The young midshipman heard the question but kept walking as he neared a group of White students at the Naval Academy.
“You know, the only reason you’re here is the quota system, right?” one of them said.
Cecil Haney, a Black student from a Black neighborhood in the District of Columbia, did not respond. His family had warned him that he could face racism at the academy, and more than 40 years later, he remembers the remark clearly.
“It’s bad enough having one individual ask that question,” Haney said. “But what hurt the most was that tribe he was with said nothing to the contrary of that kind of thing.”
Haney, 65, went on to become one of the first Black four-star admirals in Navy history, serving as the commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet and the U.S. Strategic Command, where he oversaw nuclear weapons before retiring in 2017.
Haney recalled working with a number of White colleagues who were professional and kind during his military career. But he was a rarity: a Black leader at an institution that was mostly White, with a disproportionate number of White leaders going up through the ranks.
The U.S. military is still struggling with a lack of diversity, as well as racism and extremism in the ranks, which senior defense officials say is hard to track and expose.
After recent racist incidents in the Navy, Adm. Mike Gilday, the chief of naval operations, said in a statement to sailors last week that “we cannot be under any illusions that extremist behaviors do not exist in our Navy.”
In one of the incidents, a sailor was removed from his warship, the USS Lake Champlain, after leaving a noose on an African American colleague’s bunk last month. He later admitted to it under questioning, said a Navy official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. An investigation is ongoing, said Cmdr. Nicole Schwegman, a Navy spokeswoman.
Graffiti that included the phrase “Nazi life” also was found on the USS Carl Vinson, an aircraft carrier, according to an official familiar with the situation.
A new Navy task force on diversity said in a report this month that although the service’s inclusion efforts are “admirable in many respects,” they “clearly fell short of adequately addressing the societal challenges of today.”
At the highest ranks, the Navy has slid, according to the report. Several minorities and a woman have held the service’s highest rank in the past, but all 10 of its current four-star admirals are White men.
Haney said he cannot understand why it has taken so many years for the military to confront issues such as the Confederate battle flag, which was banned last summer. He has issued a call to action to alumni from the academy to fight racism and bigotry.
“I’m a big believer that you have to look at best-case, but you also have to look at worst-case,” he said. Although it can be easy to get wrapped up in the “rah-rah of institution,” he said, “any organization has things to work on.”
Haney remembers the race riots that erupted in Washington during his childhood after the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968. He saw neighborhood stores destroyed and U.S. troops deployed on city streets, but he did not quite understand it at the time.
“It’s still a vivid memory that I have in my mind, and myself and my siblings have talked about it over the years,” he said from his home in Maryland, outside Washington.
A couple of years later, Haney was a student at Eastern High School, a short walk from the D.C. Armory. He washed cars and cut grass for money, and then took a summer job at Naval Sea Systems Command, which needed operators for its massive computers that tracked shipyard data.
Haney said his bosses — a Black woman and a White man — taught him computer languages and encouraged him to apply to military service academies. They invited a Navy captain — Haney does not remember his name — to walk him through options. Until then, he thought he might enlist in the Army to pay for college.
Haney said his father, an Army veteran who worked at a bus terminal, warned him that he could face racism in the military. But Haney bonded with his White roommates and brought friends home to visit his parents.
“I think they got an exposure to see that I had parents that, while not professionally educated, were educated through the journey of life,” Haney said. “They valued education, and had solid principles about themselves and they didn’t have any grudges against these individuals.”
Haney graduated from the academy in 1978 and became a submarine officer. His initial assignment on the USS John C. Calhoun, named for a former vice president who was a devout defender of slavery, triggered questions from his father.
“You know what he wanted to know? ‘Why is that submarine named John C. Calhoun?’ ” Haney recalled his father saying. “Because he’d done his homework, and he knew what that was about.”
Haney said his goal was to command a ship as he rose through the ranks. He took charge of the USS Honolulu, a fast-attack submarine, in 1996.
As Haney was considering retiring, he was selected to become an admiral. His wife, Bonny, who died in 2017, played a key role in his decision to stay.
“We had a heart-to-heart, and frankly she was more excited about me becoming a flag officer and the opportunity for an African American to do so than I initially was,” he said.
At Haney’s retirement ceremony, Defense Secretary Ash Carter lauded him as an “ambassador in uniform” who built bridges to allies, academia and industry.
“Cecil has confronted many of our most complex challenges with unwavering dedication, profound insight, and the calm, deliberative manner that the gravity of these missions require,” Carter said.
Back to 1968
As protests erupted last summer, Haney recalled his childhood in Washington and the turmoil of 1968. In some ways, he said, “we haven’t gotten very far” from the days after the assassinations of King and President John F. Kennedy.
The admiral took on racism in the newsletter for the Naval Academy Alumni Association and Foundation, warning colleagues that the Navy’s process for interviewing prospective members “cannot accurately assess” all of their beliefs about biases and racial prejudice.
“I also believe that despite the tremendous efforts of USNA to foster teamwork, it is hard to completely transform all midshipmen during the four years there,” he wrote. “Yes, some midshipmen are but we have to expect that some will graduate with these undesired traits in their psyche. We must understand this is a given and something we must continually address.”
Haney wrote the essay, titled “A Call to Action for USNA Alumni,” after a member of the class of 1980 accidentally broadcast himself making racist comments in a Facebook live stream. That person, retired Navy Capt. Scott Bethmann, apologized and resigned from the academy’s alumni association board of trustees at the request of senior association officials.
The incident served as a reminder that some people “dislike me and disrespect anything I accomplished simply because of the color of my skin,” Haney wrote.
The Navy’s new focus on diversity, including the task force’s work, is a positive sign, Haney said. The report’s recommendations include adding “respect” as one of the Navy’s core values, which have included “honor,” “courage” and “commitment” since the 1990s.
“It’s a big deal for a service to change its core values,” Haney said.
The report also called for a review of the names that ships and buildings in the service.
Unlike the Army, the Navy does not have bases named for Confederate officers who fought to preserve slavery. But it does have aircraft carriers named for men who advocated for segregation: former senator John Stennis, D-Miss., and former congressman Carl Vinson, D-Ga.
Haney said that ensuring diversity requires sustained nurturing and mentoring, along with efforts to afford equal opportunities to career-enhancing jobs.
“Without accountability, things tend to revert back to where they were for a lot of natural causes,” he said. “It’s not necessarily mischief. But things like these require a continual pull.”