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Marines Say Banning Confederate Flag Is Only One Step To Confronting Racism In The Corps

Stephon Williams, Senior Human Resources and Operations Manager in the Marine...

Credit: Courtesy of Stephon Williams

Above: Stephon Williams, Senior Human Resources and Operations Manager in the Marine Corps, retired in 2014.

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Top Marine leaders issued a call to have a conversation surrounding race in the Corps, but Marines say that conversation has never been easy.

Aired: June 26, 2020 | Transcript

From the time Marine recruits enter boot camp, they’re told that the service is colorblind — that there are no white Marines, brown Marines or Black Marines. Everyone is Marine green.

“That statement, I’m totally against. And I explain it to a lot of the leaders,” said Stephon Williams, who retired from the Marines in 2014. “When you tell people you’re all green, it’s like saying I don’t see color. If you don’t see color you don’t know who is on your team. So I have to know that as an Asian Marine, I know the cultural challenges you’re going to have in the Marine Corps.”

After the death of George Floyd, Gen. David Berger, the commandant of the Marine Corps, called on the Marines to have a conversation about race. The Marines reinforced the point by following up with specific guidance to the commandant’s order in February to ban Confederate flag symbols from throughout the Corps. KPBS talked to a number of Marines who say this has always been a difficult conversation to have in the Corps.

Williams owns HABU Leadership Development Training in Jacksonville, Florida. As a Marine, he spent a great deal of time facilitating conversations on racial bias in the Corps and for senior leaders in the Department of Defense. He still works with Marine units as a consultant.

Williams said he remembers walking into an empty barracks and seeing his new roommate had a Confederate flag on the wall.

“I told him, 'Hey listen, this is not going to work out, I’m going to have to leave.' And they pulled me out of the room and I got a different roommate. But later on that person was actually court-martialed for actively recruiting into a racist organization.”

Early in his career, Williams said he didn’t think about reporting the incident to his command, fearing he would be the one who would get in trouble.

“When you go against the grain, you get singled out. You don’t want to be labeled an outcast, right,” Francisco Martinezcuello, a retired Marine captain who now lives in San Diego.

Martinezcuello retired from the Marines in 2015. Originally from the Dominican Republic, as a kid he was attracted to the macho image of the Corps. He remembers talking to a friend in his unit who was African American when it became clear his friend was being given extra duty.

“I actually remember talking to him and apologizing to him,” Martinezcuello said. “And it got me really emotional because I didn’t do anything about it. I just looked at him and said, 'Well, you got to do it,' but I didn’t speak up.”

It is a common story told by several retired Marines. Travis Horr is director of governmental affairs for the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. In 2010 and 2011, he was at an isolated post in Helmand Province, Afghanistan.

He is white, like most of his unit. He remembers Marines complaining about their corpsman, the Navy term for medic, who was African American. Horr said he remembers defending him, especially after seeing him help save an Afghan woman’s life.

“So why are you giving him a hard time? Probably not as much as I should have, in retrospect, but I was young and again,” Torr said, sighing deeply.

It’s a difficult conversation especially inside the hierarchy of the Marine Corps, Williams said.

“First, let me tell you why people don’t speak up,” he said. “They look at what they’re willing to lose to do the right thing,” Williams said. “We’re a little different because a lot of people have power around us. But we talk about intestinal fortitude all the time. And moral courage all the time.”

Williams worked in personnel for a significant portion of his career. He remembers white Marines who didn’t want an African American president’s name on their retirement papers.

Quinton Hinnant was a sergeant. He left the Marines in December after four years in the corps. Like other Marines, Hinnant said there has been change. But it’s been slow. For Hinnant, honest and open conversation is key. It binds together people, and it binds together units, or shops.

“And where you don’t have that connection where you can talk to someone,” Hinnant said. “And have a friendly conversation at all times, not just be work-related. It could diminish relationships between shops. It could diminish relationships between people.”

Like other Marines, Hinnant said the ban on the Confederate flag was a tangible sign that the Marines are serious about tackling racism in the Corps. He said the Corps is no worse, but no better than any other American institution when it comes to confronting racial issues. The Marines announced the guidance on enforcing the ban June 5. It bans everything from bumper stickers in Marine parking lots to displays in front of military-run housing.

Adm. Michael Gilday, the chief of Naval Operations, followed with his own announcement that the Navy would also ban Confederate symbols. Meanwhile, on June 18, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper announced he was ordering the Pentagon to take yet another look at how racial dynamics play out across the military.

Listen to this story by Steve Walsh.

This story is part of our American Homefront Project, a public media collaboration on in-depth military coverage with funding from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and The Patriots Connection.

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Photo of Steve Walsh

Steve Walsh
Military Reporter

opening quote marksclosing quote marksI cover military and veterans issues for KPBS and American Homefront, a partnership of public radio stations and NPR. I cover issues ranging from delpoying troops along the California border to efforts to lower suicide rates among veterans.

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