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The Chicago Police officers and community members participate in "Operation Wake-Up" rally supporting efforts to help stop the violence in Chicago, Illinois, U.S., July 6, 2017. REUTERS/Kamil Krzaczynski - RC18AFFF5590
Order from Chaos

Redefining our concept of security

Many people of color in America have historical experiences that shape their perception of security within our society. These perceptions may not always align with the dominant definitions of security for Americans overall. There is national security, which is defined as the protection of a nation from attack or other danger by maintaining an armed force that can protect the homeland. More recently, that definition has been broadened to include other issues like economic security, energy security, trade security, and environmental security. There is also the concept that national security has an international dimension, focusing on threats that originate from outside the U.S.

Bonnie Jenkins

Former Brookings Expert

Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Affairs - United States Department of State

But threats to one’s security can also come from other individuals (e.g. white supremacists), the government (e.g. the police), or organized/illicit crime (e.g. human traffickers). These types of risk to someone’s security interfere with being able to live in peace in their home, community, and country. What people facing these kinds of threats seek is security in a more holistic way, whether those threats originate from international or domestic factors.

Different threats for different people

I founded and lead an organization — Women of Color Advancing Peace, Security and Conflict Transformation (WCAPS) — that holds a series of discussions on the idea of “redefining national security.” One area that is often contentious in these discussions is how we define security in its wider dimensions. There is a disconnect in conversations about national security between what those most vulnerable may view as a threat and what security truly means, on the one hand; and how threat — and therefore security — is defined by the dominant culture, on the other. For example, questioning traditional definitions of national security may create confusion and discomfort, since it may mean a change to our way of thinking about security. There are also financial and policy ramifications for how we define security: For example, government funding and policy emphasis will be directed to the issues highlighted in the national security strategy or other security strategies.

However, if security of Americans is what we seek, maybe the U.S. should focus on understanding what security for all Americans looks like, and then decide how we shape our policies to address those challenges.

The threats people of color face are deep-rooted in American society and culture. The way that the U.S. defines threats does not adequately capture the challenges many people of color feel in America.

The way that the U.S. defines threats does not adequately capture the challenges many people of color feel in America.

For example, a person who is fearful of asking a policeman for help will have to live with a threat different from someone who is not afraid. Similarly, the threat of becoming a victim of human trafficking is higher in America for African American women than any other group, which impacts how African American girls in foster care, or girls and women in shelters or who are homeless view their security. The children in Flint, Michigan, have a different perception of the security of their health than a person in a city with better infrastructure and cleaner water. The student who must worry about security at school has a different perception of that threat than a more affluent child in a private high school with enhanced security.

These individuals, who are dealing with a range of security concerns not traditionally included in the national security umbrella, may feel that they have no voice or may not see how their voices will make a difference. They feel they have no power. A lack of security can lead to a lack of empowerment and engagement for many of these people. Similarly, the lack of security can be used as a tool to keep those oppressed silent.

Widening the aperture

The idea of pursuing a more holistic definition of security may not be as novel as it seems. In past U.S. national security strategies — such as in 2015 and 2018 — issues such as climate change, terrorism, infectious disease, food security, cybersecurity, and others have been incorporated. Whether or not issues that deviate from the traditional focus on military strength are included depends on who is crafting the strategy. However, it is not the threat to national security itself that is different, since many of these challenges have not changed (and in some cases, they have increased). What is different is who is controlling the narrative.

For those who are experiencing a lack of security, their view of national security efforts — or security efforts in general — can be quite negative. As a case in point, at the WCAPS annual event in July 2019, and at several times throughout 2018-19, WCAPS asked its members how they define national security. Here are examples of some of their reactions:

  • A complete disregard for human rights
  • Incomplete and complicated
  • Safety at the expense of the less favored
  • A dumpster fire and deteriorating
  • Too many white men
  • Nationalistic, and refusing to address American aggression in destabilizing foreign nations
  • Fractured and favors whites
  • Overly militaristic with little regard for long-term diplomacy

In the discussions that followed, we learned that national security as viewed by the participants not only does not reflect what many women of color feel is a threat to our security, but that it is entirely out of touch with our concerns. How America defines security, and the allocation of funds to increase security, is decided by those who have a different perception of threat and whose experiences as Americans are often very different. The narrative of security in America is not necessarily our narrative. We feel threatened from abroad and from within the United States in ways that speak to our history in America. It is what we feel every day as American citizens that defines security for us.

Therefore, it is not surprising that how the U.S. spends its dollars on protecting Americans does not always reflect what many Americans feel is needed. We should reassess how spending on issues like nuclear weapons and automatic spending on defense will address issues like better infrastructure to ensure we all have clean water, or better resources to ensure homeless young people are not victims of trafficking, or on alternatives to combat climate change to ensure we have adequate food, or on efforts to provide universal healthcare and preventing infectious disease.

We should also continue to examine our definitions of security — as has been done at times in the past, with the recognition of a broader set of issues — to recognize that protecting the health and security of our citizens means reassessing our national security lens.

I will leave you with a statement from a participant in the survey mentioned above. When asked “What is needed in our national security today?,” the response was as follows: “To move national security from its current historically imperialistic, militaristic, and data-driven focus to one that welcomes inquiry and is defined through the lens of racial justice and human security.”

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