Shared experience and equal opportunity

September 26, 1996|By Clarence Page

CHICAGO -- Much has been said about the great divide that the O.J. Simpson trial opened up between blacks and whites. But a much smaller divide opened up between blacks and whites in the Army, judging by newly released research.

Remember the famous Gallup poll taken in July 1994, before the Simpson trial started? It revealed that more than two-thirds of whites surveyed thought Mr. Simpson was ''definitely'' or ''probably'' guilty while almost two-thirds of blacks thought he was definitely or probably innocent?

Polling soldiers

Another less-publicized poll taken among American soldiers stationed in Germany the same month found whites to be less certain (64 percent, compared to 68 percent of white civilians), of Mr. Simpson's guilt and blacks to be more skeptical (29 percent compared to 60 percent of black civilians) about his innocence.

What does that mean? Two experts in military life and race relations think it means a lot. They are Charles C. Moskos, the Northwestern University sociologist who conducted the poll in Germany, and University of Texas' John Sibley Butler, past president of the American Association of Black Sociologists, co-authors of the new book, ''All That We Can Be.''

Using these and other data, the professors reveal that whites in the desegregated Army have racial attitudes that are more liberal than their civilian counterparts. And blacks in the Army tend to show racial attitudes that are more conservative than their civilian counterparts.

The result is a third culture the authors describe as ''Afro-Anglo,'' a culture they say is close to the true ''core culture'' of America and one that needs to be recognized more fully and shared by more civilians.

''It is too easy to say that blacks and whites see the American criminal-justice system through a racial prism,'' the authors write. ''It is better to ask under what conditions [racial perspectives] can come closer together.''

And what conditions might those be? ''Shared experiences and genuinely equal opportunity,'' the authors conclude.

Ever since the military decided in the 1960s -- in the wake of several fights and mutinies in the ranks -- that it needed to get serious about attacking discrimination, it has provided an important model for how the civil work world can also attract qualified applicants of all races without lowering standards or setting rigid racial quotas.

In fact, the Army now has talent of all races beating a path to its door. America's military has never been better educated or, judging by Operation Desert Storm, better qualified for combat.

There are no bigots in foxholes, according to an old military slogan, an adage proved true in many battles. But the farther troops get away from the front, the more they behave like civilians, gravitating to their separate racial enclaves. Once the Army took on the challenge of bridging the racial gap head-on, it largely succeeded.

Occasional complaints, even lawsuits, still occur and they must be taken seriously. But they occur far less frequently in the military than they do in civilian life, which offers a lesson for civilians, according to Messrs. Moskos and Butler.

Lacking in civilian life

The Simpson divide shows how much those valuable commodities of ''shared experience and genuinely equal opportunity'' are perceived as lacking in the civilian world, especially in the way many African-Americans have come to view the criminal-justice system.

I think the professors are onto something. While the military, by its nature, attracts a conservative black talent pool, the faith of servicemen and women in the military system tends to be rewarded in ways that give the military a better reputation for promoting black talent than most civilian workplaces.

Faith or unfaith in the system is what I suspect the national divide over O.J.'s guilt or innocence is really about. Surveys taken before the trial revealed attitudes that had very little to do with evidence, which hadn't been presented yet. They reflected faith in a judicial system that traditionally has treated blacks worse than whites. Even Mr. Simpson's prosecutor, Christopher Darden, writes in his autobiography ''In Contempt'' of being repeatedly pulled over by Los Angeles police officers for the crime of ''driving while black.''

Messrs. Moskos and Butler offer a list of ''lessons'' the military offers the civilian world for improving race relations. Among them are to ''be ruthless against discrimination,'' to recognize that blacks and whites do not view opportunities and race relations the same way and to do all that is possible to help prepare members of disadvantaged groups to compete on an equal footing with the more privileged.

In other words, before we Americans can achieve a color-blind society, we must aspire to a healthier form of color consciousness. Only then, as the recruiting ad says, can we be ''all that we can be.''

Clarence Page is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 9/26/96

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