‘Sir, I Never Thought I’d See the Day I’d Be Working for a Colored Officer’

Feb 07, 2019 · 125 comments
sleepyhead (Detroit)
The depressing thing is that I found the military so much less racist than private industry. Thank you for sharing and for your service.
eisweino (New York)
I'm confused. “Sir, I never thought I’d see the day I’d be working for a colored officer.” If those words had been spoken by a black enlisted soldier, they would have been interpreted, I presume, as a celebration that times had changed faster than he expected. Why interpret them differently because they were spoken by a white enlisted man, one who had never given cause "to suspect that he would make such a [racist?] statement"? Maybe there's more to the story and something made it clear that he did mean it in an offensive way, but that's not evident from the facts as stated.
eisweino (New York)
@eisweino Edit: On closer reading, I see that he does address my point, sort of, in a single sentence in which he recognizes belatedly that the remark might not have been an case of racist stereotype. The point he does not address is that, in jumping to the conclusion that it was, he had himself been engaging in such stereotyping. Misunderstanding can be a two-way street.
DW (Boston)
I'm sort of surprised (disappointed really) the military hasn't helped to prepare either talking points re: this subject and/or prepared officers to stand their ground to address such a statement. Pioneers that open doors for future generations bear an unimaginable burden. Hopefully the questioning white individual feels better having such an experience. There should be opportunities to develop such talking points to help others.
HistoryRhymes (NJ)
All you have to do google the military academies. In the recent years there have been many stories about these institutions not measuring up to the ideals they have presumably have set for themselves. They seem to cater a white, Christian male student body. Perhaps it’s time to away with these institutions. We seem to be doing fine with the ROTC programs for equivalent recruiting into the corps.
Comp (MD)
As a white American, I am constantly humbled by the patriotism and patience of black Americans. Thank you for your service to our country, which we have not deserved. Thank you for this contribution to dialogue. I pray every day that we will do better, until every American is judged by the content of his or her character.
mls2 (Alaska)
The more things change the more they stay the same. I am a retired Army CW3 and later worked as a civilian Deputy G1 (HR in civilian lingo) to a division level HQs. I have enough stories of racism, insensitivity, & just plain ignorance to fill a very lengthy book that I have experienced over 34 years of combined service to the Army. I don't know how or if this will ever change. I love America & thank God my grandparents immigrated here 100 years ago; growing up in the 60s & 70s living & seeing the civil rights movement I just don't hold much hope that America will ever change. My late father always said: "You can pass all the laws you want, but you can't change how people are educated &/or their attitudes." Sadly he's right. I respect the office of the presidency, but sadly I have very little respect for Mr. Trump & it has nothing to do with party affiliation; as I have great respect for both President Bush'. I found myself teaching my 4 children the same lessons my parents passed to me & sadly my 4 grandchildren are going to get the same lessons. I guess all we can do is educate the best we can. I don't even get angry anymore when these stories of racial hatred, profiling etc... hit the news. I just feel sad that after a bloody civil war, reconstruction, Jim Crow, the civil rights movement, all the assassinations of the 60s we have not progressed. I just try to remember to pray for the protection of my family every morning & thank the Lord at the end of each day.
R. Anderson (South Carolina)
Although I personally haven't seen any overt displays of racism since the early seventies, it's my impression that it is deeply ingrained in some segments of our society and it has been exacerbated by the current occupant of our White House and his advisers.
Meh (East Coast)
My brother, a black Viet Nam vet really, truly met America's racism went he was drafted into service. I remember the pain on my mother's face for her child as clear as day, nearly 55 years later, as he recounted his shock and dismay. He was going to fight for this country and could even be killed for it! Welcome to America!
beam11 (BX)
I am in awe of you, sir. There are so many paths to take in this world & yours has been the most noble. Thank you for your story.
Helen (NY NY)
Powerfully written piece. Timely as well. Keep the faith. You better believe this strikes a cord!
Ken (Houston)
This is why I don't mention my time in the Military, because it doesn't matter out there in the world. Thanks for the article.
Glenda (Georgia)
Thank you for writing this thoughtful and honest article. I'm grateful to know you and unfortunately have shared in many similar moments of prejudice adjacent to my privledge before, during, and after my time at West Point. It's very hard to hold those truths...but what is self evident is that we all need to continue to have these honest, raw discussions. Well done, brother.
texas2e (Asutin, TX)
This is a gut punch of reality because it the communicates author's experience directly. I am now listening to the audio book of "Coach Wooden and Me" by Kareem Abdul Jabbar, read by the author. Same thing.
Stuart Ho (Honolulu)
The Army confronted racism well before MLK and the civil rights marches. I was a 21 year-old Chinese-American second lieutenant from Hawaii who had never been south of New York City before reporting to Ft. Eustis, VA, for my transportation officers' basic training course. My class was comprised entirely of Whites from the South, except for me and two Blacks, one from Brooklyn, the other from Florida. I know my Asian looks confused my White colleagues. I wasn't White. I wasn't Black. The confusion was two-way. I had never seen a "colored" rest room before. The Transportation Corps in the late fifties was a social consequence of Truman's order to integrate because the Army had shrunk. By the fifties, almost all TC enlisted men were White draftees, the non-coms were mostly Blacks who had stayed on after the war, and the officer corps was White at the top and a mix at the middle. At least in the TC, senior officers were under tough orders to make integration work. And to their credit, they made it work–a lot better than the politicians at home a decade later.
Mrs. (Carter)
Giving our children the 'talk' is a part of our existence to raising productive and well mannered African (Black/Afro) Americans. The legacy of service in 'This man's army' has always been a silent issue hovering over and in our communities. When Nazi-Germans were treated better than its own citizens, it was one more issue to contend with. But this issue has giving us a silent rage and another issue of going to service or go to jail when bodies were needed for war. I hope Mr. Wolfe move us further along with his experiences and accomplishments.
