Navy Has Few Black Admirals; Some Blame Discrimination Some say Black sailors have to navigate both unconscious and active bias in the Navy.
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Why Does The Navy Have So Few Black Admirals? Some Blame A Culture Of Discrimination

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Why Does The Navy Have So Few Black Admirals? Some Blame A Culture Of Discrimination

Why Does The Navy Have So Few Black Admirals? Some Blame A Culture Of Discrimination

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

A recent executive order by the Trump administration calls a halt to unconscious bias training within the military's ranks. Now, this comes at a time when a Navy task force is looking at long-standing discrimination. Despite the White House edict, that work continues. Steve Walsh with KPBS in San Diego has the story.

STEVE WALSH, BYLINE: Force Master Chief Huben Phillips puts it this way.

HUBEN PHILLIPS: Throughout my 31 years, where I've seen racism or discrimination personally against me, I knew what the policy was, right? I knew that it was wrong. But when you're in a minority, you just kind of put your head down, right? You kind of figure out - you think about self-preservation. You think about your family. You think about the bigger picture.

WALSH: Phillips is part of the One Navy task force which is looking at how to end discrimination in the ranks. The problem starts at the top. Out of 268 admirals in the U.S. Navy, only 10 are African American. Most of them are rear admirals, like Alvin Holsey, who is heading the task force.

That's pretty small.

ALVIN HOLSEY: Yes, it is. Yes.

WALSH: Right now there are no African American admirals at the two highest ranks. Building an admiral is a 20- to 30-year commitment, Holsey says. It's not just about test scores and performance reviews; someone has to be willing to guide that young officer.

HOLSEY: As a Black officer in the Navy, I'll tell you that I mentor more people that don't look like me than look like me - sheer mathematics, right? But I'll tell you also - because there are very few guys who've come before me, in smaller numbers (ph) - someone who don't look like me had to reach out, engage and make a difference in my career.

WALSH: African Americans make up 13% of the population, but less than 9% are naval officers. So the pipeline starts off small, then somewhere along the way, many people just become exhausted, says Keith Green, a lieutenant commander who retired in the 1990s. He recently wrote the book "Black Officer, White Navy."

KEITH GREEN: It is not simply just unconscious bias; there are active behaviors that are happening to people because they don't like working for a Black person or a minority, and they don't like having, you know, one be their supervisor.

WALSH: Green says the extra effort to work around racism takes its toll.

GREEN: Not only do you have to do all the other stressful things that any military person has to do; you have to play that double game of trying to figure out why you're being treated differently or what's happening to you - why is something happening to you that isn't happening to other people.

WALSH: Retired Rear Admiral Sinclair Harris heads the National Naval Officers Association, which has worked for over 50 years to promote diversity in the sea services. He says it takes hundreds of incidents to eventually make one admiral or what the Navy calls a flag officer.

SINCLAIR HARRIS: You got to bring more people in in the beginning so that the quality cut that you're going to have, especially when you get to senior officer and get to flag officer, you have enough people in the pot.

WALSH: Harris calls it Death Valley, that point where junior officers opt to end their careers. Graduating from the Naval Academy is the most well-worn path to admiral, but less than 6% of the current class at the Naval Academy is African American.

HARRIS: When you only have one out of 20 diverse candidates going up for flag officer in a certain community, and they decide, hey, you know what? I just got this high-paying job at IBM. Guess what? Now you've been to zero, and you've got to look to that pipeline, and that pipeline is anemic.

WALSH: One Navy task force is scheduled to issue its report in December. It's unclear what concrete steps the Navy would then take to address decades of systemic racism.

For NPR News, I'm Steve Walsh.

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