U.S. cities, but you also see the beginning of a kind of approach to the police in the United States that begins to draw from military doctrines.” In other words, the U.S. began to engage its own citizenry, particularly anti-war protesters and people of color, as enemy combatants. 

That orientation was later extended to “the war on drugs,” which framed U.S. citizens in the 1970s—often poor and Black—as a threat to order. At the same time, the tenor of military operations abroad, both in areas of conflict and in colonial territories such as the Philippines, began to change into a sort of global policing. 

“Obviously Vietnam is the biggest example,” explains Singh. In that war, the U.S. “is involved in a kind of series of police actions. It does not declare war. It’s not fighting against another sovereign power. It’s seeing itself as trying to use force to create security, to create order, and to align these newly developing countries with U. S. interests.” He labels this shift “the policification of the military.” 

For decades, Black civil rights leaders and conscientious objectors warned us that a Black face in a U.S. military uniform is still the face of imperialism. Black activist, journalist, and vice-presidential nominee Charlotta Bass once famously said, “The fight for peace is one and indivisible with the fight for Negro equality.” The violence that soldiers, Black or otherwise, visit upon other peoples in the name of American safety and security is mirrored in the disproportionate violence that Black people experience at the hands of police across the U.S.

The truth is that the U.S. government needs Black people to buy into the promise of the military (and by extension, policing) both at home and abroad. However, our survival as Black people—our liberation from the systems that harm us—is dependent on our refusal to believe the storytelling of the U.S. military and our rejection of the narrative that it is a force for good, both in our own lives and around the world. In addressing these myths, Singh adds, “We have to really recognize that [the police and the military] are not security-making institutions, they’re insecurity-making institutions. They do it in the ways in which they intervene and introduce violence into situations that could be resolved in other ways, less violently.”

For McInnis, his own scholarship has led him to interrogate the reasons why he joined the military in the first place. The lack of opportunities he and other Black people like my grandfather experienced in their hometowns is much more pervasive than he understood as a 22-year-old. “Where America fails to really put these things into context is to ask: Well, what was already there to make this your reality anyway?” McInnis muses. “What creates a place and a life where so few of us can enter the middle class or enter jobs where we can have a little bit of savings and some health care?” he asks. It is well past time that we as Black people question our participation in the U.S. military, both as active service members and upholders of its mythmaking. Because the question is: Can we really call ourselves pragmatists if the necks we’re standing on are our own? 

Nicole G. Young is a writer and artist whose nonfiction work has been featured in Elle, Vox, Scalawag, and Bitch magazines. She’s part of the editorial team of Jacaranda Books, working to bring a nonfiction book series on Black American culture to life. She previously served as a writer at The African American Policy Forum, co-host of the Kidlit These Days and Worth Noting podcasts, and contributing editor for Book Riot Media. 

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