HistoryRhymes (NJ)
The white sergeant mentioned in the article sounds ridiculous. Had he never heard of Colin Powell during that time? His comments seem more like wishful thinking than anything else.
Theresa (<br/>)
Sometimes, I just want to cry.
Pete (Delaware)
In April 1944, Sub Chaser PC-1264 was commissioned. It was the first all Afro American crew to completely man a US warship. My father, BM1c Donald Briggs, was assigned to train the crew. He turned them into naval warriors. You can see him 36 seconds into this video: https://youtu.be/ifDj0SvClfU The Wikipedia page for PC-1264 can be seen here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/USS_PC-1264
Thumper (NH)
Thank you for writing this
Marilyn Rosenberg (Spring Hill, Fl)
Beautiful expression of life lived, lessons learned, anger, frustration and acceptance of the past. I would read anything you care to write
Dennis (Ojai, CA)
Thank you for sharing your story. Respect.
Keith (New York)
@ Christoper: Thanks for serving as both an inspiration and a gentle reminder that there is so much more to be done if we are to conquer racism. I am deeply moved by your stubborn determination and dignity.
Cyndy Howe (Irvine CA)
This is a beautifully written piece. I know that most white Americans have no understanding of the extreme brutality of slavery. I have been reading different accounts of slaves lives and how horribly they were treated. It is amazing that one human being could be so extremely cruel to another and have it backed up by the United States government. It certainly didn't end with the Civil War but continues today. Ironically the invention of the I-phone camera may be one of the greatest enders of this extreme cruelty because now the country can see how police brutality continues this racism. God bless Steve Jobs,
zb (Miami )
When Barack Obama was elected president it was easy to imagine we had finally turned the page on to the finale chapter of the worst disgrace and incomprehensible sin of slavery, segregation, and hate that has plagued our nation since before it was even a nation. Add to this the genocide of Native Americans; racial and religious bigotry, and let us not forget the maltreatment of woman and we are confronted with an hypocrisy between our ideals and our reality unmatched in human history. Instead of thinking all of this was finally coming to an end we have discovered that it runs far deeper through our national being then we might have thought was still possible. Who would have thought we could have an openly bigoted president in this day and age.
CTate (USA)
A thoughtful article—as far as it goes. When Wolfe sat near Simone Askew, I thought he might be moved to reflect on sexism and misogyny in the military. Alas, no. He seems to think he’s seeing white supremacy but it’s actually white patriarchy—so he’s missing an important part of the picture. White patriarchy’s death grip on our culture is sustained in no small measure by white women’s embrace of white supremacy and by the embrace of patriarchy by men of color. Wolfe is un-self critically proud of his successful claims to male privilege (at West Pt., in B school, on Wall St.) but in focusing on race without considering sex, he is seeing only two dimensions where there are three.
C McComas (Charlotte)
I find it hard to believe that a senior NCO would find it hard to believe that he would be working for a black officer in 2003. I worked with and was lead by a number of black officers in my military career in Combat Arms and Combat Service support units from 1977 to 2004 the same kind of units that Mr Wolfe seems to have been a part of. Not many black Combat Arms officers, yes. So small that a senior NCO would find it hard to believe that he would be lead by one, no. Who says "Colored" any more anyways? Nobody under the age of 70.
Medhat (US)
Capt. Wolfe (ret.), perhaps inadvertently, illustrates that progress IS taking place in the US military, albeit too slowly. Then First Captain (now current Rhodes Scholar) Simone Askew is yet another step forward, in terms of both race and sex. Steps in the right direction.
Linda (<br/>)
I am a liberal white woman and a college educator, but I grew up in a prejudiced household. I have followed a completely different path than my parents. However, those ugly comments that I heard so often still pop into my head from time to time when I am around black people, and I am ashamed. I am so sorry for the treatment that you have received and thank you for sharing your story with us. And thank you for your service to YOUR country. You are a hero.
Chris (USA)
I used the term “5th Regiment” when I was a cadet but always took it to mean that black cadets chose to spend time with each other rather than that they shouldn’t be at West Point. It’d be nice to live in a world where I could say such a thing publicly as part of an honest conversation without being called racist. I don’t think I’m one, and if I’ve ever offended someone I’d love the opportunity to apologize. When that sort of thing can happen I believe we’ll actually heal as a country.
Nycoolbreez (Huntington)
US Navy 1988-1994 Racism and bigotry was unacceptable in public, but in the closet or off base it was out of control; and I am a white guy. The only time I saw such unorganized yet widespread racism and bigotry was in Greek life at the university I attended after I got out, which was paid for in part by the Montgomery GI Bill.
Robert Burns (Dallas, TX)
I was a plebe at the USNA in the fall of 1957. I was braced up against a wall by a black second classman. He told me he thought I was biased against him. I replied I played football with black classmates, had friends in my high school who were black and I thought he was wrong about me. To this day I don't understand his comments. Is it possible I was blind to my outlook about black people. Perhaps my bias was blind to me but not to him. I hope not but I was a product my generation that perhaps wasn't all that clear eyed.
Ann (NYC)
Ok, where has Christopher Wolfe been "hiding" his superb writing? A stunning essay. I'm looking forward to reading more of your work.
Sam (Pennsylvania)
Reading the news of the last year or two and reading the other comments makes me consider the possibility that this "determination to normalize the ideology of white supremacy" is beginning to crumble around the edges. To paraphrase the Washington Post - bigotry dies in light.
Video Non Taceo (New York, NY)
Whatever happened to the sergeant?
Maureen Kennedy (Piedmont CA)
I remember attending an event of some sort honoring my brother, an F 15 pilot. Maybe 20 years ago. After a time running a federal agency, with many non-white faces in the senior corps, I was shocked by how few were in the room.
Seth (Pine Brook, NJ)
Well done article.
CBarbash (New York)
Mr. Wolfe, please consider running for office.
celia (also the west)
I am sorry your service was so hard. It should not have been. Your writing is moving.
