The U.S. Army has a program called Soldier for Life. I am an American Soldier for life — enlisted for four years, an officer for more than 33 years, now retired. I stand for the national anthem, and don’t apologize for it.
For almost 40 years I have served my country. What’s going on throughout the nation really has little to do with my standing for the national anthem or me being black — it’s about how I and others are treated because we are black.
When I graduated from my officer basic course, I purchased a vehicle and drove it back home to Detroit. It was a beautiful, classic Mercedes Benz, in great shape, but it needed a little work. With a little attention and a new paint job it was a joy to drive and a head-turner for sure.
As a reserve component military officer at the time, I had a full-time job in the neighboring city of Dearborn, where I worked for the University of Michigan as a campus safety officer. One evening I was pulled over on my way in to work by two Dearborn police officers — the irony of this situation was that I was an ordinance officer for the city of Dearborn and dressed in the same uniform as the two officers.
In their defense they couldn’t see my uniform or badge until they had pulled me over and ordered me out of the car. One of the officers doing all the talking was obviously used to pulling young black men over. To him my uniform was invisible, my badge didn’t exist.
I offer this real-life scenario to illustrate insight into the issue that continues to sweep the nation. Understand, this was just one of many such roadside chats I experienced in my life living in the Detroit area. Here’s where things get complicated: many of the same type of traffic stops were performed by black officers in the inner city. Why? Because I, a young black man, was driving what one might consider in a newer or nicer vehicle.
It didn’t matter if it was a pickup truck or family station wagon; similar traffic stops occurred. I as a black young man was a target outside and inside my neighborhood. I was almost always ordered out of the car, sometimes at gunpoint, searched and questioned about drugs, drug trafficking, my job source, what neighborhood I lived in and where I was going and coming from.
At the center of my real-life experiences is the crux of just part of the issue facing our nation. As a black man in America, skin color and gender is oftentimes the first qualifying point for any engagement with other human beings, regardless of the circumstances. The unpopular position is we as black men must own the first step in change. It is, however, easier said than done.
I now live in Cuba, N.Y., a wonderful little town with many wonderful people. It’s a far cry from my life growing up in inner-city Detroit. However, before arriving in Cuba, I received a call from a local veteran’s club concerning my application for membership. I was still active duty at the time, a general in the U.S. Army, a three-time combat-deployed soldier, but as has happened before, all of that was invisible to this organization.
The caller, an official of the club, was misusing an option offered by their national office that allows clubs to admit members outside of their local area to boost membership. Our conversation rang similar to some of the roadside chats I’ve had with police — having found out I was a black man, he wanted to know why I wanted to join their club in Cuba.
After informing the club official I was moving to Cuba, I expected the next part of the conversation to move along the lines of a “welcome aboard.” What I got was silence followed by a suggestion that perhaps I would like to go someplace else that would be more convenient or more “comfortable.”
I wasn’t deterred and joined anyway. I spent four years trying to change ideas, concepts and perspectives amidst allegations of attempting to close their bar, or attempting to push out social members because of my veteran focus, creating a shrine for myself, raising money for veteran causes vs. giving money to their bar and just trying to clean the place up.
A conversation I had with one of the members cut through to the original issue of allowing a black veteran into their club. Regardless of my rank, service to this country or my qualification to be a member, the concern he voiced was that he had experienced previous issues with black service members. It was also suggested that the club had experienced issues in the past with blacks selling drugs inside the club. No matter that I was a general officer, appointed by the president of the United States and confirmed by Congress, to him I was just a black man — and therefore suspect.
Among other issues, I learned a white female active Army officer had been the subject of gender harassment tactics by the club, while it was also within the walls of the club the only place I have ever suffered the utterance of the N-word in Cuba. Enough was enough.
The name of the club isn’t important. Recent conversations I’ve had at its national level should bring rectifying attention from officials under request for details to initiate an investigation through their channels. What is important is the excusatory responses of local officials and friends within my community.
I’ve been disappointed in members of my community who believe I should accept a standard of racist treatment in the name of just getting along.
When we as a community allow racism, we are in effect promoting it. My responsibility in affecting change is to embrace respectfully the patriotic and joyful lifestyle of the community I live in. I’ve been
everything from the Celtic Festival Grand Marshal to the Garlic King and built the annual Memorial Day observance to a major event.
I’ve been welcomed in elementary school classrooms to speak about American history and national responsibility. I’ve taught alongside arguably one of the greatest instructors of fisheries and wildlife in America’s high schools, sharing my joy of fishing. I strive to be part of the solution versus part of the problem.
I believe in honorable service after honorable discharge. What that officer did during the arrest of George Floyd was not honorable. I’ve had the privilege to instruct new and seasoned officers in a police academy as well as police in the private and governmental arenas. The tactic used in affecting an arrest of Floyd by kneeling on his neck was wrong. Somewhere in his hiring, training and job supervision, that Minneapolis officer missed the opportunity to embrace the concept of honorable service.
Lately, I have received comments and concerns from local friends and colleagues from across America asking my opinion on current national events. Some aware of my personal experiences have asked about the response and actions of my community.
As far as law enforcement goes, I’m always proud to proclaim that I have the most professional and positive experience with local law enforcement, at the municipal, county or state level, with many officers current or former service personnel. Even though the law enforcement community appears to be the focus of current issues in the country, to me it’s truly not the problem. The problem goes back to how we as humans treat one another in our day to day engagements.
The issue as different groups weigh in becomes complicated, to me it is quite simple, when a person uses their office of authority to project their bias against a certain group or portion of society, true justice and opportunity is lost.
In the end we all lose.
(Arthur G. Austin Jr. is a retired brigadier general in the U.S. Army.)