Former DIA Director: Please, take your knee off our necks so we can breathe
"I can no longer be silent."
Editor’s Note: This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
It’s difficult to put into words how the nonchalant killing of a black man at the hands of Minneapolis police officers has personally impacted me and saddened me for our country. The horrifying image of an officer placing his knee on the neck of George Floyd on May 25 has seized my every thought and action since, and has convinced me that I can no longer be silent.
By all accounts, I have truly lived the American dream. I am a first generation American who rose to the top of my profession — a living embodiment of the ideal that if you work hard enough, you can achieve anything. Yet hard work is not enough for many of my fellow black Americans, who run into institutional barriers, and all too often face deep-seated fear, contempt, resentment, and hatred.
I am now part of the “privileged” class, a black man who overcame obstacles to become a three-star general, told by white people that at least things are better than they were, while black people think I can’t possibly understand their anger, frustration, or despair. Neither are right.
In truth, my story is more complicated than my military biography can fully describe. In 1971, I left my home of Kingston, Jamaica for the United States, hoping for a better life. Yet it’s hard for me to explain the pain of making a new home in a place where I was now a minority — separate, and unequal. Growing up on the north side of Chicago, I felt I had no future beyond manual, low-skilled labor, and any dream of being a leader or owning a business were out of the question.
It’s hard to explain what it was like for me on the first day of elementary school, or the pain I felt in high school when I was stopped and searched nearly every time I left my apartment. I was never accused of anything; it was a violation for no other reason than my skin color.
I want you to imagine the pain I felt the first time someone called me a nigger. We later played on the same football team. Though we never spoke of the incident, I knew what was in his heart.
I want you to understand the pain I experienced working as a door-to-door salesman, when I was greeted by a man who said he would have shot me had I walked on his porch a month or so earlier, but didn’t, because he was now a Christian.
Not long after, a sheriff picked me up and took me to the jail, though he called it his “office.” He transported me out of the neighborhood for my safety, he said, but I suspect some people had called to complain about a black man walking around who seemed suspicious. As I waited for my manager to come get me, the sheriff, who hadn’t spoken much to me up to that point, asked if I wanted to see a house that had recently burned to the ground, just one day before a black family had planned to move in. I declined. But even now, decades later, the sheriff’s intimidation, and the thought of men in white robes terrorizing others who looked like me, is burned into my memory.
I want you to understand the pain of having a college roommate who was hostile and outwardly racist. Our relationship ended with blows being struck.
And imagine the pain — my pain — of being described as the best black officer in a unit — never described as the best officer in the unit — or never being the first choice for visible prominent assignments, despite a superior record of performance than my peers.
It’s hard for me to explain the pain of looking around an executive-level board room and realizing that you are the only person of color in the room; Block checked, I often think of their discussions, we have one and that’s all we need to achieve diversity. Though it’s a shame we couldn’t get a black female, since we could have checked two blocks.
I want you to understand the pain of hearing that your 16 year-old daughter was told that black people can’t swim after she tried to join a swim club. The adult who told her this laughed hysterically.
I want you to understand the pain of hearing about your son being stopped by police while riding in a car with three white friends. They all had been underage drinking, including the driver, but my son was the only one who spent the night in jail.
I want you to understand the pain of learning that your son was told by a friend that they were not allowed to play with niggers.
I want you to imagine feeling all eyes upon you when you enter a store because you could be a shoplifter or, paradoxically, being ignored by employees who think you can’t afford the merchandise.
And I want you to know how difficult it was to convince a member of Congress that I had earned my position at DIA; that it wasn’t a gratuitous appointment because, in his words, I “must be close to the president,” in reference to President Obama.
These are the experiences of someone who volunteered to defend the nation for over three decades and rose to become a Lieutenant General. Now imagine the experiences of those who are unable to escape generational poverty. I want you to understand their pain.
Though few people of privilege share my experiences, most people of color can recognize nearly every example I’ve described. That’s because many have survived under these conditions every day, every month, and every year of their lives. Surely there must be a long-term psychological impact of this sort of systemic experience.
The pain and societal barriers did not stop me from being successful, but I didn’t do it alone. I stood on the shoulders of the pioneers who broke through barriers at great sacrifice: Men like the Montford Point Marines who, amid the segregated military of World War II, earned the right to fight for liberty, freedom, and democracy, and paved the way for folks like me.
I was mentored and inspired by men like Gens. Colin Powell, Cliff Stanley, and Walt Gaskin. These men broke barriers that facilitated my success. While I can’t begin to imagine their stories, I suspect they too endured many of the same hardships I faced.
But the men who had the greatest impact on my career were three white men of privilege: Lt. Gen. Bob “Rusty” Blackman, and Gens. Jim Amos and Joe Dunford. These men, all now retired, saw something in me and did more than mentor me. They sponsored me, advocated for me, and spoke up on my behalf. They did more than extend a hand to pull me up. They lifted and carried me to the top of my profession. These men were in positions that allowed them to carry me and were able to use their levers of power and influence to elevate me to the top of my profession.
Where would I be without the efforts of these men? And yet, there is a far more important question to be asked of others in positions of power.
Who are you lifting up and helping to get across the finish line? What are you doing to affect positive change in America? Encouraging words are nice, but this country needs action. If you are in a position of power and privilege, I challenge you to mentor and advocate for people who don’t look like you.
In his book “Democracy in America,” Alexis de Tocqueville wrote of his search for the “greatness and genius of America.” He was unable to find it in the fields, forests, mines, commerce, Congress, or even in our Constitution. Instead, de Tocqueville wrote, “Not until I went into the churches of America and heard her pulpits aflame with righteousness did I understand the secret of her genius and power. America is great because she is good, and if America ever ceases to be good, she will cease to be great.”
I will always believe in the promise of America, because if the dream is not possible here, it’s not possible anywhere.
But we must prove to a large part of our own population that we are good. As a person who has had incredible success in this country, I am directly appealing to those in positions of power and privilege to recognize the experiences of your fellow Americans who do not look like you, learn from them, and take meaningful actions to lift them up.
And I want you to imagine what our country would look like then.