Joe Thomas (Naperville, Il)
Racism still exists although it’s much subtler than years ago. That said, please don’t use it as an excuse for failure. Believe it or not, many ‘whites’ actually root for black people to succeed.
cass county (rancho mirage)
first african american admitted to west point, 1873. first women and including two african-american women admitted, 1976.
MDS (Virginia)
As a young lieutenant in the Navy, a chief told me "I've never worked for a woman before." "Your not", I said, "your working for a lieutenant." Rank is a beautiful thing for elevating minority member's standing in a world of racism and sexism. It helps level the playing field. The emphasis throughout my military career was on performance. And for those that forgot that, I was usually in a position to remind them, not only for my own person but for the benefit of other minorities within the service.
Davym (Florida)
One of the saving graces of the US that helps keep our society from falling into unimaginable chaos and destruction is the unbelievable capacity for forgiveness that black people repeatedly show toward their white privileged fellow citizens. Time and again, like now having just finished this excellent article, I wonder if, and doubt, I would be so forgiving or tolerant of the daily humiliation and continuing racism dished out by the US towards me and my race had I been born black. Raising one's fist at the Olympics; taking a knee during the playing of the national anthem seem like such mild gestures, not even protests, just reminders of what we need to be aware of in our country. They are met with such widespread hollow, chest-puffing faux wounded pride and "patriotism." People of color must just roll their eyes and think, to borrow a line from Eric Clapton, How long ... How long ... How long.
Rusty (NJ)
Loved the piece. 'February snow covered the Hudson Valley, and a cold wind cut across the river'. Is that a 'filler'?
Brad (Oregon)
Thank you for your service and a grateful nation apologies for our continued racism.
Peacemaker443 (Santa Rosa, CA)
@Brad Unfortunately, this 'grateful' nation has apologized for nothing and continues, in subtle and sub rosa ways, to encourage racial, ethnic and gender conflict and discrimination among its various groups.
Linda Maryanov (New York, NY)
Racism's alive and well. And homophobia. And anti-Semitism. Sometimes I fear the more things change, the more they remain the same. Poignant essay. I grew up in 1960s suburban Long Island. Being a New York Jew, I was surrounded by many others. I distinctly remember one car trip, 1966. My grandparents and I were driving from Brooklyn to South Florida. Well into an evening, my grandfather decided it was time to pull off the road and get us a motel room for the night. "Vacancy," the sign said. My grandfather checked us in. My grandfather spelled his surname. "Lichenstein." "Oh, I'm sorry. I was mistaken. We do not have any rooms left." My grandfather thanked him, and politely left, not making any sort of statement nor scene. Once in the car, my grandfather turned to this 12-year-old and said "Do you understand what just happened?" He explained. I've carried the memory of that night with me these 53 years. Yes, I still believe that racism and homophobia and anti-Semitism are alive and well, and that the political climate is encouraging such ill thoughts and potentially dangerous behaviors.
Adeeba Kamarulzaman (Kuala Lumpur)
I am not even an American, but such was the power of this writing, it gave me goosebumps and moved me to tears.
William Burgess Leavenworth (Searsmont, Maine)
This essay expresses clearly the difference between South and North. While Southerners had created a fable of racial inferiority to maintain their cult of slavery-based economics, New England was abolishing slavery, and free black farmers were serving in the militia at Bunker Hill. While southerners depended on live-in tutors for education, thus restricting literacy to the wealthy, New England required public schools open to all children, and funded by taxes on the wealthier families. When Washington came to take command of the small militia army gathered in Cambridge, he received a laudatory poem composed by a black girl who was clearly very literate. In the 19th century, a militia company in a Maine mill town elected a black captain as its leader. We should not forget that colonial New England and the colonial South were two very different countries until after 1865, and are still quite different today.
Madrid (<br/>)
@William Burgess Leavenworth I see what you are saying, WBL, but as someone who was born and grew up in North Carolina among widespread racism with relatively non-racist white parents, I'd suggest you also consider the different but widespread racism in New England. I left North Carolina for college in Boston in 1973 and was shocked by the events of the Boston busing crisis. I thought I had left institutionalized racism behind. I've lived in Boston again since 1989 and the racism is still here. Maybe less widespread and more reticence not to voice it in casual conversation, but it's still here. I'd far rather live in Boston than the American South for many reasons. But as a country, the entire US still has a great reckoning to deal with. There is hypocrisy around race and unquestioned, unconscious white racism all over. I live two blocks from the Boston city line in a very urban, multicultural neighborhood. Less than a mile from my house, there is the Royall House and Slave Quarters in Medford, MA, whose owners gave an endowment to Harvard Law School. Most Ivy League colleges had slave profiteers, financing, founders. Yale, Brown, Princeton... North and South are very different and show racism in different ways. The south has different regions, too....I lived in Memphis for a year in 1977-78 and was shocked by how much worse it seemed than NC. We all need to be held accountable.
Buzz A (pasadena ca)
It’s nicely written but the central theme to me isn’t dealing with racism, it’s having an honest conversation. That never took place. We’re left with the what if’s. As a Marine in Vietnam my first Gunny was black. When I volunteered for ANGLICO he gave a prize possesion, an automatic shotgun and told me , stay alive. I think about that day and all it meant. Is there racism? Clearly yes. But this tells me, take the risk, talk about it.
Thank you for writing this; it is extraordinarily moving. I am ashamed at how far we still have to go in this country to ever get close to true racial equality.
