Document created: 08 September 04
Air University Review, November-December 1971
Lieutenant Colonel Earl W. Renfroe, Jr.
I worry a great deal about a very tangible and personal qualification necessary for effective interaction with minority personnel, that of racial sophistication. This sophistication is not what you might imagine: it doesn’t come from a mere belief that all men are created equal; it doesn’t come from attending a school that was integrated back in the forties; and it also doesn’t necessarily come from the exercise of command.
Today I will assume that commanders are all racially sophisticated and that you will grant me total academic freedom so that I may, in effect, take the gloves off a delicate subject. You may perhaps evaluate your own internal racial sophistication by the degree to which you are or are not surprised by what I say. As you know, in the Equal Opportunity business we are mainly concerned with the black minority problem, because it outranks all others in severity.
By an unfortunate but necessary circumstance, a large majority of Americans have been victim of an immense put-on by black Americans. This put-on has involved purposely conveyed mistruths and evasions repeated and repeated for centuries by a minority filled with hostility and frustration. The scope and depth of black hostility toward whites has—to this day—remained beyond the comprehension of the layman.
I was in Montgomery, Alabama, during the historic bus boycott of the mid-fifties, attending Squadron Officer School. In the evenings and on weekends I would spend my time engaged in what limited social activities there were. Well, social activities were less frivolous than usual because the big topic every night at churches, in restaurants, bars, and at other gathering places was the status of the boycott. The object of much hilarity and anger were the stories related by live-in and live-out domestic help. They would relate, to everyone’s cynical amusement, how they told their employers in no uncertain terms that they didn’t want any part of that mess!—that there were a lot of outsiders about, just causing trouble! This information was imparted to the employers with dramatic and practical sincerity—a sincerity necessary to survive. By and large, ol’ dependable Bessie Mae and Beulah were believed. In this and many other circumstances, the black either said nothing or conveyed the opposite of his true attitude to his employer.
To a lesser extent, a similar evasion has occurred in the military among black officers and NCO’S. Under the circumstances of integration of the armed forces, there has been a reluctance on the part of the black officer and NCO to advertise his blackness. After all, were not the services proclaimed fully integrated? What retort is there to the statement that you can progress just as far and as fast as your abilities dictate? Many things have conspired to introduce subliminal pressures to be quiet about race and to concentrate on the business of seeking out the hated enemy.
All these things and others left the nation unprepared for a historic phenomenon that has occurred within the framework of American society: the Africanization of the American black. What exactly do I mean by the Africanization of the American black? Visually, its manifestations are quite apparent: the Afro, the dashiki, the black power symbol, etc. Naturally, the mental process is less apparent, but most noticeable in the military is the proliferation of black ethnic groups or associations.
If this Africanization had not occurred coincident with the hippie cult and long hair, it would probably be more dramatic or obvious because essentially it reflects an irreversible conceptual rejection of the American dream.
Let’s think about the when and why it happened. The time of change can be readily identified. If you were to obtain one of the film strips of national newspapers and carefully run the film backwards, you would note that the beginning of the rejection of American dress, American grooming, and so forth began at approximately the time the Fair Housing Bill was defeated in Washington. If you continued to run the film backwards, you would see the continuing demonstration process that had its genesis in Montgomery. But the defeat of the Fair Housing Bill in 1966 was most significant because its message to black Americans was that you may have integration but not equality. As you remember, prior to this bill the demand for equal rights was being answered by bill after bill, all of which represented quantum civil rights advances. However, the Fair Housing Bill was really to have furthered true equality because it would have facilitated the destruction of the ghetto. The obvious reversal of voting patterns by previously staunch supporters of Negro rights tended to validate in the minds of the then Negro a deeply rooted folk attitude that the American white cannot be trusted. Figuratively speaking, it rendered the then moderate Negro impotent. In the mind of the black, the Fair Housing Bill represented acceptance as a social equal; it represented recognition that the right to own property anywhere in one’s land was equal in importance to the right to dispose of property.
