By Admiral Cecil D. Haney ’78, USN (Ret.)

Our world is in a bit of chaos – COVID-19, unemployment, uncertainty with respect to the economy and strategic competition with China and Russia. It is unfortunate to have in addition to these issues a divided country over racial injustice and inequality. Having graduated from USNA and having served almost four decades as a commissioned active-duty officer, I have learned just how important it is to eliminate barriers to get at intricate plaguing problems through effective and efficient teamwork. I have also learned that if people on the team feel undervalued and disenfranchised from the organization, the loss of confidence and trust that results can become a disaster and impair operations.

USNA provides a unique and diverse environment, given its candidate selection process ensures that all 50 states are represented in each class.  It is my opinion that this process cannot accurately assess all incoming midshipmen regarding their social beliefs on racial prejudice and biases. These inherit traits are in many cases shielded, cloaked and practiced for many years in the culture and environment that were cultivated prior to their arrival at USNA. The brigade is a sampling of American society and these traits are hard to measure. 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. 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. 

I felt advantaged as I came into the USNA as a plebe and also as a naval officer upon graduation. Not because I came from an elite high school environment but because my parents made sure I had no illusions of race relations as they shared first-hand their experiences with my siblings and I. I got to see their raw emotions with the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King and President John F. Kennedy. I saw both peaceful protests as well as the results of rioting and looting near my neighborhood in DC in the late 1960s. While I had more opportunities than my Dad, he explained how deep racism can be and to expect to be challenged by it.

Even today as I enter a conference room to discuss issues of national security or some other strategic discussion, I know that while most I know in the room have dignity and respect for all human beings, I suspect that there may be a small number that is in the same frame of mind that one of my midshipman classmates was in when in front of others (who did not challenge his beliefs), stated that I was only there because I was a part of some quota system. That comment continues to reverberate in my mind every time I enter a room of people I have not worked closely with and especially when I am the only person of color in that room.

You might think that was a long time ago, but today we see fresh blatant examples, even from at least one USNA alumni which invites the question if that individual intentionally derailed careers given his mindset. This is just another reminder that some finite number of Americans in this country dislike me and disrespect anything I accomplished simply because of the color of my skin. It is the reality that my parents warned me about. It is a culture that may even be impossible to eliminate given how some in this 21st century cherish displaying the confederate flag and fight to keep monuments that illuminate an ugly chapter in American history. I know first-hand as the first submarine I served on was USS John C. Calhoun.  My dad always asked me why they named this submarine after John Calhoun.  I am thankful today that most submarines are named after U.S. states and cities.

As I look back on my days at USNA, I am prayerfully and thankful for the experience.  While it validated what my parents had warned me about life, it prepared me to live up to many challenges associated with the naval profession and provided me an elite education in seamanship, military history, engineering and leadership.  I had wonderful roommates, some of whom had very limited experience of being around a person of color.  Some even refreshingly talked about how I could not meet face to face with their grandmother or some other family member because of their racist beliefs.  What was neat was that we were able to have meaningful conversations about this and some came home with me for a meal and got to meet my family.  They were able to see: (1) that even though my Dad had served in World War II in the Army during immense segregation, that he welcomed them in; (2) and that even though both parents had no college education how in tune they were with current events and the history of our nation; (3) that they were hard workers and caring parents even though they were part of a different race; and (4) that they required grace before meals given their Christian faith. 

No discussion would be complete without including the value of mentors.  This started for me at USNA.  I have been blessed by having many wonderful mentors throughout my career – some senior to me in rank and age, some civilians, of different ethnic backgrounds and some as peers.  One such peer was my classmate Mel Williams – a retired Vice Admiral, a career submariner and a fellow African American. Mel always seemed to be one step ahead of me for most of my career and even into retirement.  His dad, Master Chief Williams, worked directly with former CNO Admiral Elmo Zumwalt ’43, USN (Ret.), on racial integration. 

Mel and I are also members of the Centennial Seven, a group of seven mentors who are the only African American submarine commanders of the first 100 years of our U.S. submarine force. The seven of us would get together periodically, but always at the Black Engineer of the Year annual event to mentor midshipmen interested in submarines and in the naval nuclear propulsion program.  You see, we were mentored by the first African American submarine commander, CaptainPete Tzomes ’67, USN (Ret.), who told Mel and I at the beginning of pipeline training to expect to be in crews without many sailors that looked like us and that we needed to get out there and outperform to have a chance for success.  He provided us guidance in mental toughness and that he expected nothing else but hard work and that we could be successful.  He called us into action.  His words still reside with Mel and I to this day and why we continue to mentor others.

So, I would ask all alumni to look closely at this period of social unrest with an understanding that a lot of work remains to carry out the intent of our Constitution.  Just as we alumni work to support the Academy, let us also support communities to help bring together unity in this country so that together we can be a catalyst for change to get others to respect and provide opportunities for all fellow Americans, including those of color as a main thing.  We need to get this on the right course and not look at it as something that requires a simple fix but one that requires continual attention. Let’s put to heart those efforts called out in the recent statement by the Chair and Trustees of the U.S. Naval Academy Alumni Association to steer away from racism, sexism and bigotry.  Why, because it is un-American to do otherwise and we need all hands on deck to get at some of these complex problems plaguing us – human rights, climate change, pandemics, cancer, nuclear proliferation, etc.  We must passionately work to eliminate to the highest degree possible hatred and disrespectful attitudes toward fellow human beings. Failure to get at this will, in my opinion, cause others around the world to question the true ability of democracy to let Freedom Ring and will stifle our growth and capability as a country. 

This is a call for alumni action!

About the author: 

Admiral Cecil Haney ’78, USN (Ret.), served in the Navy for more than 40 years, ending his career as Commander, U.S. Strategic Command. He previously served as Commander, U.S. Pacific Fleet. His career as a submariner included a variety of operational and command assignments at sea and ashore. He also served as a member of the Congressionally mandated Military Leadership Diversity Commission that produced a detailed report in 2011 and recommendations for improvement. His volunteer leadership service includes the boards of the Center for a New American Security and the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab and as co-chair for the China-US Dialogue on Strategic Nuclear Dynamics for the Pacific Forum of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He will join the U.S. Naval Academy Foundation’s Board of Directors in November.