Military Officers: Read Black Writers

By Bill Bray

I grew up in white neighborhoods and my Catholic high school outside Boston was entirely white. I never knew a black community. If racism still existed, it existed elsewhere. It was an abstraction to me. Then I joined the Navy. In the summer of 1983, while at the Naval Academy Prep School in Newport, Rhode Island, my roommate was a black man from the South Side of Chicago. He did not last long—a week, maybe ten days—before he quit. I cannot remember his name. But what I can remember, all too clearly, was that while we may have been from the same country and in the same Navy, we might as well have been from different planets.

In looking back on my nearly three-decade Navy career beginning in the late 1980s, I see now even more clearly how racial bias among a mostly white officer corps was far more ingrained and consequential than I believed—or cared to believe. Much work has and is being done about this, but here is one observation, based on my experience as an officer and an editor, that is rarely discussed or written about: white officers generally do not read black writers (and if they read much literature at all, it consists of other genres). They should, and a good place to start is with James Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain.

Reading good literature begets many benefits. The best writers are experts on the human condition, and reading them enlarges and enriches self-awareness, humility, and empathy. A growing body of social science research supports this assessment. For example, in 2013 researchers Emanuele Castano and David Comer Kidd published in the journal Science the results of a study that concluded reading literary fiction, as opposed to serious nonfiction or plot-driven popular fiction, enables people to score better on tests measuring empathy, social perception, and emotional intelligence. In an interview with The New York Times, Castano notes that in literary fiction, such as Dostoyevsky, “there is no single, overarching authorial voice…each character presents a different version of reality, and they aren’t necessarily reliable. You have to participate as a reader in this dialectic, which is really something you have to do in real life.”

James Baldwin is one of the most important American writers of the twentieth century. His writing is excellent and his personal journey compelling. Go Tell It on the Mountain is his first novel. It took him ten years to write and he struggled mightily with doubt that he could ever finish it. It is semiautobiographical and centers on his tormented relationship with his stepfather and the deeply religious community to which they belonged.

Born in 1924, Baldwin grew up in Harlem. His family was originally from the South and part of the great northward migration of approximately six million African Americans as Jim Crow laws in the South stiffened. While working on the book, Baldwin left the United States to live in Paris. He finished it in 1952 while living in the Swiss village of Loeche-les-Bains. In Europe, where he did not have to be reminded on a daily basis of the deep-seated racism in America, he was finally able to finish a book that was also a painful process of discovering who he was. As the writer Edwidge Danticat explained in a 2016 article in The New Yorker:

“In a 1961 interview with the American broadcaster and oral historian Studs Terkel, Baldwin remembered thinking that he might never finish the novel. . . ‘I was ashamed of the life of the Negro church,’ he told Terkel, ‘ashamed of my father, ashamed of the Blues, ashamed of Jazz, and, of course, ashamed of watermelon: all of those stereotypes that the country inflicts on Negroes, that we all eat watermelon or we all do nothing but sing the Blues. Well, I was afraid of all that; and I ran from it.’”

Many American writers became expatriates to seek out new ideas and cultures. Not as many left because they were ashamed of how their own are commonly viewed in their native country.

The novel centers around a single day in the life of John Grimes (the autobiographical character) on his 14th birthday. The Negro church in the novel is the Temple of the Fire Baptized Church, a Pentecostal congregation that operates from a Harlem storefront—“It was not the biggest church in Harlem, nor yet the smallest, but John had been brought up to believe it was the holiest and best.”

The day begins when John wakes, convinced his mother has forgotten his birthday. She has not, although she makes no mention of his birthday all morning. Later, after he completes his chores, she gives him money to explore the city. He ventures into Manhattan, where we get a sense of his anger and loneliness at being a black teenager in mid-1930s New York, and ends the day at a church service with his mother, stepfather, the young preacher Elisha, and others, where he undergoes a violent and tumultuous conversion on the “threshing-floor” (Baldwin himself was a preacher from ages 14–17).

Along the way in the book, we are taken back in time through the stories of his Aunt Florence, Florence’s brother, and John’s stepfather Gabriel Grimes, and his mother Elizabeth. Their stories mostly predate the migration north, and we see them as complex, sinful characters, who are both victims of grievous injustices and of their own poor decisions and fallibility. Scene after scene drips with an intense religiosity and pathos of a people struggling to survive their environment and themselves. Gradually, through their stories (each of the three chapters in part two is titled a prayer), we interact with a host of other characters that come in and out of their lives.

