Call to Action: Race in The Marine Corps: Let’s Have the Discussion

by Col Christopher Woodbridge, USMC(Ret)

Recent highly publicized incidents of apparent and alleged police brutality against African Americans and the equally publicized and politicized global responses ranging from organized marches, peaceful protests, and civil disobedience to violent riots, looting and revenge-based lawlessness have once again laid bare a flaw lying beneath the veneer of American civil society. Actual and perceived racial injustice are a lingering weakness that touches the entire nation and can even touch the Corps as a reflection of that nation’s society. 

The difference is that as a military hierarchy, the Corps has the responsibility to be better than society-at-large through the action and authority of engaged leadership. Some leaders and Marines believe that there is no such problem in the Marine Corps. This disagreement should indicate the imperative to discuss these issues head-on in order to make the Corps a more cohesive warfighting organization. 

The purpose of the Call-to-Action is to provide a forum—under the aegis of the Professional Journal—to have that honest, frank discussion in a respectful, fact-based and above all constructive manner. Problems identified through facts must be paired with realistic solutions.

The following articles are the first offerings in this discussion. More will follow and readers may add their comments to the “thread.”

One Tribe Requires Inclusion by Col Christopher Shaw

The Petersen Chair at Marine Corps University by Col Kenneth D. Dunn

Corps Voices Podcasts: LtGen Frank E. Petersen, “It’s Just Not Going to be That Way”

Based on these first offerings, here are some initial questions for the discussion:

Is the current paucity of African American officers at the rank of Lieutenant General and above an indicator of institutional racism in the Corps, or the result of a combination of factors that lead to a shortage of qualified officers?  Could both be true, and is there something else leaders should consider?

Are incidents of “racial micro-aggressions” indicative of conscious and unconscious racial bias in the Corps or are they symptomatic of a general rudeness and degeneration of civil behavior in the nation as a whole? In either case, how could the environment or “command climate” perpetuate these unacceptable behaviors?

What is the role of Professional Military Education and the Marine Corps Culture of Learning in building understanding on all sides of this issue?

What can individual Marines do to “police their own” to shape a cohesive environment of trust and inclusion? 


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  1. I am very proud of my professional journal for prompting this conversation. I think we need to acknowledge some of the difficulties right up front in terms of having an open and objective conversation. I applaud the call for data on the issue because it is necessary. As I sit here and think about my own answers to the questions I realize anything I contribute may fall in the realm of anecdotal: “well, this one time” or “my perception is.” And this includes conversations with several African American officers on this topic. Perhaps that is one need from this: how does the service get the right data to inform policy decisions to ensure all Marines have an equitable opportunity for success/advancement? I think we also need to clearly define terms in this discussion. I have never liked the term ‘institutional racism.’ Racism is a belief that individuals hold and may act upon. So we can ask ourselves what we can do about our members that act upon that belief and I think we have policy and procedures in place to deal with that if leaders engage on it. But I find it odd to think that my service as an institution believes in the inherent superiority of one race over the other. The better question to ask to get down to brass tacks on this is: what specific policies or practices limit the advancement of one race over another? Perhaps the recent decision to remove photos from selection boards is an example. Again, is there data on that? I’ve heard the pros and cons of that approach so not sure how we will show this has helped in terms of more equitable opportunities for advancement. Thomas Hobbs offers some examples of practices at TBS that make minorities less successful and interestingly brings up the issue of racial quotas actually hurting minority advancement (putting them into MOSs they dont want). Its a thought provoking read, but again, does the service have the data and willing to share it to bear out his observations? Looking forward to the discussion on this and hope we have many clearly defined, data-driven submissions.

  2. This may be beyond the scope of the call to action, but related also are the wars that the Marine Corps has fought.

    Every war since the war of 1812 (even further back to 1805 the Battle of Derna) to now, and examine every counter factuals of those conflicts.

    Gen. Smedley Butler’s ‘War is a Racket’ included all the banana wars he’s ever fought, but I don’t think he ever lumped WWI as part of the list, but it was indeed since the biggest push for American involvement in that war was largely economic/finance, related to banana wars.

    Also re-examine the Civil War, was it just states rights vs. slavery, what would’ve happened if the South was left alone? The reason we celebrate Cinco de Mayo is precisely because the South made a deal with France (Napoleon III) for support.

    Iran-Contra in the 1980s was just extension of Smedley’s banana wars.

    My point here is that the wars we waged have largely been racial wars. Col. “Pete” Ellis put pen to paper the very bias everyone was thinking. So maybe PME can do a better job by Oliver Stoning every war battle the Marine Corps has ever fought.

    The CMC’s EABO plans will require less racist Marines, because of more interaction with what John Boyd called the third leg. The civilians abroad.