PAD (Torrington, Ct)
Captain Wolfe, My greatest thanks, admiration and regard for your courageous dialogue. You have given us the opportunity to start a conversation that may promote a new sense of commitment and reciprocity, where others rights become our personal responsibility. You introduce to many the complexity of comradeship in times of existential risk. (I am an American soldier, I serve my country and our way of life, and I am prepared to give my life in it’s defense). I regret sounding cliche, but comments like ‘we all bleed red’ from my generation of soldiers (1967-1977), a proudly feeble attempt to build a bridge between white and black soldiers never embraced the fact that proportionately more Afirican-American soldiers were ‘in country’ than white soldiers. I am ashamed and profoundly saddened to know that racists are still existent and tolerated in the Army. This is a leadership failure. The fact that men and women put themselves in harm’s way are harassed and diminished is reprehensible, and should not be countenanced. When I was a child, President Harry Truman said that men and women who commit to fight and die for their country, will be treated as equal under the eyes of the law. How have we strayed so far, and tolerated the Militant Ignorance (Evil) that sustains the conditions that you and your father suffered. It’s time for the courage you have communicated. It’s time to call out the cowards. Many thanks, Bravo Six
Stonepitts (Yreka, CA)
Thank you for your service, sir. And for your continued service to the country and your community through teaching writing at Rykers. As Linda Michel says below, may the day come when we all recognize the need to heal one another. (U.S. Army 1981-1989)
Shaun Narine (Fredericton, Canada)
I find this article striking and disturbing for many reasons. For one, Mr. Wolfe's accounting of his childhood strikes me as something out of the 1950s. Yet, he is only 41 years old (I am 53). His mother's fear of the KKK would have been his experience in the 1980s. I had always been led to believe that the US military was one of the best integrated institutions in the US; Colin Powell, after all, was Chief of Staff way back in the early 1990s. Now I realize how singular his accomplishment must have been and how, apparently, he must have been one of the very, very few black officers of his rank in the US military. When I was growing up, my mother had a whole series of books on the US civil rights movement. I read most of them when I was a child in the 1970s. At that age, events happening only 10-15 years before were a lifetime before and I remember realizing, one day, that the horrible people I was reading about in the books were probably all still alive and continuing to indulge their racist attitudes. It is sad to see I was right.
Paul Dobbs (Cornville, AZ)
Powerful essay that every American should read. And a modestly told story of a life being lived thoughtfully and courageously. Thank you Captain Wolfe. This appears on the same day as the NYT newspaper published an update about Sgt. Isaac Woodard Jr., a decorated black veteran returning from WWII who was brutally beaten and blinded by the white police chief in a small South Carolina town in 1946. I'm often stunned by comments by NYT readers who complain that reporters and columnists are pre-occupied by race and inappropriately see racism at the root of so many problems in our country. The factual and even statistical evidence, historical and contemporary, abounds. The narrative has been brilliantly recorded and analyzed by countless writers from James Baldwin to Ta-Nehisi Coates. This IS the central problem in America. To move this country forward and to live honestly and fully, those of us who may imagine we are "white" must face and absorb this reality of this problem.
Bruce Z (FL)
Thank you, both for your service and for sharing your experience. It’s sad, but in 2019 we white people apparently still need ongoing reminders of our personal and institutional racism.
Paul Dobbs (Cornville, AZ)
Powerful essay that every American should read. And a modestly told story of a life being lived thoughtfully and courageously. Thank you Captain Wolfe. This appears on the same day as the NYT newspaper published an update about Sgt. Isaac Woodard Jr., a decorated black veteran returning from WWII who was brutally beaten and blinded by the white police chief in a small South Carolina town in 1946. I'm often stunned by comments by some NYT readers who complain that reporters and columnists are preoccupied by race and inappropriately see racism at the root of so many problems in our country. The factual and even statistical evidence, historical and contemporary, abounds. The narrative has been brilliantly recorded and analyzed by countless writers from James Baldwin to Ta-Nehisi Coates. This IS the central problem in America. To move this country forward and to live honestly and fully, those of us who may imagine we are "white" must absorb and begin to act upon the reality of this problem.
Leslie (CT)
Thank you so much for a brilliant article. You show strength of character and an ability to not let others define who you are. Whether it be racisms, historical disadvantage, or the many obstacles you had to overcome throughout your life, you succeeded. Your success is an inspiration to all Americans. Your public service a role model to all Americans. May your new career be a road for others to dimish racism, to strive for equality and to join you among those who have achieved the capacity to lead our country toward public service and the accountability of those in power.
Paul Dobbs (Cornville, AZ)
Powerful writing that every American should read. And a modestly told story of a life being thoughtfully and courageously lived. Thank you Captain Wolfe. This appears on the same day as the NYT newspaper published an update about Sgt. Isaac Woodard Jr., a decorated veteran returning from WWII who was brutally beaten and blinded by the police chief in a small South Carolina town in 1946. I'm often stunned by comments by NYT readers who complain that reporters and columnists are pre-occupied by race and inappropriately see racism at the root of so many problems in our country. The factual, even the statistical, evidence, historical and contemporary, abounds. The narrative has been brilliantly documented analyzed by countless writers from James Baldwin to Ta-Nehisi Coates. This IS the central problem in America. To save this country and to save ourselves, those of us who imagine we are "white" must face and absorb this reality.
Jerry Sullivan (Austin, Texas)
As a Texas historian familiar with Henry Flipper’s story, I am truly pleased to see that he is still inspiring young African-Americans. Flipper’s treatment by the frontier Army at Ft. Davis, Texas (named for Jefferson Davis, and is, today, county seat of Jeff Davis County), was disgraceful, an act that should be included permanently in the records of the “honorable” officers that framed, court-martialed, and drummed him out of the service. That group included the commanding general of U.S. Army forces in Cuba, during the Spanish-American War.
Vinnie K (NJ)
This is such a nice thoughtful article. Thank you for the courage of explaining such a deep conflict. Also thanks for teaching at Rikers Island
no1uno3 (Mexico)
As a 1946 grad at the US Naval Academy, I attended the Jewish church group every Sunday … it was obvious to my classmates that I was a Jew … only for that reason. A frequent comment by my non-Jewish classmates was "you are different". Reading this well-written prose by Christopher Paul Wolfe made me realize that I had no outward symbol or coloration of skin that would immediately identify my as a Jew. I was a "white" officer as I began my shipboard duties in the fleet and was never challenged re: being different. This article made me think about the reaction that "might have been" if as a Jew, I had worn a yarmulke under my Ensign's cap. You can't hide "bein' black" … it was not evident that I was a Jew. I was just a white naval officer.