John Grimes never knows many of these characters, has never been to the South, and could not possibly know most of the intricate details. But Baldwin wants us to know and to feel that they are all part of who he is (and who Baldwin is). Following the scenes of John Grimes in New York City that day, we then experience a complex labyrinth of stories of his family from years ago—the story of the wider African American experience from Reconstruction onward—until we are brought rushing back to the boy in the all-night church service. It is as if his entire identity is carefully and intricately revealed to us through the lives of the others. Each experience they have and each choice they have made matters to who John Grimes is.

In a 1984 Paris Review interview, Baldwin credited Henry James for how he told and structured the story. “Henry James helped me, with his whole idea about the center of consciousness and using a single intelligence to tell the story. He gave me the idea to make the novel happen on John’s birthday.” Baldwin often spoke about how from the time a black child recognizes that he is not an equal member of the society in which he lives, the sense of inferiority and disenfranchisement does not steadily grow but accelerates in his mind as time passes.

In the novel, the full picture of John Grimes also coheres at an accelerating rate, until we are back with him on the threshing-floor, completely invested in him, our capacity for empathy expanded. The scene of John’s conversion, full of graphic and apocalyptic visions, is a signature achievement. Baldwin said Go Tell It on the Mountain is the book he had to write before he could write anything else. Reading the conversion scene evinces what a cathartic exercise that must have been for him. Danticat calls the novel, “. . . not just a well-thought-out and well-crafted lyrical work but also a protest chant, a hymn, a rebuke, a memorial, a prayer, a testimonial, a confessional, and, in my opinion, a masterpiece. . . [at the end] John is no longer the stranger who’d gone into the city and returned afraid. He is no longer a stranger to the reader. He is our brother. He is our son. He is our friend. He is us.”

Much of Go Tell It on the Mountain was written in the Café de Flore in Paris. Published in 1953, it established Baldwin as a literary force in mid-century America. By the late 1950s, he was back in the United States much of the time and active in the Civil Rights movement. In 1963, he gave a series of lectures on race, mostly in the South, and appeared at the August 28, 1963 March on Washington where Martin Luther King Jr. gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech.

In 1965, Baldwin debated prominent conservative William F. Buckley at the Cambridge Union in the United Kingdom on the question, “Did the American dream come at the expense of the American negro?” Baldwin won the debate overwhelmingly (the students voted in Baldwin’s favor 540–160) and it remains an epochal rhetorical moment in U.S. race relations. The debate was broadcast on the BBC and today should be mandatory viewing in every U.S. military officer commissioning program (Nicholas Buccola’s excellent 2019 book The Fire Is Upon Us probes the backgrounds of Baldwin and Buckley and the context of the times that brought them together that evening).

Writing to show the world as it is, Baldwin eschewed any temptation to suggest facile solutions to such a complex issue as race, identity, and the black experience. They do not exist. His characters, both major and minor, are as flawed and multidimensional as any characters in real life. This gives the novel a special depth and lasting power. The writer has coopted us in the experience.

Each generation of military leaders has a responsibility to honor the progress of the past while remaining sensitive to the fact that gains made are neither permanent nor, thus far, sufficient. The military is in the warfighting business where assignments and promotions should rest on merit alone. Aspiring to that ideal is right, but only while acknowledging that much of the “data” that feeds the meritocratic evaluation system actually derives from countless subjective decisions—human decisions. Meritocracies are not built and maintained on empirical data. Studying the problem of race through the many great American works of literature will help leaders better appreciate this fact.

When officers who have never worried about being the target of discrimination sound off quickly in dismissing a policy promoting diversity, while at the same time being poorly read on the black experience in America, I do not hear a well-considered and enlightened position. It shocks me today to hear young, white officers reflexively discussing race in the context of white victimization and grievance. This fixation with reverse racism is at best historically ignorant, at worst callously insensitive.

James Baldwin left the ministry and the church at age 17 and began work on Go Tell It on the Mountain. His personal and literary journey from that point forward was as difficult as it is remarkable. As much as any twentieth-century writer, he deserves much more than our respect. He deserves our enduring attention.

Bill Bray is a retired Navy captain and the Deputy Editor-in-Chief of the U.S. Naval Institute’s Proceedings magazine.

