As the U.S. Navy continues its latest effort to increase diversity and inclusion in the ranks, the chief of naval personnel said this week that better representation doesn’t mean officers will be tapped for promotion based on their race or gender, in the name of checking off some diversity box.
Vice Adm. John Nowell made his remarks Wednesday at an event held by the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank, where he spoke about why Task Force One Navy — stood up this summer to assess Navy equality in response to the nationwide racial reflection prompted by the death of George Floyd in police custody — won’t be a token effort.
His remarks on promotions came at the end of the event, when a written question, sent in by someone who described himself or herself as a Black Navy officer, expressed concern about advancing in rank based solely on skin color.
Nowell said he had heard similar concerns from African American shipmates about being promoted in the name of diversity and not based on their naval bearing and other qualifications.
“It’s hard from them sometimes, because if they promote, some feel like others will look at them like they promoted because they’re African American,” Nowell said. “That’s kind of a double burden.”
He said much of the Navy’s effort involves getting enlisted sailors and officers of color “in the front door,” and then retaining them in the sea service, so that a greater variety of qualified officers from all races and genders go before such boards down the line.
“At the end of the day, we can’t pick officers where we have diversity unless we can bring them into the board, which means we have to bring diversity in, we have to keep it, we have to nurture it,” Nowell said. “We know that will make us a better team.”
“I promise you that as we consider folks for boards, if someone does not make the cut, being of a particular race, ethnicity or gender will not get them over that bar,” he added.
While the percentage of Black Americans in the Navy’s enlisted ranks exceed the percentage of Black Americans overall, just 3 to 4 percent of officers are Black, Nowell noted.
African Americans comprise roughly 13 percent of the U.S. general population, he said.
“The Navy is not where we would like to be,” Nowell noted. “We don’t have enough representation in the flag ranks.”
Nowell said he understands if the rank-and-file don’t think the Navy’s latest effort at fostering diversity and equality in the ranks will lead to meaningful change.
“There is a healthy skepticism that Task Force One Navy is going to be like a lot of other task forces … where something happens, you put a task force together, you come up with recommendations, they go in a report and that report ends up sitting on a shelf until you have the next crisis in that area three or four years later,” Nowell said.
“I know it can sound like, ‘you live in Washington, D.C., and came up with a slick governance scheme,' but I do think this is different,” he said of the renewed efforts.
But furthering inclusion and equity — not only of race or gender, but of background and experience — has become key to readiness and ensuring the sea service is prepared for the era of so-called “great power competition,” he said.
The renewed effort in the wake of Floyd’s death aims to ensure that the playing field is leveled, while mitigating the inherent disadvantages some sailors may have if they grew up poor or without the same educational opportunities as their shipmates.
For his part, Nowell, a white man, said recent listening events, where sailors spoke out about such issues, had been an eye-opener for him.
“I thought, personally, we had made more progress than perhaps we have,” he said. “Based upon the feedback that we have gotten as we have sent updates out, as they have been doing their listening sessions, I think that … many white males did believe that, from our vantage point, we had made more progress here than a counterpart who is Black or Hispanic or female thinks.”
Such listening sessions held by flag officers can be difficult, but are necessary, Nowell said.
“Sometimes they do get very hard, and it gets uncomfortable for senior leaders,” he said. “It gets uncomfortable for our shipmates who are articulating the pain they’re feeling.”
The task force is expected to release a report on the paths for change this December.
Nowell also acknowledged that the Navy’s efforts to improve diversity and inclusion have ebbed and flowed over the years.
“In recognizing that the nation and the Navy are at an inflection point as we look at what happened with the death of George Floyd, we realized we needed to accelerate the actions we were taking,” he said.
Geoff is a senior staff reporter for Military Times, focusing on the Navy. He covered Iraq and Afghanistan extensively and was most recently a reporter at the Chicago Tribune. He welcomes any and all kinds of tips at firstname.lastname@example.org.