AJ (Trump Towers Basement)
I want to meet this man! And now teaching creative writing at Rikers! Way to do what you feel should be done, and way to want to do some of the good things that need to be done. I'm sure your work at Rikers is making enormous difference in many lives. You have served our country in the military and you continue to serve our people in the missions you have chosen.
Diane Beckman (Cary, North Carolina)
Beautifully written, brought me to tears.
SLJ (Austin, Texas)
Wonderful, well-written piece. Please, Mr. Wolfe, continue writing! Very well expressed.
Guano Rey (BWI)
I took the sgt’s comment to be positive and open, but it all depends on the tone of voice.
Paul Dobbs (Cornville, AZ)
This is a powerful essay that every American should read. And a modestly told story of a life being lived thoughtfully and courageously. Thank you Captain Wolfe. This appears on the same day as the NYT newspaper published an update about Sgt. Isaac Woodard Jr., a decorated black veteran returning from WWII who was brutally beaten and blinded by the white police chief in a small South Carolina town in 1946. I'm often stunned by comments by NYT readers who complain that reporters and columnists are pre-occupied by race and inappropriately see racism at the root of so many problems in our country. The factual and even statistical evidence, historical and contemporary, abounds. The narrative has been brilliantly recorded and analyzed by many eminent writers from Frederick Douglas and Henry David Thoreau to James Baldwin and Ta-Nehisi Coates. This IS the central problem in America. To move this country forward and to live honestly and fully, those of us who may imagine we are "white" must absorb the reality of this problem, and begin to act upon it aggressively.
Rima Regas (Southern California)
I was born in the District of Columbia. I was raised in part in my hometown. I was raised, in part, in Maryland and Virginia, as well as Europe during my early years. I would not be who I am today, were it not for the fact that my mayor, city council and fellow citizens were majority Black. I would not be who I am today, had I not lived, gone to school with, played, socialized, made friends, with my fellow DC, MD. VA neighbors. I would not be who I am, had I not been curious and dubious enough to dig for more than what the education system told me about my mayor, neighbors and fellow classmates. Were it not for my particular set of circumstances, I would most likely be like my aunt, who was born and raised in Southern Virginia and sounded like Chris' seargeant and, at times, far worse. It was that aunt who freely expressed displeasure at my selection of friends. It was that aunt who had very definite ideas about our American social pecking order. No one else in my family contradicted or even attempted to stop those conversations. Our education system was supposed to be the Great Equalizer and, among other things, give us tools with which to counter the miseducation we encountered outside school walls. Forty years later and after having educated my own child at home, supplementing her textbooks along the way, we are no further enlightened and still as fundamentally racist. We still lack truth. --- www.rimaregas.com
jrgfla (Pensacola, FL)
Today, such a comment could not be made, as it is common for a person of one race or gender to report (work, be supervised) by a member of another race or gender. Obviously I know neither of these individuals, but their ranks and accomplishments speak for themselves. Depending on where the 30 something sargeant was raised, I could take his remark as a simple statement that salutes the lieutenant's accomplishments - as compared to what he saw or heard in his youth. I could also take his remark as insulting to the lieutenant's achievements. I prefer the former over the latter.
Lynda (Gulfport, FL)
Many places where military veterans are buried show their religions on their individual stones. The Vietnam Memorial Wall however does not separate names by religion or skin color, although memorials from earlier wars do separate the names of the dead often by listing the name of their units which were segregated. Most towns in the South have separate places for the burial of people by skin color or religion. Less than 4 miles from where I live is a Burial Ground dating back decades for people of color. It was badly neglected, overgrown with weeds, the stones cracked with age or missing. A single volunteer began the clean-up years ago. She inspired a church to take responsibility. After a few legal clarifications, the volunteer and the church seem to be working together to keep the Burial Ground in good condition; people of different skin colors, different religions, working together to show respect for the dead of previous decades. As Trump's record of his time as Commander in Chief is documented, there will be the story of his poor treatment of the widow of a African-American soldier in Niger, captured and killed in a place where we voters did not know we were at war. Trump has not limited his lack of empathy to people of color. His actions on Veteran's Day and on MLK Day were less than respectful. The ban against Transgender people in the military or immigrants wishing to serve is also a change from past Commanders in Chief.
Ferniez (California)
Equality in America is a long journey. Even for someone like Paul who has served this nation well and who was educated at the prestigious West Point it remains a battle. But we need to keep striving, because the nation is changing and the experience of that white soldier will in the future happen more and more. Therein lays the hope and promise for our nation.
J. (Ohio)
I hope the Times will feature more essays and articles by Mr. Wolfe in the future. This is one of the most eloquent and devastating pieces I have read on the racism that permeates our institutions and culture.
Linda (<br/>)
@J. I agree. We need to hear more from Mr. Wolfe.
Mark Kraft (Fort Worth, Texas)
As a recruit at MCRD San Diego in 1986, our platoon was a mixed bag of America. We had everyone from west of the Mississippi. Our DIs were from Minnesota, North Carolina and Puerto Rico. I remember our head drill instructor say we were only one color - green - it might be light green, tan green or dark green - but we were all Green Marines. That stuck with me to this day and always felt the military was the true melting pot of America. I hope that idea keeps going.
Joan In Californiag (California)
With our volunteer military many are southern folks. A site where I once worked had the Stars and Bars flown in the military tech office. Many of the low level civilians of various color were not too pleased. I imagine by now this display of the various state (Confederate) flags no longer is done, but twenty years ago it was a common practice at that site.