Featured Image: EAST CHINA SEA (July 31, 2020) Boatswain’s Mate Seaman Valentina Imokhai, from New York, left, and Chief Personnel Specialist Melissa Colon, from Fajardo, Puerto Rico, right, put a petty officer second class rank insignia on Yeoman 2nd Class Steven Berry, from Cleveland, as he is promoted during an advancement ceremony on board the amphibious dock landing ship USS Germantown (LSD 42). (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Taylor DiMartino)

20 thoughts on “Military Officers: Read Black Writers”

  1. Thank you for the reading recommendations (and the YouTube link). I did my clinical rotations at a free clinic on the south side of Chicago. I feel sad that your roommate didn’t make it through the NAPS program.

  2. The author apparently served in a Navy from another planet than mine. It was my ten-year experience that the Navy is colorblind when it comes to achieving an objective as a team.
    I don’t insist that my leadership read James Joyce or do their research on the Irish potato famine to understand my temper and drinking prowess, or to give me as pass when exhibiting an extra dose of blarney.
    After a lifetime of observing people from all walks of life, the ones who are most insistent that there is systemic racism in the United States are themselves racist to the core.

  3. This lack of thinking is what plagues the US military and enfeebles it. Do not read someone just because they are black. What a dumb idea to promote. Read great thinkers and those with great ideas, if they happen to be black…who cares? One of my favorite authors is Thomas Sowell. The man is genius incarnate. He laments the fact book stores put him in the “Black Author” section. Nobody goes in looking for black authors. He’s convinced it reduces the amount of books sold. Just read good ideas and expose yourself to great information and thinkers. Leave color out of it.

    1. James Baldwin was a great thinker with great ideas. He also comes from a background far different from mine, and one I could not appreciate without reading him. I didn’t put “color” in his experience. It was in his experience. I am just trying to learn what that was like. Not sure why trying to understand the experiences of others is so problematic for so many folks.

  4. As Mr. Buckley predicted, if they attack the hearts of the whites, as they are doing today, it will make the problem worse. It’s making the problem worse..

    1. I have read most of James Baldwin’s work and I do not find any evidence in it that he was “attacking the hearts of the whites.” In one of Baldwin’s most famous essays, “A Letter from a Region in my Mind,” contained in the book A Fire Next Time (the essay was originally published in The New Yorker), he recalls his experience visiting the home of Nation of Islam founder Elijah Muhammed in Chicago and how Baldwin found his militant anti-white message wrong and offensive. Baldwin had many white friends and rejected the Nation of Islam’s approach as a solution to America’s race problems. William Buckley seemed to ignore or was ignorant of that aspect of Baldwin’s views.

  5. 20 years in the Navy, a Naval Aviator, recruiter, flight instructor, middle manager, organizational lead, projects and other duties that provided a cross sectional look at the Service, I can comment. Service can be rather accurately summed up through truisms . . . these are favorites: 1) It’s not the Navy, it’s just some of the people in it; 2) It’s not a job, it’s an experience; 3) If I have to tell you, you won’t understand; and 4) The Golden Rule, he who has the gold makes the rules. An organization as old and traditional as the Navy should be expected to have lines of succession and with that a “will” of their own among those lines. The Navy does not believe in change. Reading its history on things like moving from Battleships to the Carrier, it often misses serious cues of changing times. If you want to appreciate the delta of social change, then if you can, find a Black Sailor who served before the UCMJ. It is not beneficial to White Officers to compete on a level playing field, pointing to one area as an example, they are not as good in the cockpit as they think. It is an irregular warfare environment in the Wardroom to get a promotion, when a commanding officer will reassign credit to a White officer from a minority’s work, or even from another White officer not in succession. Recruiting Commands are highly unlikely to recruit in HBCU’s, despite rules and platitudes, so that cut into the numbers. The Navy is about the long game of control, trying to hold power, and national security is somewhere in the mix.

    1. This was a terrible post, mostly uninformed and a mash of gobbly gook.
      The system for promotion today is as fair as it is every going to get, if anything it is almost to socialist in that your year group counts for more than your performance in the early days for JOs. It actually in a sense discriminates against hard chargers and innovators. Please spare me this nonsense.

