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A Look At The Navy's New Report On Racial Bias


The Navy is out with its long-awaited report on racial bias. Task Force One Navy was created back in June, part of the nationwide movement to reexamine systemic racism after the death of George Floyd. Critics say the effort feels watered down. Navy leaders say they do intend to create lasting change. Steve Walsh with member station KPBS reports.

STEVE WALSH, BYLINE: There are only a handful of African American admirals or flag officers in the Navy and few people of color in some of the Navy's most celebrated communities, such as naval aviation, where the head of the task force, Rear Admiral Alvin Holsey, is from.

ALVIN HOLSEY: Being here, one of - at this point, one of eight Black flag officers the Navy, it's a lonely spot. But, yes, I do know that we're - I think the Navy's committed. I think we can make some - gain some ground here in what we're doing.

WALSH: The task force worried that their effort to root out discrimination would be caught up in the past administration's targeting of diversity training, says Dr. Charles Barber. He's the consultant who worked on the report. Some things will now be put back into the draft, he says, with a new attitude at the White House.

CHARLES BARBER: We had some content that did talk a little bit about the concepts of white privilege and how discussions center around, you know, white privilege. So those are the things that we want to put back in.

WALSH: Critics say the report stresses inclusion and diversity but didn't look more directly at overt racism. John Clarke is a recently retired commander who writes about his experience as an African American in the Navy.

JOHN CLARKE: To me, what was disappointing - what was not in the report. There was not a direct discussion of de facto racism and segregation of the current state of the Navy and why we are where we are.

WALSH: A recently released 2017 Pentagon survey showed roughly 1 in 5 sailors and officers experienced racial or ethnic discrimination or harassment that year, more than any other service. Clarke says the Navy's process for filing discrimination complaints is broken.

CLARKE: We have people in our services that don't want racism in our ranks, and they are willing to step up and root it out and speak up. But at the same time, you have some other people, mainly older white men, that want to retain that position of power.

WALSH: Unlike a similar report at the Pentagon level, the Navy didn't address hate groups in the ranks. The report did look at reforms in Navy justice but didn't recommend specific changes. In the early 1970s, during a period of racial unrest in the country and within the Navy itself, the head of the Navy, Admiral Zumwalt, is credited with a push to better integrate women and people of color into the service. Barber, the Navy's consultant, admits that many of the reports that followed have sat on the shelf. But he plans to stay on to administer their findings, which are based on dozens of focus groups held behind closed doors with sailors.

BARBER: We're continuously looking at culture over time, so that way, we could continuously make some progress. We don't want to keep talking about this stuff years and years from now.

WALSH: Rear Admiral Holsey, the leader of the task force, says a top priority now is to bring in more people of color and women into leadership roles.

HOLSEY: It's not a one and done, so imagine every six months - this issue is not going to go away. It's going to be embedded in our training throughout the life of the sailor. And our senior leaders are being constantly engaged and pushing to turn levers on this.

WALSH: And he says the problems won't go away because of a change in administration or the recent confirmation of the first African American secretary of defense. For the Navy, it's all about readiness, he says. People who cannot trust one another cannot easily come together when it comes time to fight.

For NPR News, I'm Steve Walsh. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As a military reporter, Steve Walsh delivers stories and features for TV, radio and the web.