Lynne Chandler García is an associate professor of political science at the U.S. Air Force Academy. The views expressed are the author’s own.
As a professor of political science at the U.S. Air Force Academy, I teach critical race theories to our nation’s future military leaders because it is vital that cadets understand the history of the racism that has shaped both foreign and domestic policy.
Cadets, like all military members, take an oath to defend the Constitution with their lives — so it is crucial they have a sensitive understanding of that Constitution.
In my classes, cadets learn about the ideals embedded in this founding document. We explore the liberalist theories that promoted these ideals, and we embrace our democratic system of government. But we also acknowledge that the United States was founded on a duality: liberalism and equal rights on the one hand; inequality, inegalitarianism and second-class citizenship on the other.
Critical race theory provides an academic framework to understand these nuances and contradictions. It helps students identify the structural racism and inequality that has been endemic in American society. And it provides methods for deconstructing oppressive beliefs, policies and practices to find solutions that will lead to justice.
The reality of the Constitution is that it upholds the rule of law and human rights, but once also allowed slavery and has been used to perpetuate legal discrimination. As Frederick Douglass pointed out, although the Declaration of Independence and Constitution espoused liberty and justice, enslaved people had no part of those virtues and no reason to celebrate a day like the Fourth of July. Thurgood Marshall suggested a “sensitive understanding of the Constitution’s inherent defects and its promising evolution.”
This extends to understanding ourselves as the U.S. military. The military was among the first institutions to desegregate and has a celebrated history of diversity in its ranks, though that history has long been complicated. For instance, serving in the military was a path to freedom for some enslaved people, and thousands of Black soldiers, both enslaved and free, fought for America as early as the Revolutionary War. At the same time, George Washington is said to have initially opposed the recruitment of Black soldiers.
In other words, racism was ingrained in the system from the beginning, and the military still struggles with these issues. As a recent inspector general’s report on disparities in the Air Force and Space Force pointed out, Black service members lag behind their White peers in promotion rates but are overrepresented in disciplinary actions. Further, a recent Defense Department report documented the threat of white supremacy within the ranks. Cadets need to understand these contradictions within their institutions.
In addition to teaching critical race theories, I provide my cadets with lessons on political discourse and breaking down divides of polarization through communication and empathy. Cadets at the Air Force Academy will soon command racially diverse units. Racial minorities serve, especially in the enlisted corps, at greater rates than their representation in the general civilian workforce. As of May 2018, Black representation in the enlisted force was 19.1 percent, compared with roughly 13 percent in the general workforce.
Officers must comprehend the unique experiences and concerns of their diverse troops. A holistic education leads to understanding and unity as service members consider what it’s like to walk in another’s shoes.
Our officer development curriculum is founded on pushing cadets outside their comfort zones: They jump out of planes, leap off 10-meter platforms, endure grueling physical challenges and assume difficult command responsibilities. Their intellectual development should be no different. To think critically and read broadly is fundamental to making them future leaders for times of both war and peace.
I don’t coddle my cadets out of fear that exposure to certain literatures might make them uncomfortable or test their existing beliefs. Cadets must learn to be brave on the literal battlefield, yes — but they must also be equipped to participate bravely on the battlefield of ideas.