  6. Mr. Bray, thanks for the recommendations. I already have Go Tell It On the Mountain and will read soon.

  7. If the author is from a suburb outside of Boston and thinks Chicago was a different world, he could have just as easily traveled to Lawrence, Lowell, Springfield, New Bedford and a host of other old mill or fishing towns. They are night and day comparisons to any Boston suburb. Springfield and Lowell at one time were in the top 20 in the same year for most violent crime in the nation per capita. Not a far drive, 10-20 miles as the crow flies from you, but a million miles away culturally.

    On the reading? This is an entirely subjective take. While I agree that we should all read more, I am not sure you can say for certain that we should read more fiction. Especially as a warfare officer. If anything, I see far too many Officers and Enlisted not reading enough on military history, combat leadership, tactics, etc….unless they are forced to do so. There are some who revel in those genres, but I have not seen that be a common trait. I think we, as professional military members, should focus on the books that will make us better leaders and more competent in our jobs. I disagree with your view on why we should read fiction. I tend to take the view that our focus should be readings that help with performance at the tactical, operational and eventually the strategic levels and that emotional IQ and empathy are a very distant finisher to those goals. I don’t think you make a good argument for it when we are wanting to be a profession of arms and continue to have and maintain the trust of the American people. We maintain that trust by being competent at our jobs, I am not sure fiction is the way ahead to accomplish that. I love fiction, but I also think that our focus should be on professional reading first. I just do not see your argument being persuasive.

    On reading someone based on their color? I find this to be counter-productive. I really do and I also have found the Navy and the military as a whole to be the most fair and open system there is in the US. There might be others that are better, more fair perhaps or even more meritocratic, but I am unaware of them. Mr. Baldwin is a good writer, his skills stand on their own as does his intellect. His skin color should not and is not the reason anyone should read his works.

    1. I don’t recommend reading Baldwin solely because he is black. I recommend reading him because he wrote eloquently and powerfully about the black experience in mid-twentieth century, an experience he personally lived. The fact that you can’t see the difference is telling. Perhaps you should rethink that viewpoint. If you think anyone like me —a white officer who grew up in primarily white communities—could learn just as much about the experiences of people like Baldwin by reading white writers describing those experiences from their research, please go ahead and make that argument. I’ll listen.

      Hemingway said he could never write about anything he didn’t personally experience. He actually did safaris in East Africa, vice just reading about them in a book. He said you can always tell when writers are faking it.

      I will never know what it is like to grow up black in America. Never. But reading writers like Baldwin, not to mention many others, gets me closer to understanding it. And it certainly helps me empathize with it. Empathy is an important leadership trait, well established in literature on the subject.

      By all means read on military history and combat leadership. It is not an either/or proposition.

      And I have been to Lowell, New Bedford, Dorchester, Mattapan, etc… I used play HS basketball games in those places, for example. But there’s a big difference between visiting a place and growing up there.

      1. Here is another problem with your writing style and you inability to see from other perspectives.

        In your reply you say this about my comment that you are suggesting people read authors based on their skin color: “The fact that you can’t see the difference is telling.”

        Telling of what exactly? That I can read a headline? It is right below.
        “Military Officers: Read Black Writers”

        What is it that I should infer from that headline, that you cannot understand how people come to the conclusion that you think we should read someone purely based off of skin color with a headline such as that followed by your writing is what is truly telling. The cognitive dissonance is appalling.

        In your reply to me on what I think we as professionals should prioritize things that make us better at our jobs was in reply to this comment by you: “as opposed to serious nonfiction or plot-driven popular fiction, enables people to score better on tests measuring empathy, social perception, and emotional intelligence.” This is a nice to have and while I encourage any kind of reading, we should mandate more professional reading. This current emphasis throughout the DoD about emotional IQ and empathy is misguided. Perhaps that is why I reacted so to your article. Why does it inflame me so? As a former Naval Leader you should remember that one of your jobs might be to tell sailors to seal a hatch that dooms an awful lot of other sailors to their deaths for the greater good the ship. At some point you and every other leader needs to remember that, just because the fleet has not been at war in decades does not mean those hard choices won’t have to be made in the future. Be good at your job first.