Today the militant young black’s view is that integration alone is unacceptable; equality is the goal. Many people have been confused by first the black appeal for integration and then the apparent attempts by blacks to resegregate themselves. This is not really a conflict but is a manifestation of the ideology of separatism. Under this concept, to be integrated means that a superior “accepts” an inferior and grants rights to him. Separatism on the other hand means that there are two lateral and equal positions—the white position and the black position. Neither grants the other anything because they are both equal: that is, equal but different. Thus we now have the black fixation on an ethnic identity. Until very recently the black was actually ashamed to be black. The African was really thought to be like those native characters in Tarzan movies. Negroid hair was thought to be ugly and very African.
Because a human being is a human being, the sudden rejection of attempts to look and think exactly like the white American has resulted in some overreaction in the black lateral position. The danger in American culture for years to come will be that the seriousness of what has occurred will not be understood. In the end we shall have a better America, but I fear our racial confrontations will become more serious before they ease. We see many overreactions to this change, most notably the Black Panther stance versus the police. The result is that the Panthers are now accepted as black folk heroes.
Our current military racial problems are not simply a reflection of the attitudes or circumstances occurring in American society. No, our problems are the result of nonrecognition or lack of appreciation of the fact that, though we all call ourselves American, separate identifiable cultures are involved.
It has been common many times to speak of the adjustments that some people have to make when they come into the military. One example is the guy from upstate Minnesota who has never had any contact with blacks before. Seldom mentioned or appreciated is his black counterpart. As Equal Opportunity Officer I am continually in contact with northern big-city ghetto blacks who until they came into the service had no contact with whites. The isolation and immensity of the New York, Chicago, Washington, Philadelphia ghettos—to mention a few—produce first-term airmen whose total world has previously been black. The ghetto is not a nice place to grow up in. The product of the ghetto is naturally a bit different from his service bunkmate who is, say, a middle-class white. The ghetto’s black is often sullen, aggressive, hostile, loud—a problem.
Essentially, the ghetto serviceman is a problem because he’s in a strange environment, competing with others from—often—highly advantaged backgrounds; but of course he’s “being treated just like everyone else.” Sure as shootin’ he’s being supervised by some hard taskmaster who lets the chips fall where they may and is absolutely convinced that he’s the world’s fairest individual. What the supervisor doesn’t realize is that this black youngster is not under the slightest illusion that he’s equal to everyone else. Now suddenly, in a white world, he hears articulate conversation in the barracks, and it upsets him: he realizes how shallow his world has been, he realizes how poor his diction is, he even feels stilted in making small talk. And when he’s put up on the starting line by the fairest supervisor in the world and told to compete, his mental process says “Uh huh, that guy knows I’m going to fail.” When his deportment begins to deteriorate after he’s been given an equal chance to succeed, it is perhaps concluded that he’s just a troublemaker after all.
Often this airman, unable to communicate with you as his commander, is so sensitive about his communicative inadequacies that he refuses to be drawn out. Perhaps you have noted a lack of personality in many black airmen. This apparent lack of personality is actually an unfortunate inability to communicate effectively so as to project personality. Actually, he’s quite awed by you and the power you wield. This awe is unfortunate because in many instances it prevents him from approaching you informally. The fifty black guys down at the ball diamond demanding redress represent people who in most cases have all their lives listened at the breakfast and dinner table to parents talk about what the supervisor did or said to them or what they had to do as a result of some supervisor’s order. Their picture of society is that of someone being supervised, someone at the bottom rung, someone powerless. This type of individual feels so powerless and inadequate (and this inadequacy is reinforced by his new association with airmen from white middle-class backgrounds) that when he finally gets up nerve enough to say something meaningful—something he feels is constructive—he has to have forty-nine other guys with him for support, and it comes off as a confrontation.
