Does the Army really let everyone be all they can be?

March 14, 2002|By Clarence Page

WASHINGTON -- In a sign of how much things have changed on America's racial scene, retired Lt. Col. Raymond Saunders charges that the Army denied him a promotion to full colonel in 1996 and 1997 because he is a white male.

That's progress, folks. America's military was legally segregated until the late 1940s, and aggressive equal opportunity policies did not come along until the 1960s. Now, according to Mr. Saunders' lawyers, a number of disgruntled white officers say the service has stacked the deck against them because their race and gender are politically incorrect.

Well, whatever you think of their accusation, they deserve their day in court, and it looks as though Mr. Saunders is going to get his. U.S. District Judge Royce C. Lamberth ruled March 4 that Mr. Saunders' case can proceed to trial. The judge agreed with the retired officer that the Army's written directions to promotion boards unconstitutionally give preference to one race or gender over another -- specifically nonwhites and women over white men like Mr. Saunders.

Although the instructions urged the promotion boards to consider past discrimination faced by female and nonwhite candidates, the judge ruled, it did not order the boards to also consider whether there had been discrimination against white men.

Oops! Was that an oversight or what? The language of the policy in question has since been changed, Army lawyers point out. Besides, the Army argues, Mr. Saunders probably would not have been promoted even if the equal opportunity policy had not been in place.

Whether that's true or not, the case moves on. As it does, it puts in peril a series of equal opportunity policies that, until now, have provided a model for civilian corporations and others who want to open opportunities to women and nonwhites without lowering standards or committing "reverse discrimination" against white men.

As with all arguments over affirmative action, a little knowledge of history is helpful here. Today's equal opportunity policy in the Army largely evolved after President Jimmy Carter made Clifford Alexander the first black secretary of the Army.

As Mr. Alexander later described it to me, he was dissatisfied with the absence of women and nonwhites on the first list of colonels he received who were candidates for promotion to general. He sent the list back and asked for it to be expanded, with an eye on including a more racially and gender diverse pool of applicants.

One of the colonels on the new list was Colin L. Powell, later the nation's first black chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and currently its first black secretary of state.

The story is significant because so many Americans think of Mr. Powell as an example of someone who never needed affirmative action. In fact, affirmative action does not have to mean lowered standards or double standards. It means simply trying harder to reach out and expand the pool of available candidates for various positions.

By whatever means, about a third of all first sergeants and sergeant majors in the Army were black by the end of the 1990s, along with 11 percent of the Army's officer corps and 9 percent of its generals. As Charles C. Moskos, a sociology professor and military personnel expert at Northwestern University, liked to say, the Army became "the only place in the American work force where whites are routinely bossed around by blacks."

But the officer promotion boards are not "color blind." Sometimes their instructions mention affirmative action goals, but not hard quotas. There are no time- tables, in other words, for achieving the goals.

The policy also warns that the guidelines "shall not be interpreted as requiring or authorizing you to extend any preference of any sort to any officer or group of officers solely on the basis of race, ethnicity or gender."

In other words, take questions of race, gender and prejudice into account, but don't make them your main criteria.

Still, the boards do have to justify their shortfalls and they frequently fall short, particularly in promotions from captain to major, according to Mr. Moskos and John S. Butler of the University of Texas at Austin in their 1996 book, All That We Can Be: Black Leadership and Racial Integration the Army Way. In all other ranks, including colonel through general officers, the authors found little racial difference.

So, does that constitute pressure on the boards to discriminate against white men? Or is it merely a strong incentive for them to give a fair shake to nonwhites and women?

Either way, it is murky enough to keep everyone on their toes about the importance of fairness.

There is no perfect way to weed out all forms of racism or sexism, but there are many ways to level a playing field that was tilted for far too long.

By putting its emphasis on performance, not perfection, the Army has become a laboratory for the rest of us in the most agreeable affirmative action of all: Make an honest effort to be fair and you won't have to worry about finding enough qualified minorities and women. A world of talent will beat a path to your door.

Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune publishing newspaper.

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