        “And I have been to Lowell, New Bedford, Dorchester, Mattapan, etc… I used play HS basketball games in those places, for example. But there’s a big difference between visiting a place and growing up there.”- There is a big difference, but you could have made friends, hung out there and it was not a long trip. Mass is not a big state. Your implication in your writing is that you were sheltered from exposure to other places, when a short bus or ride on the T would have exposed you a lot more and most likely taken a bit of the pompous, self-righteousness out of your tone. Some issues are entirely the result of ones life choices, this is one of them.

        Look, I have read Baldwin, kind of got obsessed with him after watching a documentary about called “I am not your Negro.” I think his mind and his insight are under appreciated and not given their due. Yet your entire article comes off as a lecture and pointing your finger at others in the military as though they are just ignorant or racist sods. If you want to reach people and want to recommend readings then I suggest you look at your style of writing and your tone. Have someone “red team” your writing, otherwise it will be ignore or attacked. I think it is great to recommend authors that will help us expand our minds or become better leaders. I do not think it is great when someone thinks they need to lecture others in a condescending way and implies or assumes negative characteristics about the people he is trying to reach.

        1. Apologize if you took it as a lecture. Many readers did not take it that way. That’s your right to do so.

          A few points:

          1. You should never judge an article by its headline alone. If there is a slight disconnect between the headline and the message in the essay itself, I won’t argue that. But in reading your remarks, I assumed you had read the article. That was what was telling. You do realize that writers almost never pick their headlines? I do not think this is a bad headline, because I do believe white officers should read more Black writers. You just can’t put the ‘why’ in the headline. That’s in the body of the article. You placed a different interpretation in the headline.
          2. The quote you cited as “my comment”, was in fact not my comment but a quote by Emanuele Castano in an interview with the New York Times. He is a psychologist from University of Trento, Italy who has done extensive research on the value of reading literary fiction in developing traits such as empathy and emotional intelligence. Castano, btw, reached out to me and offered to write an article for Proceedings, so maybe we’ll publish one in a few months. It’s fine if you don’t think that type of reading is important for a military officer. I simply disagree.
          3. You criticize me for a condescending tone, yet take a similar tone in lecturing me how to be a naval officer. I did all right as naval officer giving orders and leading sailors. I’ll let my record speak for itself.
          4. I do not think I led a ‘sheltered’ life. I grew up in a white town and neighborhood, that’s just a fact. I have no guilt about it. I knew no better. My father and mother were teachers and we had modest means. I just did not have the exposure to African Americans in my upbringing. Should I have figured that out when I was 12, or 13, or 14 years old and ventured out to Black communities on my own? Ok, if that’s your point then I guess it was all my fault that I didn’t, but that does not change the fact that I didn’t have the exposure until later in life.
          5. I don’t think officers who do not read black writers are racist. I never said they were. I simply said reading black writers can better help white officers understand the black experience. In my experience, both as a career officer and as an editor, not many do. That’s based on my experience. If you have a different experience and some data that contradicts that observation, please share. The fact that you got defensive and accused me of implying those that don’t read black writers are racist sounds like your problem and not mine. I do think a certain percentage of white officers reflexively adopt a white grievance narrative when asked to read and think about social science research on subjects such as unconscious racial bias. We looked at this pretty extensively when I was on the SSG in 2014–15 and I learned a lot. There is actually some pretty powerful science out there on it, such as Northwestern University’s Institute for Policy Research’s 25 year (and running) resume study.
          6. And why couldn’t a book by James Baldwin be considered professional reading? You seem to have decided what is and what is not appropriate for a professional reading list. I will tell you that when I was in command, among other times in my career, I had to deal with a few thorny race and gender issues. That was a leadership reality in addition to getting the mission done. So, based on those experiences, my view of what should be on a professional reading list might be slightly different than yours.

  8. 1.) You say that the headline is not your fault, but then in the same reply say that the headline is “not a bad” one. This tends to support my point that you are in fact doing what I claimed you were. As a writer you should also know that the opening of a story starts the framing of it, so does a headline. Acting as this is something you were not aware of is I think being a bit disingenuous.

    “But in reading your remarks, I assumed you had read the article.”-I did read the article, it was pretty obvious I did, but again the headline sets the initial tone and not a lot in your article ran counter to that headline. That is on you. No one else, just you. And nice attempt to imply I did not read the article. My lord! And you wonder where I got the idea that you are condescending in your approach?

