In September, President Donald Trump issued an executive order banning “diversity training” in federal agencies. He justified it by saying they were “anti-American,” “divisive” and “coercive.” As historian Hasan Kwame Jeffries writes, conservative media led Trump to this executive order by insisting such trainings “encourag[e] discrimination against white people, especially white men, by promoting ideas of white racial inferiority.”
That conservatives have sought to cancel such trainings on the grounds that they victimize white people may not come as a surprise. But it does serve as a reminder that the federal government has long invested in the view that critical race readings of America (even when they’re not that critical) are excessive, dangerous, and bad for white people. Indeed, the Trump administration’s cancellation of diversity trainings recalls a moment in the early-1970s when the Department of Defense first established a Defense Race Relations Institute (DRRI), then secretly surveilled to ensure its pedagogy didn’t create race “militants.” “Un-American” is the accusation today, and Black extremism was the charge then. Both reflect a fear of shining a light on the reality of systemic racism.
The Pentagon established DRRI amidst mounting racial disparities and hostilities in the military. All aspects of military life disadvantaged servicemembers of color, especially Black personnel. In the context of the war in Vietnam, these disadvantages proved deadly. African Americans accounted for 28 percent of US deaths during the war, though they constituted only 13 percent of the nation’s military personnel in Vietnam. Moreover, military officials refused to acknowledge these racial disparities.
Unsurprisingly, servicemembers of color began to fight back. They formed study groups, demanded Black-oriented provisions in commissaries, and created organizations like the Movement for a Democratic Military. And, as with civilians, their anger at times boiled over into physical confrontations – including in July 1969 at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina and in October 1972 onboard the USS Kitty Hawk.
It was following incidents like that at Lejeune that many jumped to the conclusion that Black “militancy” was on the rise amongst the ranks. The armed forces’ overwhelmingly white leadership had a history of blaming internal racial strife on the civilian world, even claiming groups like the Black Panther Party had gained access to the ranks, despite the fact that researchers discovered little to no evidence that any groups had, in fact, “infiltrated.” Now, in the shadow of Lejeune, a Congressional subcommittee added to the view that Black extremism was the core issue: The serious racial disturbance at Camp Lejeune on July 20 did not result from any specific provocation, but was generated by a few militant Blacks who fanned the flames of racism, misconception, suspicions, and frustrations. Rather than seek to understand the connections between discrimination and what Defense and civilian leadership understood as Black “militancy,” national leadership established that the military’s primary need was one of containing radicalism.
In this context, the Department of Defense mandated race relations training as part of military employment. The Defense Race Relations Institute (or, DRRI, pronounced “dry”) was established in 1971 at Patrick Airforce Base in Florida. Between 1971 and 1974, all military personnel had to partake in 18 hours of race relations training annually. DRRI trained the vast majority of these trainers, creating the military’s cohort of race relations instructors and equal opportunity officers. In its first three years, DRRI educated more than 2,500 personnel who then set out for US bases across the globe.
Defense and civilian leadership alike hoped that DRRI graduates would effect a clampdown on “Black militancy,” but the institute’s early curriculum set its sights on whiteness instead. In an intensive seven-week training that involved students and teachers living together at Patrick Airforce Base, the interracial cohorts at DRRI read extensively about the history of peoples of color in and out of the military, as well as studying individual, cultural and institutional racism in Defense and civilian sectors.
DRRI’s pedagogical framework was shaped by the kinds of systemic critiques that characterized Black Power. Perhaps most significant was its analysis of whiteness as a nexus of power. DRRI’s teachers drew extensively from the work of anti-racism educator Bob Terry, a white man who in 1970 penned a provocatively-titled book called For Whites Only in which he tried to reach white Americans about developing a new way of being white that was not built on racial superiority or color-blindness. Terry proposed a “new white consciousness,” an awareness of oneself as white and as a beneficiary of racism. He promoted it as “a way for us to understand ourselves [i.e. whites] simultaneously as white racists and as creators of justice.”
Terry had come to these ideas under the tutelage of Reverend Douglass Fitch, a Black co-worker of Terry’s who had also been active in the Congress of Racial Equality. Fitch had developed an understanding of Black Power as a time of “new black consciousness.” In 1969, he wrote that Black people had “discovered that integration failed to take place not because they did not want it, but because white society would not tolerate it.” He pushed Terry and his other white colleagues at the Detroit Industrial Mission—a Christian nonprofit that had begun to stage anti-racism seminars with white-collar managers in the Motor City—to engage with the intellectual production of thinkers like Lerone Bennett, Jr., Stokely Carmichael and Charles Hamilton. Once Terry did so, he and Fitch produced the intellectual and material resources necessary to conduct “new white consciousness” and “new black consciousness” seminars around Detroit – and beyond.
Indeed, their ideas circulated far enough that they reached curriculum developers at DRRI. Terry’s book in particular allowed the institute to pitch the twin ideas of Black self-determination and white accountability for racism to its students in the early 1970s. That trainers could utilize the work of a white man in this allowed them to avoid writings by more controversial figures like Carmichael or Eldridge Cleaver, despite the fact that such figures clearly impacted Terry’s own thinking.
Thus, the Department of Defense believed it had created an entity that would quell Black “militancy,” but in fact brought together people committed to the idea that the military could and should be more racially equal. These personnel clearly understood what Defense leadership expected of them and pushed back. As Major General Harold Hayward told an audience:
Young white soldiers agree that there are changes that need to be made, but they can’t see a requirement that they should change their attitude nor the military system. The only requirement they think should be made is in the attitude and performance of young Black soldiers. This is an unhealthy situation.1
Indeed, whereas the military as a whole reacted anxiously to so-called “black militancy,” DRRI instructed that the roots of racism lie within white-created systems and not in Black communities or “militant” stances. It ensured that the military, as one example of a white-dominated institution, was included in this analysis, and, ultimately, it found military leadership more problematic than so-called Black “militancy.”
Unsurprisingly, DRRI came under fire—again around the idea of “militancy.” Despite mounting evidence that DRRI graduates were effective trainers and equal opportunity managers, some base commanders began to complain that the institute had “brainwashed” personnel and created “militants.” They were joined by civilians like staunch segregationist Senator Sam Ervin. Sitting on the Senate Armed Services Committee, he said he was alarmed by what he saw as “official attempts to manipulate people’s minds.”
Amid mounting criticism, the Pentagon did something extraordinary: It carried out surreptitious investigations of its own race relations institute. Even though it eventually decided that DRRI did not aim to be subversive, the Pentagon did believe that it “was somewhat overzealous in its initial training methods” and asked the institute “to modify its approach so that individuals leaving the institute would not appear too militant.” Compounding the pressure, the House Armed Services Committee argued that DRRI eroded discipline and the military, and it cut 700 race relations trainers and equal opportunity managers from the 1974 budget.2 In the coming years, DRRI de-fanged its curriculum, replacing examinations of racism in the military with discussions about intergroup conflict.
Conservative fears of “race relations” and “diversity” workshops are nothing new and they’ve been successfully mobilized to curtail or stop trainings for decades now. But these claims of white injury and Black excess paper over the real fear that, in taking seriously the idea of institutional racism that lays at the heart of such trainings, federal workers and other citizens might come to see racism not as an aberration but as endemic to the nation. Indeed, to accept the validity of the trainings and their critiques would be to accept the illegitimacy of many of the nation’s systems and institutions.