Aberdeen: sex or race? Army probe: Primary concern is abuse of power, but there may be contributing factors.

March 23, 1997

BLACK MAN, white woman. That combination has not become so common in America that it no longer raises an eyebrow. The history of such relationships within the life span of most adults include stories of exploitation, false accusation, recrimination and, sometimes, death. For that reason, fears that race played a role in charges by white female soldiers at Aberdeen Proving Ground that black drill instructors took sexual advantage of them cannot be ignored.

Army investigators are correct in maintaining their primary mission is to determine whether sergeants facing courts-martial (a captain has pleaded guilty) violated the code of military conduct by having relationships with female soldiers they outrank. The very nature of such relationships is considered coercive, whether or not physical or verbal force occurred, because enlisted personnel might feel compelled to submit to someone of higher rank.

In determining whether there was such fraternization, however, the Army must also consider what these charges and allegations of sexual misconduct at other military installations mean to the integration of greater numbers of women into the armed services. Even if separate from the courts-martial of the accused, the Army should look at whether race is a factor in the military training women receive from men.

Members of the Congressional Black Caucus say the accusations of white women soldiers against their black drill instructors are too similar to the falsehoods that led to lynchings only a few generations ago. Just as worthy of exploration is whether their race led to the mistreatment white female soldiers say they endured.

These issues are not beside the point. They could help determine guilt or innocence. The NAACP, lacking confidence in the Army, has asked for an independent investigation. It has a point. Given allegations of badgering by Army investigators, further inquiries ought to be carried out under the auspices of the secretary of defense, rather than the Army. Meanwhile, it is important to remember that the accused have a right to a fair trial in a courtroom, not just in the court of public opinion.

Pub Date: 3/23/97

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