    2.) I am well aware of the research, it is your comment because you use that in your article as a way to support your contention that fiction is important for a leader to have higher emotional IQ and empathy. You have every right to think it should be a priority, I strongly disagree, especially when I see this kind of reading being increasingly emphasized over actual professional reading. It goes to a pattern. Again, I am all for any kind of reading, but there needs to be prioritization of all things in life and on this I am always for being good at your job first and prioritizing that, in my view, should come first.

    3.) Fair point. I should have fought that impulse. We obviously have different styles and most likely emphasize different things.

    4.) Where you grew up and how you grew up seems to be a backdrop for your life and how it influenced you later, you focused a lot on how different your childhood was than a fellow prep school student. My point is that you were a mere hop, skip and a jump away from areas much like he grew up in. I am not sure where you got the idea that I suggested you volunteer in those areas, odd thing to say. I do suggest that you could have made friends with kids from different schools and towns. We made friends with suburban kids and they did the same with city kids. Sports were an integral part of growing up, not hard to make friends that way, but again, we obviously have had different experiences and styles of living.

    5.) No, again that headline set the tone and then you added to it with your writing. Nothing in your article moves away from that title. Your second paragraph talks about how “I see now even more clearly how racial bias among a mostly white officer corps was far more ingrained and consequential than I believed—or cared to believe.” That is a statement. After the headline and that sentence, what should a reader infer?

    “I do think a certain percentage of white officers reflexively adopt a white grievance narrative when asked to read and think about social science research on subjects such as unconscious racial bias.”- The social science research on unconscious bias is turning out to be increasingly counter-productive in how it is taught. Unconscious bias and more specifically things like the “implicit bias test” are looking more and more like junk science as well. Add in that the current “hot selling” books on bias are written by people, (Kendi & DiAngelo), who claim that all white people are racists and use circular logic to prove their points, “If you deny you’re a racist that is proof you are a racist!”. That is how unconscious bias is used in today’s academic corporate and military world. I remember attending a Harvard course on leadership and despite the issues with the things I just pointed out and the counter-research, they were still pushing these ideas as though they were gospel. Is it a wonder people are skeptical of the social science research?

    6.) “And why couldn’t a book by James Baldwin be considered professional reading?”- Never said it couldn’t, but what book? What articles? His debate? What? I do say that professional, job related books should be the priority and will continue to think that. I love Baldwin, so I am an easy sell on him, but I would look at him as more of an American historical figure who may help me understand my country a bit better. I simply think that if I have two hours in a day between work and home that I can read that if I have a choice to read someone like Mahan or someone like Baldwin I should pick Mahan. It is about priorities. Nothing more.

    “You seem to have decided what is and what is not appropriate for a professional reading list.”-Umm…I am relatively positive that my views are similar to the reading lists that the CNO puts out. I could also swear that is the point here, you suggest what you think should be emphasized in reading, I do the same, we then argue as to why. No?

    “I will tell you that when I was in command, among other times in my career, I had to deal with a few thorny race and gender issues. That was a leadership reality in addition to getting the mission done.”- Everyone has to deal with those “thorny issues”, you do your best to take each incident as its own incident with its own circumstances and factors and treat it accordingly. That goes for every leader, from the E5 to the GO4.

    “So, based on those experiences, my view of what should be on a professional reading list might be slightly different than yours.”- Yes, it would be different and my argument is and will continue to be that I simply think that professional reading for my job should be the priority if I have limited time in the day.

    As I have said prior, if you want to open up people to the readings you suggest and begin a conversation the way not to do that is pretty much how you wrote this article. You can act as though you were not setting a tone, but you knew the headline was there and in the second paragraph you make a statement that is out of line and unsupported. When you make a statement about bias being “ingrained” in the officer corps you are basically telling everyone in that officer corps that they are racist. Sorry, not everyone, just that the bias is ingrained right and so the system is perhaps racist? Truthfully, if you do not see how that is a problem or how that could maybe set the tone in your article for the reader then I am not sure I can help you understand.

    1. You clearly do not think unconscious bias is real. That’s fine. But you also clearly feel that if someone suggests you or anyone else has unconscious bias about race, they are calling you a racist in the most pejorative sense. I think the problem here, in part, is the word ‘racist’ is so loaded that many just can’t get past it. It’s like we need another word, as unconscious bias is just being human. Again, I offered a study (The Northwestern University Institute of Policy Research’s Resume study as an example of evidence we used on the SSG). I have not read a good critique that debunks that research.

