As America wrestles with issues of discrimination, the military is again taking a hard look at racism in the ranks.
The military dropped color barriers in 1948, becoming one of the first American institutions to drop Jim Crow policies. The Pentagon also sees the military as a place of opportunity for minorities, who can escape poverty and get job training and a chance at a college education with an enlistment.
But an Air Force study concluded this month that there are still problems that need to be addressed, with more black airmen facing trouble, including courts-martial, than their white comrades.
Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein said he’ll work on addressing those issues in the coming weeks.
“As the Air Force’s military leadership, we reflect on and acknowledge that what happens on America’s streets is also resident in our Air Force,” Goldfein wrote in a letter to airmen.
“Sometimes its explicit, sometimes it’s subtle, but we are not immune to the spectrum of racial prejudice, systemic discrimination, and unconscious bias. We see this in the apparent inequity in our application of military justice.”
The military in recent days has worked to reassure troops that leaders will pay attention to inequalities. That’s important, because minorities make up nearly 40% of the military, with African Americans accounting for 1 in 5 soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines.
“We will not shy away from this; as leaders and as airmen, we will own our part and confront it head-on,” Goldfein wrote.
The Army’s leaders sent a similar message to soldiers, noting that leaders need to pay attention to unrest in the civilian world.
“Let us be the first to set the example,” a joint letter from the Army secretary and its top general and enlisted leader said. “We are listening. And we will continue to put people first as long as we are leading the Army. Because people are our greatest strength.”
The military has led the way in race relations in America, and has an advantage the civilian world can’t imagine: The armed services are a dictatorship within this democracy.
That has allowed leaders to order changes and to punish those who defy them.
The 1948 order from President Harry S. Truman to stop the segregation of troops was pushed through with few protests and no riots.
Yes, racism was keenly felt in the ranks into the 1950s and ‘60s, but those who were overtly racist faced courts-martial.
The military has also led the way on equal rights for women and more recently ended discrimination against gays.
That may be why Defense Secretary Mark Esper stood up to White House efforts to use active-duty troops to put down riots in American cities.
The image of troops deployed to confront protesters is one that military leaders fear. It could hamper the comparative harmony that exists in the ranks and derail growing efforts to recruit in inner cities where protests have abounded.
The National Guard, controlled by governors, has headed out in large numbers to support local police, with more than 32,000 Guard troops helping in more than two dozen states.
But Esper spurned a White House call to send in the active duty, with or without the permission of states.
In announcing that active-duty troops wouldn’t head to American cities, Esper defined his vision for how the military deals with issues of race.
“Racism is real in America, and we must all do our very best to recognize it, to confront it, and to eradicate it,” he said.
“I’ve always been proud to be a member of an institution — the United States military — that embraces diversity and inclusion and prohibits hate and discrimination in all forms.”
Contact Tom Roeder: 636-0240 Twitter: @xroederx