Marine Corps Aims To Tackle Evolving Face Of White Supremacy

Mar 31, 2020
Originally published on March 31, 2020 7:40 am
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Some other news now. The commandant of the Marine Corps, General David Berger, is banning all Confederate symbols from bases around the world. This move comes at a time when the Corps is trying to become more inclusive. Here is Steve Walsh of our member station KPBS in San Diego.

CAMERON MCCOY: Civil war, white supremacy - those are the two things that I see in that specific order.

STEVE WALSH, BYLINE: Cameron McCoy is lieutenant colonel in the Marine Reserves. As an African American, he describes what he sees when he looks at the Confederate battle flag. During his career, McCoy has seen that flag pop up on Marine bases in the South, including seeing it painted on the hood of a pickup truck. He's glad it's being banned from bases around the world.

MCCOY: People may think or believe this is a token measure on the part of the commandant. I don't. I think that it is significant. And I believe it will force the Marine Corps leadership to take a stronger look at itself on issues regarding race.

WALSH: McCoy is also a professor of history at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. He's written about the slow integration of the U.S. Marine Corps, which didn't formally allow African Americans into its ranks until 1942. It's still the whitest and most male of the service branches with the fewest number of African American officers.

MCCOY: In an 18-year career, I can count on one hand how many black lieutenant colonels I've seen.

WALSH: The Marines are also younger than the other branches, which can make it even more of a target for a growing wave of white supremacists. Brian Levin runs the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino. Levin says the Marines know they have a problem.

BRIAN LEVIN: They recognize it. The problem is there's a bureaucracy. And the way people are becoming radicalized has changed even from what it was 15 years ago.

WALSH: Today, white supremacist groups mobilize online. They've co-opted things like the OK sign and other common symbols. Confederate imagery was co-opted as far back as the 1950s, becoming a symbol of white resistance to the American Civil Rights Movement.

LEVIN: Bottom line is we're seeing a reach for this age cohort by a global network of white supremacists. And one of the key things you're looking at - there's even a movement within white supremacy now that says go for military-skilled folks.

WALSH: So far, there has been little guidance from Marine Corps Commandant David Berger. It's not clear if this is just a ban on displays of Confederate memorabilia or includes everything down to Confederate flag tattoos. Berger initially made the announcement in a tweet. It was part of a series of directives aimed at making the Marines more inclusive, not just to African Americans but to women as well. Lieutenant Colonel McCoy says banning offensive symbols won't change the Marine Corps by itself.

MCCOY: The commandant has made an extremely noble and professional gesture. But what does that really mean if I'm a young lance corporal and I've never even seen anybody who's not white in charge of me?

WALSH: In some ways, the Marines have fewer issues than the Army, which has 10 bases named after Confederate generals. The official Navy website for the USS Chancellorsville features a Confederate flag. So far, the other service branches haven't leaped to impose similar bans. The House Armed Services Committee recently held a hearing on white supremacy in the military. Congressional leaders wanted more detail on the number of incidents. But a provision to do just that was stricken from the latest defense budget.

For NPR News, I'm Steve Walsh.

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