Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Mark Milley testifies before a Senate Appropriations Committee hearing, Thursday, June 17, 2021, on Capitol Hill in Washington.
( Evelyn Hockstein/Pool via AP
Melissa Harris-Perry: Hi everybody. I'm Melissa Harris-Perry, and this is The Takeaway. General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff set off a firestorm last week when he said this.
General Mark Milley: On the issue of critical race theory, et cetera, I'll obviously have to get much smarter on whatever the theory is. I do think it's important actually for those of us in uniform to be open-minded and be widely read. The United States Military Academy is a university and it is important that we train and we understand. I want to understand white rage and I'm white.
Melissa: Now, the reaction to his comments have been, let's just say out of proportion and also more than a little rude.
Male Speaker: He's not just a piggy, he's stupid.
Melissa: Like so many other aspects of this recent, somewhat disingenuous debate over critical race theory, the General's comments ended up revealing more about his critics than they exposed about him. On Friday J. D. Vance, the author and social media firestarter tweeted, "What I find too enraging about the joint chiefs pandering on progressive wokeness is that they know damn well the geography and politics of who dies in American wars. The conservative American through trash are disproportionately bleeding for this country."
Now, I'm not sure if Vance knows that African-Americans make up 19% of the active-duty enlisted, which means Black folk are disproportionately fighting and bleeding for the country, but bad statistics aside, General Milley's comments and the criticism that those comments evoked, raised important questions about who can lay claim to serving and sacrificing for the nation. Here to explore that with me is Scott Farris, author of Freedom on Trial, The First Post‑Civil War Battle Over Civil Rights and Voter Suppression. Great to talk with you again, Scott.
Scott Farris: Hello Melissa. It's always a pleasure.
Melissa: It feels to me like January 6 revealed some serious problems with former military and police officers being radicalized. Couldn't an exploration being widely read of issues of race help to address that?
Scott Farris: Oh, I would agree 100% with that, Melissa. Obviously, we know that groups like the proud boys, patriot prayer, oath keepers, et cetera, et cetera, have made no secret of the fact that they encouraging their members to join the military as well as local police forces. I guess they have some fantasy about someday being in a position of authority if they ever have to take over the United States government or something like that. I think it's a problem that General Milley was certainly wise to raise. I hope it's not very extensive. In fact, we don't have good data to know how extensive Neo-Confederate and white supremacy views are in the military, but it's certainly a concern.
The military being one of the most integrated institutions in American society, you mentioned that 19% of all the active duty are African-Americans, and 40% are people of color. Obviously, you want to have an organization of that size be harmonious so you need people to understand each other, understand their backgrounds, understand those special experiences. I think as you said, General Milley is offering the fairly commonsensical notion that, "Hey, I should learn about all the people under my commands and understand how they think so that they can all work better together."
Melissa: Now, J. D. Vance is an author of Hillbilly Elegy and thinks about working-class folks. It does seem to me that there's a working-class over-representation in the military. Is that right?
Scott Farris: I'm sure to some degree, there's some truth to that in a sense that it's an all-volunteer army, so it is self-selected. I think a lot of people who don't have obvious pathways to success in business and other things, see the military as a great career or a way to raise money for college. I do believe that people from the working classes probably are disproportionately represented, but I don't think it's on a racial basis. It's more on a class basis.
Melissa: Scott, when you see this question of who is in the military and what is that military service, that feels to me like it's questioning American identity at its core.
Scott Farris: I think it is. Though it's interesting. On the flip side too, I think that obviously people of color and other people who've been underrepresented in society, Catholics for example, once discriminated against pretty widely, have often seen military service as a way to assert their patriotism and by doing that, hopefully winning equal rights within society. I think that you should have seen starting with the Civil War in which African-American troops were a deciding factor in the Union winning that war, a large number of folks have enlisted in Civil War and the First World War, certainly the Second World War.
Again, with the expectation showing, "Look, I love America, I'm willing to sacrifice my life for this country and its ideals. Then when I come home, I'd like to see those ideals represented." Yes, It is a sign of patriotism and it's one that both folks and minority folks have used to try to advance their equal rights, but I think it's also, as you said a sense that this is some statement of patriotism. It's a fact if I'm a veteran, I obviously love this country.
Melissa: Is this attack on so-called critical race theory, which is really a straw man here, but feels like it's an attack on engaging in intellectual academic scholarly debates around race. Is this consistent with how conservative white discourse has operated over the decades? Or is this a departure? Is this something new?
Scott Farris: No, no, this is very much in the American tradition sadly. I think that one of the things-- We've talked about this before, Melissa. This is all about a struggle for political power. It's very cynical ploy used by some to divide America by race for their own purposes. We see that for example in the populous movement of the late 19th century. It's not a coincidence, I don't think that the rise of populism coincided with the implementation of Jim Crow. People were very anxious that whites and Blacks, poor farmers, and others didn't align themselves in a new political coalition to try to upset the status quo because those who benefit from the status quo like to maintain it.
We've seen this with that. Then, of course, we also went through McCarthyism where people were forbidden to teach Marxism and socialism in schools and there was all sorts of distress. Again, that was not white. Just as with critical race theory is not widely taught in American universities let alone kindergartens. Marxism and socialism was not particularly widely taught in American colleges in the 1940s and '50s, but it was a good bugaboo to again try to define your party, try to paint the other side is not as American as you are. I think you're right, CRT is a strong man. Unfortunately, we set up a lot of strong men in American history.
Melissa: I'm wondering though if it's a miscalculation. I'm thinking about your own writing and the ways that somehow knowing some of the horrors of American race of white supremacy actually reconnects me to my experience as an American. It gives me a sense of optimism, of movement forward, and of the possibility of change.
Scott Farris: Absolutely. As you know, that's one reason I wrote the book Freedom on Trial was that I did want to explore my own family's history in a very important part of racial conciliation in American history reconstruction, learned that my great-grandfather was a member of the Ku Klux Klan and was indicted for assaulting some Black men to prevent them from voting. It did not make me love America less, it made me love it more because you start to see the struggle that people of color and others have had over the years, women included to try to achieve their place in society and want to see the declaration, the constitution live up to the ideals that were stated so eloquently 200 plus years ago. I think a very truthful, honest look at American history, it doesn't diminish your love of country. If anything, I think it expands it. It certainly did in my case.
Melissa: I would agree. Is there one thing that you would want folks to read other than Freedom on Trial if they were beginning to do some of this work for themselves?
Scott Farris: Absolutely. One reason I wrote the book is I hoped that it would inspire people. As I mentioned in the book, when we have ancestors that did great deeds, we put their portrait above the mantlepiece and we brag about it, we belong to the daughters of the American revolution and the sons of the Confederate veterans and all these things. When our ancestors also do something wrong, I think that we need to understand that. I don't say it means we inherit their guilt, but it does mean that there be queasiness with obligations to help solve the problems that still linger. I think it's very important for all of us to take a look, not only at our American history but our family history because often they're one of the same.
Melissa: Scott Farris is the author of Freedom on Trial: The First Post-Civil War Battle Over Civil Rights and Voter Suppression. Thank you for joining me, Scott.
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