Brian Winkel (Cornwall NY)
Chris, thank you for sharing your story. I was a (white) civilian senior faculty member in the Department of Mathematics at West Point from 1995-2011 and worked with many great officers and soon to be officers. One thing I admired about West Pointers was an ability to confront reality, all of it, as they dealt with issues of every day life - including race. I learned this as part of a Values Education Team and in office and hall conversations with cadets and colleagues, opern conversations. I believe we are getting better at valuing all people of all backgrounds, despite the current setbacks exemplified by some of our leaders and certain sections of society. Moreover, with communications like your efforts we will all grow to understand the "other person's" story and life. Again thank you for sharing and thank you for your service to our country.
Jane Arnold (Wisconsin)
@Brian Winkel I hope you are correct in your analyses, Mr. Winkel, but what about the 50% increase in sexual assaults at the academies? Are these prestigious schools suddenly admitting men or perhaps women of much lower character than in the past or has something changed that now allows this “sudden” acting out? How are all entering cadets screened for character and past histories? Recently we have learned about behaviors, including the anti-Semitic salutes of small town boys in my own state, in photos from their proms. Blackface and KKK “costumes” seem to have been, maybe still are, standard accompaniments to growing up. At 75 I have little hope for changes, even small ones. The election of 2016 put an end to what hope I had. Literally millions of people, not only one sergeant or one foolish frat boy or prom goer, voted for our current president. Where did these massive numbers of what many of us thought of as decent Americans come from? And where will they return to when their time in the sun ends? If ever. Please continue writing and thinking, feeling, as you give your kids “the speech.” You are a gifted messenger. Thank you.
octhern (New Orleans)
The article hit me for its poignancy--beautiful piece, grabs you and won't let you go..read it twice. Thank you for sharing.
Margot (New York City)
So moving and so beautifully written. I am passing it on to others. Thank you so much for this piece of writing and all of the thought and feeling that produced it.
Erin Stiling (Pittsburgh)
What an incredibly powerful piece. Should be required reading for literally everyone.
J. R. (Dripping Springs, TX)
Amazing piece of writing about a deeply personal subject of National Depth. Thanks for sharing and hope this is widely read and shared with others.
Stepen P. (Oregon,USA)
Thank you Sir. Wonderful story that crosses much time and attitudes.
Jack (Pennsylvania)
Would that more veterans -- both black and white -- would open up about their experience with race in the military as honestly as Christopher Wolfe. Like him, it was a sergeant with the "discipline and diligence forged in years of service" who helped me mature as an officer. Unlike Chris, I am white and the sergeant was black. Besides giving me invaluable leadership lessons that I hadn't learned in my four years at West Point, Sergeant Davis gave me a racial understanding that was sorely missing in my all too sheltered early life and that has helped me be a better man ever since. It helped me be a more understanding leader in Vietnam during that terrible year of 1968 when our black soldiers were putting their lives on the line while also dealing with the murder of Martin Luther King and letters from home about the riots in their hometowns. Since then I've been proud of all that the Army has done to address racism and sexism. Fifty years later, when West Point appointed a black female cadet commander of the entire Corps of Cadets -- post held by MacArthur, Dawkins and all the heroes of my cadet days -- I was encouraged that our task was near done. Chris Wolfe's article is a timely warning that as long as we have racism in our society, the military cannot -- and should not -- declare mission accomplished.
Richard Mallory (Tucson, AZ)
I am a white 75 year old native Alabamian. The eloquence of this writing on this scourge -this pernicious social and spiritual disease called racism brings tears to my eyes. This infestation has inflicted untold personal suffering and has robbed the country of untapped and unlived creativities by "keeping them in their place." Mr. Wolfe's final statement on the normalizing of white supremacy is a chilling diagnosis of the body politic.
DSM14 (Westfield NJ)
"I still remember the black and brown faces of Iraqis that I helped to round up, zip-tie and detain using tactics similar to stop and frisk, the use of which some courts in America have found to be unconstitutional. These experiences created a moral chasm with which I continue to grapple."--the author is intelligent, yet does not understand that the US Constitution does not apply--for good reason--to non-US citizens in a war zone? Or that Iraqis do not feel racial solidarity with American or African blacks? I hope he protected his soldiers better than these naive statements suggest.
Lee (Michigan)
@DSM14 seems to miss the point that Mr. Wolfe is making here. That the U.S. Constitution does not apply in Iraq is a given. The ambivalence that Wolfe experienced has to do with the prejudice and assumption of white supremacy that contributed significantly both to our decision to invade Iraq and the arrogance of the political leaders whose myopic policy decisions in the early years of our presence in Iraq spawned the resurgence of Al-Qaeda. He recognizes that there is no real difference between the experiences of young Iraqis on the streets of Baghdad or Basra and those of black and brown youth on our own urban streets.
Paul Dobbs (Cornville, AZ)
@DSM14 I for one am confident that Captain Wolfe, with his impressive academic credentials, understands the limits of the US Constitution. But why on earth would you think that he does not? (1) He did not assert that those constitutional rights should be extended to non-US-citizens in a war zone; he merely observed that at the time he was denying those Iraqis certain rights that are guaranteed to US citizens and (2) It is appropriate and valuable in a civilized society to point out that war (aside from whether it can be justified or not) is a tool of mankind that regularly denies people basic human rights. I find nothing naive in Wolfe's sentences. I believe we have every reason to believe he protected his soldiers admirably.
Lynn Fitzgerald (Nevada)
There’s always one or more of your types out there. He’s expressing a human emotion he experienced with a “foreigner “/combatant in a war zone but you don’t want to understand that kind of emotional subtlety; relating to another human being, triggered by a similar experience of humiliation, fear and invisibility, trying his best to convey and share that emotion in a short story, that skill set you can’t seem to appreciate. You just want to be that guy whom has to reveal what a constitution legal scholar you are to make an empty inconsequential point about (who knows what). You’ll never get it as we’re seeing in Virginia.
