How national security and civic education must address racism

How national security and civic education must address racism
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Systemic racism is the betrayal of our commitment to human rights and equality. It also threatens our national security. To address it, Americans must be equipped to be effective agents of change with revitalized civic education. National security institutions will not meet current challenges if systemic racism undermines a significant segment of talent.

As my former colleague at the Department of Homeland Security, Camille Stewart, recently noted, the need to consider and counter racism within national security is growing, particularly in cybersecurity, where different points of view are essential, and in technology among the potential racial implications tied to artificial intelligence and facial recognition.

Moreover, the United States cannot be a beacon to the world if racism permeates our society and institutions. We inspire democracies and similarly minded countries, and in turn our leaders create a safer and more stable international community. When we fail to do right by all Americans, we lose moral authority and influence around the world, particularly against authoritarian regimes like China and Russia.


Deep divisions make it harder to come together as a country to sustain actions that may be necessary to protect our national interests. Harvard University professor Danielle Allen has talked about the importance of a “common purpose” of the kind that mobilized the country in World War Two as “perhaps the most powerful tool in the democratic toolkit.”

Persistent and pervasive issues of racial and economic injustice, including interference in fundamental rights like voting and assembly, can create an overwhelming sense of despair, leading some citizens to disengage from participating in the democratic process altogether. Our adversaries are all too ready to exploit and amplify this home grown vulnerability to promote the narrative that the system is irrevocably broken in the United States.

Over the years, we have seen our adversaries grow in both capability and number, using social media and state outlets to attack several democratic institutions. This goes beyond election interference and includes attacks in the criminal justice system, where legitimate grievances like racial bias are seized upon to portray a system beyond repair here at home.

We have a hand in the success of our adversaries. In failing to redress our wrongs, we enable foreign operations designed to pull our society apart. To be clear, activists and advocates seeking to reform our institutions are patriots working to make us stronger. Adversaries, in contrast, want us to give up hope for lasting change. Their goal is to make us weaker.

Democracy depends upon an informed citizenry. If the public loses faith in the ability of democracy to produce change, whether through fair political processes, independent courts, or other mechanisms, they will disengage and democracy will start to unravel. This brings us to the current moment with a confluence of crises that bring forth many of our greatest domestic injustices. How can Americans sustain the civic engagement needed for system change? Let us start by looking at the current signs of hope.


Despite surveys that reveal the terrible state of civic education, there is evidence of civic engagement at work in the United States. The protests following the killings of George Floyd and other Black Americans at the hands of police are a powerful form of civic engagement. People have been angry and frustrated at the indefensibly slow pace of change. But their presence on the streets means they have not given up. They know they can make a difference. We are starting to see signs of change.

But achieving any lasting change requires both civic knowledge and civic engagement. This requires understanding the levers within our complex political and economic system. Black Americans built a strategy over the years to organize and empower people of color by recruiting candidates, registering voters, fighting barriers, and getting folks to the ballot box. It is a battle with a persistent and sophisticated effort that is now paying off. Black Americans today are a powerful voice in the political process.

Countering despair, renewing the sense of common purpose that is built upon shared values, and sustaining civic engagement are prerequisites to achieving the change that is needed. Civic education must not only teach that there are three branches of government but also why. This should not only instill an appreciation for the value of democracy, but also empower each of us to do our part to sustain that democracy, such as holding our institutions accountable and pushing for change in the system.

The injustices that threaten our national security must be addressed now if democracy is to be maintained in the United States. In order to achieve this ambitious imperative, Americans must be empowered and equipped to be effective agents of change. This requires urgently revitalizing civic education in every school and community center in the country.

Suzanne Spaulding is the director of the Defending Democratic Institutions Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. She is a former undersecretary with the Department of Homeland Security.