      You’ve read a lot of Baldwin. You said you got obsessed with him after watching “I am Not Your Negro”, which is an excellent documentary. That’s great. So, apparently reading Baldwin became a priority for you, ostensibly at the expense of reading professional books. But you don’t think it should be a priority for other Navy officers to read Baldwin or other black writers? Is it only me who sees a disconnect here?

      My article did not work for you. Fine. I did get many responses from people that said they were going to now read Baldwin that never had. So, your observation is simply not true of everyone. Would more people read him if the article had a tone to your liking and if I had been the most enlightened, forward-thinking white teenager in white suburbia history and ventured forth looking for friends of color in other areas (I didn’t even have white friends from other towns!)? Maybe so. On that point we will never know.

      I invite you to stop by the Naval Institute whenever you’re in Annapolis and we can continue this conversation in person. Email me at and I’ll be sure to be in the building that day. And I’ll buy lunch.

      1. Quick response.

        Unconscious bias, combined with its latest model, “anti-racism”, as it is being used currently in corporate and in the military diversity training is doing just that, calling people racist. We all have biases. They can be for something or against something, the issue with unconscious bias when used in the manner you used this is in the article you write implies racism. Please, take a look at your whole article, to include the headline, and then think about your use of this “I see now even more clearly how racial bias among a mostly white officer corps was far more ingrained and consequential than I believed—or cared to believe.” Add in your comments on unconscious bias and what else is a reader supposed to infer from this? It is a reasonable assumption. Context matters and in the context of your article, the use of unconscious bias in diversity training it matters too. It implies racism, if that was not your intent, I understand, but you that is how it reads.

        On counters to unconscious bias? The use of unconscious bias training in the work place as part of diversity training has been shown repeatedly to be counter-productive. Just google “problems with diversity training unconscious bias”, you will be showered with criticism of the practice.

        Implicit Bias? That is practically pseudo science, yet it too is often cited in diversity training and even at graduate level academic institutions in the Ivy League. Google “problems with the implicit bias test”. Even its original inventors admit it is not up to snuff, but you still see it being repeated in media and on tv reporting like it was gospel. This is an issue and I fear that the current CNO is going to head down this same path, once I see DiAngelo and Kendi’s books on the recommended reading list I will know we have gone off the edge.

        I usually would not use Vox for a citation, but I use it because it has political leanings that should give it a little more weight when it too points out the flaws with this test.

        On Baldwin? Yes, I do find the time, but I am much further along in my career and have the time. I feel confident I am very good at my job, but still need to read things on that as well.

        “My article did not work for you. Fine. I did get many responses from people that said they were going to now read Baldwin that never had.”- I am sure they will, but I am also sure a lot of them won’t.

        “So, your observation is simply not true of everyone.”- I never said it was an observation for everyone, I maintained and still maintain that you could have reached a lot more people if you had not come off like self-righteous, lecturing scold implying that the Navy Officer Corps was full of racist. It may not have been your intention to imply that, but most sane people who read your article would infer that, when the read your comments they would not be anymore dissuaded from that view. I also highly doubt judging from the comments that you reached more people than you lost.

        “Would more people read him if the article had a tone to your liking and if I had been the most enlightened, forward-thinking white teenager in white suburbia history and ventured forth looking for friends of color in other areas (I didn’t even have white friends from other towns!)? Maybe so. On that point we will never know.”- My entire point on this has been that it was not that hard to see the things you seem to act as though they were foreign and a world away. It matters because you attempt to use it as a way to draw a reader in and be sympathetic to your overall article. You, the naive white lad at NAPS had his eyes opened by his fellow countryman from the rough and tumble streets of Chicago. I could care less if you never ventured beyond Brookline, Newton or wherever it is that you came from in the burbs, but I do care when you act a little bit self-righteous about it and come off like you are lecturing everyone else. That stuff matters too.

        Look, we have all have biases, that is why I would actually tell a friend to check out Baldwin. i would tell them his background, his history, why he is such a good writer and then let them make up their minds. I have a bias towards his writing and towards the man.

        I would not imply or lecture people I don’t know or implicate an entire system as being racist, which is what you do when these I mention above are in your article. I am at a loss how you do not see that as something that is inferred by your writing when you outright say it?
        “I see now even more clearly how racial bias among a mostly white officer corps was far more ingrained and consequential than I believed—or cared to believe.”-Truly, what else could someone read from this except that you are saying the officer corps is racist as a whole, especially when taken with the whole article? And so racists that it is deeply “ingrained” in it?