Although this guy is black, in many instances his presence forces on the supervisor an attitude readjustment that benefits young white personnel also. One notable feature of the so-called militant black movement is the lack of reaction from white airmen. To be sure, there are those who say that the blacks are getting special privileges, but perhaps you will have those with you always. Actually, the young white often is in agreement with the objective of black grievances, but he is not of a cultural orientation that would predispose him to the brinksmanship approach of communicating problems.
Many times there is an attempt to say that something was a “nonracial” thing, just people problems. Here again the point is missed: any time only black personnel are involved in something it may appear nonracial, but the question must be asked, Why are only the blacks interested? For instance, Why would the use of disposable plastic glasses in a mess hall annoy only black airmen? What I’m inferring is that because of the communicative helplessness of many blacks—because so many feel that you are incapable of understanding their feelings—they’ll quite often confuse you by injecting seemingly unimportant nonracial complaints.
I can remember a number of years ago how the Commandant of Marines explained the racial assaults and disorders that were occurring at Camp Lejeune. He said that a number of mistakes had been made: not enough soul music on the juke boxes, for one; another was a statement in a medical guide that in suspected heat exhaustion the marine should be checked for paleness. He then said it was now realized that the statement was considered offensive to blacks because they don’t pale. I remember shaking my head at the time, knowing it would be unfortunate if he continued to believe that that sort of thing was causing black marines to assault whites. Though he may well have been told that, again you have these misleading illustrations by those who feel that it is impossible or embarrassing to attempt to communicate reality. What was really being said was that black marines were completely ignored as identifiable contributors to the corps. The soul music bit and the medical book were only the “for examples.”
In terms of racial sophistication, the Thirteenth Air Force approach has been to deemphasize the motherhood aspect of equal opportunity. In other words, we have perhaps gotten a bit off the track in approaching equal opportunity in terms of the Ten Commandments or the Bill of Rights. All too often we have associated it with many cultural ideals that are not really encompassed in our day-to-day lives but are merely accepted in a conceptual sense. For instance, in terms of our cultural orientation it is bad to be prejudiced. However, I think if we were to examine the black attitude toward prejudice we would find that the black does not expect an individual to be unprejudiced. He well appreciates the fact that to grow up unprejudiced in today’s society would be an exceptional accomplishment. Rather, the black appreciates those individuals who recognize and “accept” their prejudices and are therefore in full control of their expressed attitudes.
One unfortunate thing that usually occurs when a racially unsophisticated supervisor initially confers with a black subordinate is that there is an attempt to say something like “I’m from the North” or “I grew up unprejudiced” or “I believe in treating everyone fairly.” Although it might be considered just the thing to say, this type of statement is considered offensive to a black. In particular, I would caution anyone from the North against using that geographical locale as a sort of plus factor. Black folklore does not favorably differentiate between the northerner and the southerner. Quite often the northerner is at a disadvantage in dealing with the American black because the black has often observed that the northerner is more susceptible to reversals of attitudes under pressure than the southerner is. The southerner, having once made his racial attitude known, pro or con, is generally thought to maintain a reliable and consistent position; conversely, the northerner is often felt to be racially unreliable.
In fact, I think more candor would go a long way towards winning the confidence of black military personnel. Actually, a black subordinate would be pleasantly surprised to hear a white supervisor say that he is to some degree prejudiced; that he is prejudiced because he grew up that way; that he has not been able to cope fully with the attitudes he learned many years ago; that he is not completely sure of himself in terms of not saying things that are considered offensive by blacks; that far from blacks’ being hurt personally or professionally while under his supervision, he feels that he and the organization will benefit from their presence. Then when a slip of the lip occurs, the black will not discredit the earlier professed lack of prejudice and feel he’s really in an enemy camp.