Shocking. Martin Luther King was assassinated soon after the start of my Infantry Officers Candidate School class in 1968 in Georgia. Ft Benning was closed, anticipating a race riot, weapons were placed under guard. I wondered about our four black classmates then, navigating their way through the tips of opposing swords. One was recycled late under dubious circumstances, precipitating a mini-revolt among the majority of our company. Another, a staff sergeant, became our honor graduate. He selected helicopter flight school, soon to be dismissed from the service for an inappropriate relationship with a fellow officer's wife. Another would become former Alabama Governor George Wallace's official spokesman. Another would become a full colonel in the Texas Army National Guard. Some 45 years later I would meet the father of my daughter's high school classmate, an African American, a full colonel and a physician. I had seen him play defensive back at West Point years earlier. His son would play offensive tackle at Rice and Texas. A brilliant mathematician, he's headed to Wall Street as quant, with maybe cup a cup of coffee in the NFL intervening briefly. Tales like Mr Wolfe's in 2019 make my head hurt. Tales of blackface in a 1984 yearbook page of, allegedly, a gent whose next step was to put on an Army Medical Corps uniform, makes my head hurt. In spite of this, Mr Wolfe's default impulse is to serve, in and out of uniform. So I may despair, but I'm not giving up.
Buttercup (Brooklyn)
A beautiful and piercing piece of writing. Looking forward to more of Chris Wolfe's work! We need more of these stories.
Rabble (VirginIslands)
Americans are suspicious and distrustful of people from the next school, street or neighborhood, never mind those from another state, those who speak with a different accent, those that root for a rival sports team. A different shade of skin or shape of nose or curl of hair is sufficient to cause far too many Americans to act like ignorant idiots - why 'those' people are not like us and never will be. Perhaps the only permanent solution to bone-deep racism will happen when the non-caucasian populations are, finally, in the majority. When most of the people within your sightline, in your markets and banks and post offices, in the military and the schools, in Town Hall, and Family Court, the people who are in charge of Main Street and Wall Street, when everyone around is black and brown and tan, having white skin will become the anomaly and seem, somehow, out of place, not quite right, reason for scrutiny. It cannot happen soon enough.
Jen (NC)
That doesn’t sound like a solution to the problem
Don (Tartasky)
What I truly love about the military (served 21 yrs as an officer) is that it’s the last great melting pot. Accordingly, I strongly favor universal service (military or civilian). The blending of ethnicities in a common cause—service above self—will level the playing field and help folks move beyond stereotypes.
Ron D. White (Denver)
@Don Thank you for the right answer. Universal service, military or civilian, is something we really lost. For no good reason we moved toward wider separation and away from common causes. Thanks again Brother.
Joseph Coulter (Florida)
@Don For so many of us in the 60's Draft and war resistance were the same battle. We did not realize the incredible good work that the draft did in equalizing the experience and burden of national defense. While the Army did not give me my first friends of color, it did give me the opportunity to work side by side with a diverse group. It also allowed me to see that the burden placed on some groups is significantly higher than on others. Even though the draft was an equalizer, things were not equal.
Cxcmrc (Tucson)
Thank you for this beautifully written and honest article. Given all of your accomplishments and service, the experiences you recount are, no doubt, demoralizing. I'm sorry you and others continue to experience harm from the willfully ignorant. There is no excuse.
The military is a microcosm of society. It also is a type of lab of how people can, or won't, get along. As a young soldier (65-68) from the north, I never understood the racism, anti-Semitism and other biases that many other soldiers demonstrated. It didn't make sense to me, given that our lives depended upon one another. It still doesn't make to me.
Posaune (Seattle)
@DMI I grew up in Berkeley, California where, as a teenager, I was unaware of racial problems (now I realize that I was naive). I didn't experience OVERT racism until I served in Germany in 1964 where the Southern white NCO's were outed for doing "KuKluxKlan" kinds of things on the base and the mess hall was voluntarily segregated.
Linda Michel (Massachusetts)
Thank you for your service and your honesty in sharing your experiences. Our institutional racism has inflicted psychic wounds on the entire nation and one can only be in awe of individuals like yourself who have chosen to persevere despite it. May the day come when we all recognize the need to heal one another.
Tournachonadar (Illiana)
Just to remind people of one historical factoid: it was the massive enlistment of newly freed black men into the Union Army beginning in 1862 that turned the tide of our Civil War. Without their indispensible contribution, who knows how much longer that conflict would have lasted? Black men had an immediate stake in the military outcome of each battle as "contrabands" [escaped slaves] poured into the columns of soldiers and became fighters themselves.
Ginnie Kozak (Beaufort, SC)
@Tournachonadar Beaufort, SC was one of the first places where black troops were recruited and trained, because the are was occupied by Union forces in November and December, 1861. One of the officers working with the 1st South Carolina Regiment (the first authorized black unit in the US Army) was Col. Thomas Wentworth Higginson, who was also a Unitarian Minister, abolitionist, women's rights activist, literary editor and Emily Dickinson's mentor. His diary entries from Beaufort showed admiration for the intellect and leadership of his black NCOs--which was unusual among the white officer corps. Many of the members of the 1st SC are buried in our National cemetery under headstones labelled USCT (United States Colored Troops).
Brian Tilbury (London)
As a USAF young enlisted man in 1959, I remember the first black officer I met when Captain Troutman joined the unit. We had about 8-10 white officers in the unit and interesting enough, Troutman was the only officer with a college degree bc the other officers were older, WWII and Korea recalled guys who had joined as Aviation Cadets when college wasn’t required.
John B (Fort Myers, FL)
When I was in the Marines in Vietnam and in the States I never saw a black officer. I'm sure there were but few scattered around the Corps. Facing the prejudices that the author cites, why would a Black choose a military career at all? Further, one might ask when was the last time the U.S. deployed against 'white' opponants.
Rich (Northern Arizona)
@John B During Vietnam as a Navy officer, I think I encountered less than five Black officers. I trained with the Marines at Pendleton. I never met any Black Marine officers. However, during 1968-69 I spent a year with an Army Advisory Team. My second Ops officer was a Major from Puerto Rico, and after he was wounded, he was replaced by a Black Major. I once needed permission from an Army Brigade CO to operate in his AO. He was a Black Brigadier General. The Army was the most egalitarian of all the services at that time. The Navy then was the most reactionary.
