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The Military Is Pretty Good At Fighting Racism, Too


Social Issues: COMMENTARY

THE MILITARY IS PRETTY GOOD AT FIGHTING RACISM, TOO

American leadership, competence, and technology have been on awesome display in the Middle East. In the aftermath of military victory, U. S. leaders will focus on redrawing the political landscape of the Arab world. But what has happened thousands of miles away in the desert could have an equally important impact on one of America's most pressing domestic issues: race relations.

The armed forces fighting so spectacularly well in the Persian Gulf are among the most successfully integrated institutions in American society. That's a bright light for bleak times. Just when many Americans have come to believe that the push for greater integration has stalled, the military's example--amply highlighted by the endless TV coverage of the war--plainly demonstrates that progress is still possible.

Conversely, it also shows that not enough progress has been made elsewhere. "The military represents the one institution in the U. S. that has equal opportunity in the treatment of its people," says Benjamin O. Davis Jr., a retired Air Force three-star general and that service's first black general. "It is far superior in this respect to the civilian sector of the U. S., which is shot through with racism."

HUGE STRIDES. That is one reason why blacks, who account for just 12% of the U. S. population, now make up 21% of the armed forces overall and 25% of the men and women who are serving in the Persian Gulf. "The fact that the racial proportion in the armed forces is disproportionately black reflects the different opportunities of blacks and whites in the larger society," says Bart Landry, sociologist at the University of Maryland.

Indeed, the military's record in race relations looks good only when it is compared with that of the rest of America. Blacks make up just 7% of the officer corps compared with 23% of enlisted personnel, according to Martin Binkin, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. And while the military has made huge strides since President Harry S Truman banned racial segregation in the military in 1948, blatant acts of prejudice occur far too often, and subtle forms of racism are nearly always present.

Still, blacks hold more management positions in our high-tech military than in any other significant segment of society, says Charles C. Moskos, sociologist at Northwestern University. The most notable example, of course, is Colin L. Powell, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and there are many others. In stark contrast, only a handful of black chief executive officers run major U. S. corporations.

But the experience in the gulf could spark a change. "A war that shows black Americans fighting well and in large numbers has to improve white attitudes and have a salutary effect on race relations," says Isabel V. Sawhill, senior fellow at the Urban Institute. Adds Northwestern's Moskos: "People could look at the military as a model for integration and try to replicate it elsewhere."

To a large extent, the military's success stems from its unique nature. The institution is a clear-cut hierarchy, and orders must be obeyed. Moreover, the advent of the all-volunteer military in 1973 allowed the armed services to become more choosy about who can put on a uniform. Hence, about 96% of blacks in the army have high school diplomas, and some 89% of whites do. But most telling, the military is an organization where whites and blacks live and eat together and where whites often take orders from a black superior.

Companies are not structured the same way the military is--and they shouldn't be. Even so, Corporate America can learn from the military's success with integration. Otherwise, companies risk leaving a future Colin Powell stuck in the mailroom.

LAGGARDS. To begin with, the armed forces' record reaffirms that achieving better integration depends critically on a sustained effort by management. "It takes a genuine commitment from the top, a hard-driving follow-through, and real career opportunities," says Theodore E. Payne, manager of corporate affirmative action at Xerox Corp. "But many companies are doing as little as possible." The military's success at integration also emphasizes that education is the primary building block for personal advancement, especially for minorities.

War can have a powerful, transformative effect on society. Armed conflict, after all, demands extraordinary efforts in extraordinary circumstances. And throughout history, changes wrought by war have reshaped society during the peace that followed. Now, flush with victory, a post-gulf America should seize the opportunity to renew the fight against racism.Christopher Farrell


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