Military in 'retreat' on race, Mfume says NAACP finds inequality despite overall progress

July 26, 1998|By FROM STAFF REPORTS

Fifty years after President Harry S. Truman desegregated the military, there has been a recent "retreat" from Truman's goals, the NAACP said yesterday.

When Truman signed Executive Order 9981 in July 1948, he said his goal was "equality of treatment and opportunity for all persons in the armed services."

President Clinton marked the anniversary at a ceremony in Norfolk, Va., at the commissioning of the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman yesterday. Clinton called Truman's order integrating the armed forces "one of the best decisions any commander in chief ever made."

"From that day forward, our men and women in uniform have truly been a force for freedom and a shining example to all humanity," Clinton said.

But at a Baltimore news conference, NAACP President Kweisi Mfume said that despite "tremendous progress" in the military, "vestiges of racial discrimination remain," and there has been disturbing evidence of a "retreat from the goals of racial equality and equal opportunity."

Mfume also renewed his request for an independent investigation into the military's handling of the Aberdeen Proving Ground sex scandal, in which several black drill instructors and an officer were charged with rape or sexual misconduct.

Speaking at the group's national headquarters in Baltimore, Mfume and other NAACP officials said recent issues have raised concerns about race relations in the military. Mfume said recruitment of blacks and Latinos has been cut, the promotion rate for blacks is lower than for whites, and minorities receive more severe punishment than whites for similar offenses.

"There is much work to be done," he said. "This association stands ready to share its leadership, its resources and its perspectives and challenges the entire defense establishment to remain vigilant if it is to solidify an image as a model institution of equal opportunity for all Americans."

The NAACP said it is seeking a partnership with the Department of Defense to attack racial issues and is sending a report on racial issues in the military to Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen. In a letter to Cohen, Mfume wrote: "As you know, there are still areas where African-Americans, Latinos and Asians do not enjoy full equality with their contemporaries."

The report highlighted several incidents in recent years, such as the 1995 slaying of a black couple, gunned down in what prosecutors said was a skinhead initiation rite in Fayetteville, N.C. Three white soldiers from Fort Bragg were charged in the case. The report also cited a 1994 House Armed Services Committee report that found overt racism and subtle forms of discrimination still pervade some military facilities.

The NAACP also reiterated its concern that, in the Aberdeen Proving Ground sex scandal, the Army unfairly targeted black soldiers based on complaints of white female recruits. The Army has denied that race was a factor in its investigation.

Further, the NAACP report said the association receives hundreds of complaints of racial discrimination in the military each year, which it refers to the Department of Defense, but noted that "there are no assurances that impartial, thorough and timely reviews occur."

Pub Date: 7/26/98

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