In addressing the subject of supervision and equal opportunity problems, one thing was clearly evident to me as base Equal Opportunity Officer at Takhli. Though there were a number of organizations that had large numbers of black personnel, only a few seemed to have racial problems. I used to have a sort of standing joke with my base Assistant Equal Opportunity NCO. When he would call to say that there was an airman in his office with a problem, I’d jokingly remark, “Don’t tell me he’s from———squadron!” Many of the squadrons were never heard from with requests for adjudication of racially oriented problems, while others seemed to be a hotbed of dissident activity. In most instances there was one personality to whom everything pointed as the culprit, and usually that personality was a senior NCO. In all my experience as base Equal Opportunity Officer at Takhli, I never had a complaint against an officer from an equal opportunity standpoint. However, I do not intend to let the officer off the hook so lightly. Though in many instances the senior NCO was fingered as the problem, when the OIC or commander would depart, the problems of the particular organization ceased, even though the same senior NCO was still present. Naturally, the NCO is in a position where he has much more “body contact” with airmen than do the officers. I have concluded that many times the NCO was not really to blame but was more readily so identified because he carried out the policies of the OIC or commander.
Perhaps my biggest shock as Equal Opportunity Officer—and this after eighteen years’ service at the time—was to find that there are individuals in the ranks who purposely and continually harass others for no reason except that they are of a different race or different religion, and that this harassment was so designed and calculated. I was not prepared for this, but through thorough equal opportunity investigations, I was able to document it time and time again.
When I’d encounter such situations and brief the commander on racial problems expressed to me by one or more of his airmen, his first reaction would normally be to hit the ceiling. He would most definitely and emphatically state that his door was always open and question why the airman found it necessary to bring this thing out in the open without first advising him. Essentially, the fact that the airman did take the problem outside the organization served as constructive criticism, for although the door was open, someone or something had tended to block the progress of personal complaints through it.
I recently made a tour of all Thirteenth Air Force bases in Thailand, and at one base I addressed a meeting of all organization and tenant squadron commanders. I was rather surprised the next day, while awaiting my aircraft at the airport, when a squadron commander came down specifically to speak to me. This squadron commander, a captain, said he had enjoyed my presentation and would like my comments on a situation that he was currently faced with. It seems that the black airmen in the organization had requested an audience with him, but he was deferring their request on the advice of his first sergeant, who felt that the white airmen in the organization would consider it preferential treatment. He stated that his first sergeant had twenty years’ service and he did not feel he should buck this experience. The scenario sounded all too familiar. I advised him that probably the reason his first sergeant opposed the meeting was that the captain would be hearing a lot about his first sergeant at the meeting. I thought that the comments of his black personnel would be very constructive to him as a commander.
If I could say that I have come to one major conclusion as a result of my exposure to the equal opportunity business, it would be that we have airmen in the military who, if employed by industry, would be called the hard-core unemployed. I call them the hard-core unemployed basic airmen. “Hard-core unemployed” is a term that industry has applied to personnel who normally would not be hired but who were hired because of government contractual requirements. Since industry, unlike the military, is profit-oriented, once industry had these guys on board it had to decide how to make a profit out of them. Industry decided to institute programs for retraining and reorienting them.
The programs developed were quite extensive, and industry began to learn some rather interesting things about these people. Not surprisingly, it was found in many instances that they could not get to work on time. Though this tardiness was initially considered mere irresponsibility, closer examination disclosed that they had never really learned the social value of timeliness. They had never held positions that required punctuality; in fact, they had held very few positions. It took a considerable amount of time to orient these people toward the reason why being on time was important, but in most cases they were eventually successful. They also found that an apparent lack of job aggressiveness on the part of disadvantaged employees was not a physical laziness but was actually an aversion to undertaking new responsibilities for fear of failure or fear of criticism. Tardiness and lack of aggressiveness were, therefore, determined to be constant factors or habit patterns.
If you look at the military performance profile of many airmen whom we process through 39–12 actions today, you often see a familiar pattern of circumstances and actions eventually culminating in identification of the individual as a “troublemaker,” whereas actually he was, through lack of background, unable to meet particular standards. A typical example is being late to work. This individual cannot believe that he is so important to the vast military machine that he need be given an Article 15 because he is late for work a few times. But of course that is exactly what happens. He does not consider the fact that his overall performance has been marginal anyway. Because he does not understand and has not previously developed the social values of the broader community, he interprets the punishment for minor infringements of rules as directed at him because of his color, and an almost predictable deterioration of his deportment results.
