Addressing more than 60 members of the Coast Guard Academy community Thursday evening, a Princeton University professor warned that democracy is in jeopardy and urged cadets to tell the truth about American history.
Eddie S. Glaude Jr. chairs the Department of African American Studies at Princeton, and his most recent book is “Begin Again: James Baldwin’s America and Its Urgent Lessons for Our Own.”
The Coast Guard Academy invited Glaude to speak as part of the Office of Inclusion and Diversity Lecture Series, which previously featured “How to be an Antiracist” author Ibram X. Kendi.
In Glaude’s view, the original sin of America was neither slavery nor the genocide of Native Americans. These are consequences of what he calls the original sin: “the belief that white people matter more than others.” He calls this the “value gap.”
“Most Americans find comfort in the myths and fables, illusions that confirm the inherent goodness of this great experiment,” Glaude said. He went on to say that “to admit that we’re not perfect is not to turn our back on this fragile experiment,” and that to admit America isn’t the city on the hill isn’t to give up on democracy, but to fight for a more just country.
“Democracies are not, by definition, stable. They’re always fragile. I’m not being hyperbolic, either,” he said. Glaude later added, “Illiberal forces that have always been present in the country threaten to overrun the country.”
He said the American idea is in trouble, and in moments of trouble there’s a chance to reimagine America anew. But instead, we see over and over again the value gap being reasserted.
He said these discussions make us uncomfortable, but “I refuse, as a condition for my being here with you, the necessity to make you feel comfortable. If we don’t tell ourselves the truth about where we are in this moment, we will lose our democracy.”
Glaude said that as a Black professor, he has to walk through Princeton differently — just as Coast Guard Academy cadets of color have to walk their space differently. He said often the condition for entering these spaces is muting themselves and making sure the people around them are comfortable.
He encouraged cadets to be their full selves, but acknowledged this has to happen within the confines of the Coast Guard, within what one attendee pointed out as the hierarchy and authority-based structure of the military.
Glaude said he’s not asking anybody to be naïve but noted habit formation is key. “If you cultivate the habits early on in your career of cowardice, even when you become a captain, that doesn’t mean you suddenly become courageous.”
He also talked about the insurrection on Jan. 6, saying he believes it was the latest expression of the view some have that this country must remain a white nation. He said there is no middle ground, that “either you side with the insurrectionists or you don’t.”
Academy Superintendent Rear Adm. William Kelly said he appreciated Glaude’s comments about Jan. 6. Kelly said he was in Washington, D.C., last week, and found himself struck by being on the same street as “people who wanted to bring our nation to (its) knees.”
He said one of the things the academy struggles with is who gets to define the answers to certain questions: “What kind of officers do you want to be? What kind of country do you want to put your life on the line for?”
Aram deKoven, chief diversity officer at the academy, said there are people who believe talking about diversity divides people, which he said just isn’t true. He said people need to be informed, which will lead to a stronger voice at the table, whether in the barracks, on the ballfield or in the classroom.
Professor Melissa Matthes had the students in her Contemporary Political Theory class read “Begin Again.” She said with difficult issues like race, cadets learn the skills to manage difficult conversations.
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