Martha Shelley (Portland, OR)
@John B As far as I know, the last time the U.S. deployed against "white" opponents was 1941, against Nazi Germany.
DSM14 (Westfield NJ)
@John B "one might ask when was the last time the U.S. deployed against 'white' opponants."--I guess you missed the bombing of white opponents in the Balkans and the decades of massive effort to be ready to fight Russia.
John Mardinly (Chandler, AZ)
Read the Wikipedia article about Henry O. Flipper. What they did to him was shocking.
dilbert dogbert (Cool, CA)
It struck me that Mr. Wolfe may have missed an opportunity to respond to the white soldier with: Sir, I never thought I'd see the day when I'd be a colored officer over white soldiers."
scb (Washington, DC)
@dilbert dogbert It would be awkward for an officer to refer to his sergeant as "Sir."
BH (Maryland)
He may have thought something like that if it were 1963, and not 2003.
danarlington (mass)
@dilbert dogbert Maybe Wolfe missed the opportunity to hear the white soldier fess up about his racism and try to make some kind of accommodation. The soldier didn't choose his words in a way that would encourage that kind of interaction but maybe the impulse was there. Who knows?
JR (Chicago, IL)
Thank you, thank you, thank you, Mr. Wolfe.
What a beautiful, tragic, inspiring piece. I feel humbled & sad all at once. Thank you letting us into your heart. When I came to the sentence about the white girlfriend, a memory of my own popped up. I was 13, an insecure, fat & ugly girl (so I was told). I had a crush on the most handsome boy in the 8th grade. It was our class Christmas party. To my astonishment & utter disbelief, that gorgeous boy asked me to dance. I nearly fainted. I was clumsy, he moved like a lithe cloud in a sunny sky. I could not wait for dinner to tell my story. “Marwin Gibson asked me to dance at our party! It was wonderful!” Dead silence as my “liberal”, “unbiased”, “we-have-Negroes-at-our-house” parents exchanged weighted looks. After what felt like hours, where I wondered what could possibly be wrong, my mother, quietly, said: “That was very nice of you, Kathy. But you know we don’t marry them, don’t you.” (Not a question. A statement of indisputable fact.) I couldn’t mount a response, but I wanted to scream, “I didn’t do ANYthing ‘nice’. I will never in my life get a gift of such incredible affection & race-less regard. Nor will I ever forget it... “ As I write this, like the ending to a Hallmark movie, Marwin Gibson is holding me, guiding me across the classroom floor. And I am looking up into that beautiful face with the warm smile & huge brown eyes you could fall into. And I am happy.
Stan Swienckowski (Quechee, Vt.)
@KATHLEEN STINE ...wow !! So, beautifully, touchingly expressed, Ms Kathleen Stine. Thank you for sharing the moment who your young/still young heart soared.
BH (Maryland)
What a heartfelt and beautiful remembrance.
J. (Ohio)
A memory of mine from the 60’s was also stirred. I was participating in a high school group foreign study course that was joined by a group of students from the Bahamas. We all became good friends quickly and were having so much fun together, when a chaperone for another group of students from Chicago demanded that we stop hanging out together. She was upset because we were white and the Bahamian kids were black. I will never forget the hurt in my new friends’ eyes and their tears. We, and our group’s chaperones, spoke out against that woman and her racism. Although we probably didn’t change her views, at least we silenced them. While we went on to have many wonderful times together that summer, everyone’s experience was tarnished by that woman’s hideous racism. Witnessing the impact of another white person’s racism, and fighting back against it, were probably the most important lessons I learned that summer. Tragically, our country still has so far to go.
Pat (Somewhere)
If in 2003 someone still thought it was OK to call the author "colored" right to his face, and the author being his military superior no less, it might help explain how in 1984 a group of medical students thought it was also OK to dress up in blackface for yearbook photos. Unbelievable.
Kelly (Maryland)
Thank you for writing this piece. You are a talented writer. Thank you for your service to our country.
Cheryl Wooley (LA)
How blithely some people make assumptions about race. The slaves were freed in 1863. It took another hundred more years of terror and Jim Crow laws before a civil rights movement strove to correct those injustices. There are people whose parents and grandparents grew up under Jim Crow. Those stories are still fresh in the minds of today's generations. It has but a blink of an eye historically. I salute the author for his service, not just in the military but his continued service to the country.
Lawman69 (Tucson)
Thank you Mr. Wolf, not only for your service but for this insightful article. Several thoughts - First, you and your dad must be exceptionally proud of each other. Soldiering on with honor while stll impacted by the residuals of JIm Crow and white ambivalence. I served in the army (1969 -1976) and at about 5 different posts, including Bragg in the Airborne in the early ‘70s. There were few black officers then but lots of black NCOs and regular soldiers. Many of the NCOs I met were superb leaders as well as true patriots. This was my first real experience with lots of black people and I came away in amazement - with a feeling that these soldiers served with such grace and class despite the institutionalized racism that existed while you were growing up. We owe you an enormous debt that will never be repaid. Keep up the good work you are doing now. I hope a memoir is in your plans.
Robert (Clayton)
Mr Wolfe, Thank you for your service to our country both in the military and every day in civilian life. And thanks to your family for their devotion and sacrifices to family and country. I am so glad I read your essay this morning. It is a fine piece of writing. I will made sure others around me read it also.
Matt Foster (Vermont)
Thank you for your and your family's service. As a former soldier from the 1990s I was shocked to hear the NCO's comment, but upon reflection, I agree that he was probably reaching out to start an honest conversation because the bond between you two was there. The emotions tied to race too often get in the way of honest conversations.
Mellonie Kirby (NYC)
@Matt Foster-Perhaps he should have asked to have a personal/private discussion with the NCO.
Alex Kent (Westchester)
An amazing piece. And depressing. Thanks for writing it.
See also