Congress

Racial terms have marred military forms

Words like ‘negroid’ linger despite decades-old federal directive to root them out

Jahmar Resilard died in December while serving in the Marine Corps. His death certificate contained an unwelcome surprise. (U.S. Marine Corps via AP)

A Marine Corps captain named Jahmar Resilard was one of six military personnel who were killed Dec. 6 when the F/A-18 Hornet fighter jet he was piloting collided in midair with a military refueling plane during training off the coast of Japan.

Resilard, 28, was African American — a fact that is only relevant because of what happened after his death.

His mother, Joni Resilard of St. Augustine, Florida, recalled in a phone interview Tuesday getting “that call in the middle of the night” last December about her son’s death. She also recounted how, a few months later, after the conclusion of the crash investigation, she received in the mail her son’s death certificate.

It was a painful enough experience to see the chilling document, she said. But that was only worsened when she saw how the official 2019 Defense Department form described her son’s race: “negroid,” it said — an outmoded word for classifying black people that, to the modern ear, carries racist connotations.

“No parent wants to look at a death certificate of their child,” she said. “But then to see how they were still using a term of race classification dating back to the 1920s — that was a slap in the face, considering what he had done for his country. I was so offended by it, I actually cried again, in addition to learning of my son’s tragic death.”

‘Red (American Indian),’ ‘Yellow Asian’

An untold number of other African American families have received that same death certificate over the years with “negroid” listed as the race of the deceased.

After Resilard saw her son’s death certificate, she told her congressman, Democrat Alcee L. Hastings, about it, and Hastings relayed his concerns to the Pentagon. On April 1, the Defense Department updated its death certificates and replaced the word “negroid” with “Black or African American.”

However, that form is not the only recent example of a Defense Department document containing archaic racial descriptions that are now widely seen as offensive. 

CQ Roll Call has also learned about two recent Army regulations that have used offensive racial terms. One is an Army Reserve regulation written in 2010 and meant to guide the service’s equal opportunity programs. The document recommended using the following designations for racial groups: “Red (American Indian),” “Yellow Asian” and “Black (Negroid).” The regulation was rewritten and its terms updated in 2014, an Army Reserve spokesman said.

Another Army regulation, titled “Criminal Investigation Activities,” written in 2009, uses similar words. An updated 2014 version of the document dropped “negroid” but kept the “yellow” and “red” descriptors.

An Army regulation titled “Criminal Investigation Activities” got an update in 2014 but retained the descriptors “yellow” and “red.”
An Army regulation titled “Criminal Investigation Activities” got an update in 2014 but retained the descriptors “yellow” and “red.”

An Army spokesman did not respond by press time to a query about whether the criminal-investigations document has been changed and whether the Army knows of other documents containing outmoded racial or ethnic terms.

Elissa Smith, a Pentagon spokeswoman, said Defense officials have found an Army form containing an “issue relating to ethnicity,” but she declined to elaborate or say whether the issue had been fixed, instead referring a reporter to the Army.

‘Negro blood’

Resilard had not previously talked to a reporter about her experience, and the details of the two Army regulations have also not been disclosed before in the press.

But other examples of objectionable racial words on official Defense Department forms have come to public light in recent years.

As recently as 2014, an updated Army regulation on command procedures was not updated in at least one respect: It retained the word “negro” as a descriptor of African Americans.

And just last year, U.S. Central Command, which oversees American forces in the Middle East, had to apologize for a pamphlet that used the term “Negro blood” in a guide for soldiers deploying to Saudi Arabia.

“The population of the [Kingdom of Saudi Arabia] is mainly composed of descendants of indigenous tribes that have inhabited the peninsula since prehistoric times with some later mixture of Negro blood from slaves imported from Africa,” it said, according to press reports at the time.

It is not clear whether any additional Defense Department forms or surveys now contain antiquated and offensive racial and ethnic terms, nor whether other federal departments and agencies have had similar problems.

But lawmakers are looking to root out any other such terms that may exist on official documents because, they say, even one is too many. 

The Pentagon has begun reviewing its forms to find offensive terms. But House aides say Pentagon officials are resisting congressional pleas to study all of the department’s documents. 

‘Repugnant’ words

The government asks people about race on a number of different types of records and for a variety of reasons, not least of which is to enforce equal-opportunity laws.

The persistence of throwback racial terms in official documents has continued despite the fact that, fully 20-plus years ago, the Office of Management and Budget issued a directive ordering federal departments and agencies to use only certain modern phrases, such as African American, in describing race in official records. 

But clearly the 1997 order to update documents has not been followed in every instance.

[House orders Pentagon to say if it weaponized ticks and released them]

As a result, a more thorough examination is required to ensure forms are free of insensitive words, said Maryland Democratic Rep. Anthony G. Brown, an Army veteran who has pushed to get into law a requirement for such a review of Defense Department forms and surveys.

“The terminology found on too many Department of Defense forms is repugnant,” Brown, the only African American on the House Armed Services Committee, said in a statement to CQ Roll Call. “While I understand the DOD has corrected offensive language being used in military documents when they’ve discovered it, we can’t wait for these issues to be elevated to us to resolve them.”

Legislation pending

In fact, the House Armed Services Committee adopted in June an amendment to its fiscal 2020 defense authorization bill that would require the Defense Department to review all its documents for such terms. The amendment is based on a bill written by Hastings and championed by Brown and others.

It would require the Defense secretary to identify each form that contains “a term or classification that the Secretary determines may be considered racially or ethnically insensitive” and to report back to Congress on the results.

The fact that the U.S. military’s death certificate still had the word “negroid” on it more than two decades after OMB ordered that such terms be replaced “calls into question the status of thousands of other forms currently in use,” Hastings said in a statement last month.

In the Senate, Illinois Democrat Tammy Duckworth has a similar bill.

Partial Pentagon response

According to Smith, the Pentagon spokeswoman, officials there have reviewed 1,237 forms used across the Defense Department or issued by the Office of the Secretary of Defense to search for potentially offensive or outmoded terms.

No such terms have been found, with the exception of the Army form that had “an issue relating to ethnicity,” she said. Another 77 forms have yet to be reviewed, she said.

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However, according to House aides, Defense officials told congressional staff this year that they oppose requiring the military services to study all their forms, which by one estimate could number 10,000 or more.

Pentagon officials have told the aides that the full review would be unnecessary and an administrative burden and it would be difficult to ensure compliance.

The military services have been “advised”  but not required to review their own forms, Smith said.

The House aides, who support the comprehensive document review, do not expect it to turn up a large number of racially offensive terms. 

But they said they feel it is important to perform the check anyway, more than two decades after it became official federal policy to do it.

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