Recent Marine blackface incident prompts questions about racial issues in military
By ANDREW DYER | The San Diego Union-Tribune | Published: March 9, 2019
SAN DIEGO — The 3rd Marine Air Wing at Miramar is investigating a recent incident in which two Marines appeared to be in blackface, an act that has been condemned by the local NAACP and some congressional leaders.
The Marines assigned to the air wing recently were seen in a now-viral social media video wearing charcoal pore-cleansing masks while in uniform. One of them can be heard saying “Hello, monkey,” a racial slur.
One of the Marines in the video was identified as Zach Highfield via his Snapchat account. Highfield told KPBS-TV in a phone interview that he didn’t mean to post the images.
“It was a bad mistake,” he said. “We had no intention to offend.”
The Marines have not said if the second Marine, who used the slur, has been identified.
The blackface video is the latest in a string of high-profile incidents involving Marines and what appear to be extremist or racist activities.
On Wednesday, the San Diego NAACP issued a statement calling for the military to engage in better screening and training for military personnel.
Whether someone holds racist attitudes or not, blackface is hurtful and fuels racial division, said Clovis Honore, president of the organization’s San Diego branch.
“When you add in the explicit racial slurs, when you add in the fact that these are government employees, paid by our tax dollars, when you add in the fact that these men operate deadly weapons and are charged with protecting the very citizens they refer to as ‘monkeys,’ this is intolerable,” Honore said. “We want meaningful training, meaningful action and meaningful change.”
Blackface has its origins in the minstrel shows of the 19th century, but it maintains an often-hidden but still controversial presence in American culture.
“There is no such thing as ‘innocent’ blackface,” Honore said. “Whether or not someone consciously harbors racist attitudes, this is the tradition that is evoked when someone appears in blackface.”
The 3rd Marine Air Wing is based at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar but also has personnel at Camp Pendleton and MCAS Yuma, Ariz. The Marine air wing said in a statement it was investigating the incident.
Membership in hate groups and posting racial or abusive content online are prohibited activities in the Marines. But commanders have broad powers when it comes to enforcement.
The Marines have not said what punishment — if any — either of the air wing Marines might face. Only actions that rise to the level of a court martial are typically disclosed to the public.
About the same time the blackface video was going viral, another social media stir was brewing involving posts on a Twitter account that allegedly belonged to a Marine assigned to the 1st Battalion, 3rd Marines at Kaneohe Bay, Hawaii.
Posts on the account — @Jacobite—Edward, which Twitter users identified as being run by Lance Cpl. Mason Mead — featured images of various Nazi leaders and quotes attributed to them. One image showed what appears to be a Marine arranging explosives into the shape of a swastika.
Both incidents occurred just days after the arrest of a Maryland Coast Guard lieutenant on a slew of weapons charges. Investigators say that officer, Lt. Christopher Paul Hasson, was stockpiling weapons and had a kill list of prominent Democrats and journalists. In federal court filings, the government also said Hasson is a white nationalist who “intends to murder innocent civilians on a scale rarely seen in this country.”
Last year, another Marine, Vasillios Pistolis, was court martialed and booted from the Corps after a report from ProPublica and Frontline identified him as a member of the neo-Nazi group Atomwaffen Division. Pistolis had also participated in the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Va.
In February, a group of House Democrats sent a letter to the Pentagon and Department of Homeland Security seeking information about how they screen recruits.
The group applauded the actions taken by federal agencies in the arrest of Hasson, but cited that case and others in asking acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan and Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, whose agency oversees the Coast Guard, how Hasson and others who demonstrated extremist views were able to circumvent the military’s checks.
Local congressional delegates said they’re keeping an eye on the investigations of the recent cases.
“This is totally unacceptable and offensive,” said Rep. Susan Davis, D-Calif., who sits on the House Armed Services committee. “I’m pleased to see that the Marine Corps has opened an investigation.”
Rep. Scott Peters, D-Calif., whose district includes the 3rd Marine Air Wing headquarters, said he was glad Marine leadership acted quickly to investigate.
“This incident is awful and not at all representative of the high standards and code of honor to which our Marines commit,” Peters said in a statement.
But these kinds of incidents have prompted greater scrutiny of the armed forces and racial or extremist activity.
Data about extremism in the military is lacking, said The Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks extremism nationwide.
“We do know that hate groups like to tell their members to join the military where they can be trained to kill,” said Heidi Beirich, the director of SPLC’s intelligence project. “A lot of ex-military have been involved in domestic terrorist incidents.”
Beirich said that known incidents of military members participating in extremist organizations have dropped in recent years, ever since the Defense Department expanded its anti-hate policies to include posts on social media.
“I think the extremists caught on,” she said. “You don’t see it as much anymore because you can work anonymously online, under pseudonyms.”
The Marine in the Hawaii incident was posting under a pseudonym, but Twitter users identified him by unit emblems and his uniform name tag, which were visible on some of his posts.
A recent Military Times poll found that 22 percent of its active-duty readers had seen white nationalism or racist ideology in the service. Among Military Times readers who identified as nonwhite, that number jumped to 50 percent.
Maj. Craig Thomas, a Marine spokesman, said that the Corps expects every member to treat fellow Marines with “dignity and respect.”
“Those who can’t value the contributions of others, regardless of background, are destructive to our culture, our war fighting ability and have no place in our ranks,” he said in an email. “Commanders must cultivate a climate and culture of dignity, respect and trust.”
Honore said the NAACP was available to assist local organizations in educating their employees.
“We stand ready to assist the Marine Corps, the Navy or any other government or civilian organization in educating their employees or members on issues of race, ethnicity and both implicit and explicit bias,” he said.