Although I have touched on only a small portion of the hard-core unemployed problem that we have in the military but do not recognize, I think we will have to address specifically these individuals and their problems as we move toward the all-volunteer force. As an example, I might statistically emphasize my comments by pointing out that at one of the large bases in the SEA theater fifty-five percent of the airmen basic are black. I feel that eventually this problem will have to be remedied by longer periods of basic training for this type of personnel, black or white. Why? Because, unfortunately, we are turning these unprepared individuals loose in our military society before we have sufficiently reoriented their social values and remedied their cultural inadequacies.
One of the things constantly being used in the equal opportunity area today is the rap session or round-table discussion. I think essentially this is fine as long as we do not use such forums as a device cloaked under the word “communication.” We are beginning to use the word “communication” today the way we quite often use the word “professional”—that is, improperly. It is beginning to be implied that as long as we just communicate we are solving problems. In many of the equal opportunity round-table discussions or rap sessions that I have attended, communication was going on, but only the transmitting or sending part of communication; the receiving part, the listening and understanding portion of communication, was lacking. Quite often these sessions amount to a period of mutual admonition, name calling, and exposure of problems, but no problem solving. I feel it is important, when this type of session is held, that someone insure that problems once identified are followed up and, hopefully, solved. Otherwise this form of communication begins to take on the air of “doing your thing.”
In conclusion, I’d like to say that the equal opportunity field is very young and still thrashing about for effective methodology. The equal opportunity officer has an emotionally draining job in that he is in daily contact with emotionally disturbed people. The first emotionally disturbed person he meets is the guy who brings in the problem. The next emotionally disturbed person encountered is the one just informed that he has been accused of being racially prejudiced. After nine to twelve months of equal opportunity adjudication, many officers and NCO’S develop a case of what I call “equal occupitis.” At long-term bases they ask to be relieved; at the conclusion of short tours they happily disappear from view. The main reason for this has been that although equal opportunity is a full-time job, it has previously been delegated as just another “additional duty.” However, we now see a number of Air Force actions that are fast leading to the designation of the equal opportunity field as an Air Force specialty.
The world through black eyes is much different from the one you commanders imagine. Because the average black has always been so removed from the exercise of power, he actually views your position as a sort of super omnipotent one. When he opens the base newspaper, he makes a point of looking for black faces; if none are there, he draws some conclusion about the paper’s staff and you. He watches you as you make your rounds of the base—he watches to see if and how you approach black personnel, and he draws a conclusion. He looks at the ratio of black to white prisoners in your confinement facility and draws a conclusion about you. He listens to your speech pattern and is unconcerned as to whether it is southern or northern, but he listens for the word “boy” or “colored people” or “I was a poor boy myself and look how I’ve succeeded” —he listens for these gaffes and draws conclusions. Although you may not feel that these statements are distasteful or that the conclusions I’ve mentioned constitute a fair evaluation, the evaluation is made nevertheless.
So, finally, Airman First Class George Washington reports to your base and asks the first black face he sees, “What kind of base is this?”—not “How’s squadron so-and-so?” or “How many black officers are around?” or “How’s the female situation?”—but “What kind of base is this?” And if the reply is, “Man, this is the worst base I’ve ever seen,” it’s mutually understood that the question was related not to the availability or scarcity of facilities but to the image of the one person who is thought to be all things to all people: the commander.
Hq Pacific Air Forces
Lieutenant Colonel Earl W. Renfroe, Jr., (B.A., Omaha University) is Equal Opportunity Officer, Pacific Air Forces, Hickam AFB, Hawaii. He previously filled the same position at Hq Thirteenth Air Force, Clark AB, Philippines, and at Takhli RTAFB, Thailand. Colonel Renfroe has flown combat missions in both the Korean and Vietnam conflicts. He is a graduate of the Air Command and Staff College.
The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University.
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