- US Navy Midshipman 1st Class Sydney Barber, the first Black woman to lead the US Naval Academy as a brigade commander, described the country’s reckoning with racial tensions as an eye-opening experience and said there was still “a lot of room for progress.”
- “It’s a good thing that we’re opening up the conversation, and it’s a good thing we’re working through initiatives to address the issues,” she told Insider.
- Of the 1,194 midshipmen enrolled in the academy’s graduating class of 2024, only 78 are Black Americans.
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US Navy Midshipman 1st Class Sydney Barber, the first Black woman to lead the US Naval Academy as a brigade commander, described the country’s reckoning with racial tensions as an eye-opening experience and believed there was still “a lot of room for progress.”
Barber, an Illinois native and a senior at the academy, recently became the first Black woman to lead and represent the student body during its 175-year history. The mechanical engineering major is expected to graduate this year and join the Marine Corps as a commissioned officer.
Black Americans make up one of the least-represented races at the academy and US military’s officer corps. Of the 1,194 midshipmen enrolled in the academy’s graduating class of 2024, only 78 are Black Americans.
As a brigade commander for a semester, Barber’s role is to liaise between the roughly 4,000 midshipmen and the commandant of the academy, similar to a class president at a civilian university.
According to Barber, being the brigade commander is a “great opportunity to set the tone for how we develop leaders,” and that in order to help navigate midshipmen to the fleet, leaders have to come to terms with racial disparities in the country.
“The fact of the matter is, here in the military, we’re in the business where we can’t afford to have any discriminatory biases at all,” Barber said. “We can’t afford to have any racism because of the fact that people’s lives are at stake and we need to maximize our potential as a fighting force.”
Following the protests in the wake of George Floyd’s killing in May 2020, senior military leaders responded to the unrest by opening up a discussion about racial injustices.
US Navy Adm. Mike Gilday, the chief of naval operations, issued a fleet-wide message in June, “about the murder of Mr. George Floyd and the events that we have all watched on TV for the last several nights.”
“We’ve watched what is going on, we can’t be under any illusions about the fact that racism is alive and well in our country,” Gilday said in his message. “And I can’t be under any illusions that we don’t have it in our Navy.”
Like other military leaders, Gilday launched a task force this year to examine racial injustices ranging from recruitment demographics to the administration of military justice.
“I’ve been in the Navy for a long time and I’ve had a lot of experiences,” Gilday added. “Something I have never experienced and something I will never experience is that I will never walk in the shoes of a black American or any other minority. I will never know what it feels like when you watch that video of Mr. Floyd’s murder.”
Barber said the ongoing conversation about race was necessary in the Navy, because midshipmen are not necessarily exempt from “unraveling perceptions that maybe we had earlier on, before we rose our right hand … to support and defend the Constitution.”
“For me, as a leader, setting a tone with that attitude is going to make all the difference for how we continue to operate as a force generations down the line,” Barber said.
“I think we’re getting there. This was a very eye-opening and catalytic year for a number of reasons. And the fact is that some of these issues in our country … are just not discussed,” she added. “They are always there. And they are always just as harmful as they were back when we had issues like extreme segregation.”
“I think that it’s a good thing that we’re opening up the conversation, and it’s a good thing we’re working through initiatives to address the issues.”