        I’m going to close with this. I think you it is a good thing to suggest readings, especially ones that can help a person with their career or to open up their minds. I commend you for doing that. I think it is a mistake to do it in a manner that has all the subtlety of a sledge hammer cracking over someones head while calling them a foul name as the hammer comes crashing down on them. I think this was a mistake and you are unfortunately not the only person who seems to be doing that the last 6 months. People stop paying attention to you when you do things like this. It helps no one, maybe gets a few people to read a book or two that I would probably recommend too, but makes more people reflexively reject anything good you might be saying. I just think you went about this entirely the wrong way is all. And yes it is entirely my opinion, so take it for that and nothing more.

        1. Eric,

          We’re just going to have to agree to disagree on a few points. I get your point on tone, but think you’re making far too big a deal about it while not really disputing my main point – it’s good for what officers to read Baldwin and other Black writers to better understand their experiences and perspective. I’ve published many essays in my life and, while I will never say I wouldn’t make changes if given the chance to publish them again, I am comfortable with what I have written. If you think you could tackle such a subject in a better way, go for it.

          I’ve engaged on this as much as I can in this format. Again, if in Annapolis, come by and see us. These conversations are always more productive in person.

          Bill Bray

          1. Bill,
            On some things there are just a different perspective, I agree. That is just a matter of styles. On other issues you are just wrong in both tone, presentation and accusations. I never said or implied that we should not read writers who happen to be black. I have continually said that telling people to read someone because they are black is wrong. I also took up issue with you saying that the officers corps is racist, that that culture is deeply ingrained with that issue. You can say did not do these things, but the truth is write there in your writing.
            “I get your point on tone”- I honestly do not think you do. You still think what you wrote is a perfectly fine way to present an issue and make a plea for folks to read more black authors. You even said you did not pick the headline, but did not have a problem with it either.

            “but think you’re making far too big a deal about it while not really disputing my main point”- No, I really am not making too big a deal out of something when you openly accuse the entire Officer Corps in the Navy of being racists.

            “I see now even more clearly how racial bias among a mostly white officer corps was far more ingrained and consequential than I believed—or cared to believe.”-This is an open accusation. At the very least it implies that the culture of the Officer Corps is racists, you are not using the term “racial bias” in a manner that says the Officer Corps is pro-black.

            It is not too big of a deal because as I pointed out in some links people like yourself make matters worse. You calling everyone a racist is junk and not a good leadership example nor a good call. That you continue to try and defend this essay is to me just more evidence that people like yourself have lost their common sense. When I see the DoD paying people like DiAngelo or the other race baiters money to “teach” diversity it concerns me even more. (The USA, USN, USCG and USAF all have had people come in and teach that nonsense). Why? Because instead of teaching, reminding and hitting home that we are all Americans, that the guy or gal next to me is my countryman, brother, sister and in arms with me, they are just teaching us to highlight our differences. They are teaching that people are racists based on the color of their skin. You do much the same thing in your second paragraph and say that it is implied. My goodness, you are practically saying that the whole system is racists and thus supporting the idea that there is systemic racism in the DoD.

            It is a big deal because you are retired Captain preaching unsupported divisive nonsense.

            It is a big deal because you and many others are actively sewing division and dissent in the country.

            It is a big deal because you cannot even admit you openly accused the Officer Corps of being racists or that your entire tone is one of trying to push people to read Baldwin because he is black. He sells himself, that he is black should not matter and I am betting you knew what the headline would be too.

            It is a big deal because you are part of the problem, not part of the solution. Being a retired Captain gives your view weight, unearned in my opinion, but it is there none the less.

            At some point people are going to have to buy into the motto
            “E Pluribus Unum” or we are going to end up being a balkanized nation beset with idiocy and violence. Outright saying that the Officer Corps of the US Navy has “ingrained” racial bias, (AKA-racism), in it does not help matters nor is it true in my view that such anti-black bias exists.

            This stopped being about book recommendations when you wrote a few of the sentences in the essay. I doubt you can see why I think this was a big deal and will most likely react with anger at my claims. I understand. In the end though, I think you and the people pushing this division are part of the problem.

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