Podium: Zero-tolerance for racism

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The Independent Culture

Colin Powell

From a speech

by the former head of the US Joint Chiefs

of Staff to a Ministry

of Defence conference

MY TASK today is to share with you the experience of your American colleagues. Despite our common heritage there are enormous differences between our two societies and the nature of our respective problems. What worked for us may not be appropriate for you in every case, but there are enough similarities in our two experiences that you might find what I have to say somewhat interesting.

We began with a no-tolerance attitude with respect to racism in the armed forces. Racist language was banned, expressions of racist beliefs in any manner or displays were eliminated, and we were vicious and we are vicious to this day. Any overt expression of racism had to be absolutely crushed; those days were over, everybody gets treated the same, with respect.

We instituted Black History Month and Soul Food Dinner Night, we put black products in our post exchanges and our other clubs. All of these were ways to educate and show that differences were natural and understandable, and not sources of conflict, break down the stereotypes. Remember, integration does not mean assimilation, we are not asking blacks to become whites, we are just saying understand one another, we are all members of the family, with our differences, and we can be very, very proud of those differences.

The greatest challenge that we had was the development of black leaders in the officer and non-commissioned officer corps. When I became a second lieutenant in 1958, there were no black generals in the armed forces of the United States. Now we have some 40 generals and admirals at any one time and nothing seems unusual any more with respect to minorities. That is the way it should be.

Luckily we had a large group of historically black colleges given to us by the first period of reconstruction after the Civil War where a black population that had been nothing but slaves was educated. We created the historically black colleges all over America and they became our principal source of minority officers. To this day, these black colleges and universities provide 50 per cent of the officers coming into the armed forces.

For many of our minority officers, coming into a white, middle-class environment was shocking so we mentored them. They didn't come in with the same kind of "old buddy" system that other officers had, those who went to certain elite schools. We had to create a tradition. We offered a form of bond that gave them an affinity and would not be seen as threatening. Our promotion boards were perhaps the most challenging thing we had to look at. We could see clear patterns of existing discrimination, it was institutional racism.

Do you wait 50 years for it to wash out of the system? No. We would look at whole officer records,especially with minority officers, and keep in mind that in their early years of service they may have been exposed to patterns of discrimination. Is that reverse racism? I think it was an appropriate thing to do to try to catch up with the discrimination system that had existed for 200 years previously.

But the snake is never dead, you have got to make sure that you keep these policies programmed in place long after you think the problem is solved or it will re-occur.

Your challenge is a little bit different. You are a much smaller force and your numbers are much smaller so it is harder for you to create a large pool of qualified minorities from which you can promote and from which you can select.

We are very proud of what we have done. We desegregated our armed forces quickly and in the subsequent decade I think we have done a very good job of integrating our armed forces in such a way that what we have done in the military is now regarded with enormous pride by all of the American people and we are very pleased with that.

All of these policies had one goal and that was combat readiness, all of them for the purpose of making our armed forces better able to serve the nation by reflecting the nation more fully and in that regard it has been a success.

It will take the assistance of commentators and opinion leaders and makers and political leaders who will keep their feet to the fire, but who must also help take the message of inclusion and opportunity into the minority communities of Britain.

This is not just a military matter, this is a matter for the entire society to get involved in, and especially those of you who are in touch with young people, those of you who help shape opinion in this country have to see your responsibility and act in that responsibility.