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Affirmative Action: The Army's Success...

By Charles Moskos
Wednesday, March 15, 1995; Page A19

opinion
Is affirmative action destined, like Prohibition, to become a "noble experiment" that failed? Republicans knowing a popular issue are ready to scrap it. Even the White House, formerly a bastion of support, now acknowledges that affirmative action needs rethinking.

Yet there is an institution where affirmative action works and works well – the U.S. Army. Not that the Army is a racial Utopia by any means. But nowhere else in American society has racial integration gone as far or has black achievement been so pronounced. Indeed, the Army is the only institution in America where whites are routinely bossed around by blacks.

Affirmative action has been crucial in bringing about this positive state of affairs. It has also been key in our military's unquestioned effectiveness. What then can we learn from the Army's affirmative action program?

The first lesson is that affirmative action in the Army eschews quotas but does have goals. Guidelines for Army promotion boards are to select minority members equivalent to the percentage in the promotion pool. This means that the Army promotion process is based not on the number of minority members in the Army, but on the number of minority members in the pool of potential promotees to the next higher rank. Very important, there are no "timetables" to meet goals.

The process goes like this. The board takes into consideration past assignments, evaluation ratings, education and promotability to the next level after the one under consideration. The strongest candidates are eliminated quickly; so are the weakest ones. In reality, goals become operative only in the gray middle. As one well-informed white officer said: "Only fully qualified people are promoted, but not necessarily the best-qualified. But don't forget, we are talking micromillimeter differences in these cases."

There is no denying that pressure to meet the goals is strong. If the goal is not met, the board must defend its decisions. If this looks like a quota by another name, think again. The number of blacks who are promoted from captain to major, a virtual prerequisite for an officer seeking an Army career, is usually below the goal. Why this is so is a matter of debate and Army heartburn. The most plausible explanation for the shortfall is that a disproportionate number of black officers do not possess the writing and communication skills for promotion to staff jobs. In all other ranks, including colonel through general officers, promotions show little racial difference.

One other remark on the "goals vs. quota" distinction. The military has no hint of two promotion lists, whites being compared only with whites, blacks with blacks. All candidates are held to the same standards.

Maintenance of standards may cause short-term turmoil, as it did in the Army of the 1970s, but it also means that those who attain senior positions are fully qualified. Also important, those blacks promoted have a self-confidence that makes them the strongest defenders of standards for their own black subordinates. The Army, by taking the heat early on, reduced its troubles later. An organization that promotes less highly qualified people to buy temporary peace only invites long-term disaffection.

Although affirmative action in the Army is not without its tensions, it is not a prescription for loss of self-esteem by blacks or resentment by whites. No identifiable group of underqualified minority members occupies positions of authority in the Army. The military does not elaborately disguise its goals or its methods of attaining them because it does not have to deal with the situation that drives quota systems in civilian institutions: a dearth of qualified blacks.

This bring us to another lesson: A level playing field is not always enough. The Army shows how youths from diverse backgrounds can be made to meet uniform and demanding standards. The Army has successfully introduced programs to bring young people up to enlistment standards, to raise enlisted soldiers up to noncommissioned officer standards, to bring black undergraduates up to officer commissioning standards and to raise high school graduates up to West Point admission standards. These programs are not exclusively targeted on minority soldiers, but they are disproportionately Afro-American. These programs cost money and require a significant commitment of resources.

The objective should always be to prepare members of a historically disadvantaged population to compete on an equal footing with the more privileged. Good affirmative action acknowledges that compensatory action may be needed to help members of disadvantaged groups to meet the standards of competition. Bad affirmative action suspends those standards.

So what finally can be transferred from the Army? Maybe a broad lesson: Affirmative action can do what it is supposed to do when there is an unambiguous guarantee of equal opportunity, clear standards of performance and a commitment to raise people to meet those standards.

The writer is a visiting fellow at the Annenberg Washington Program, Northwestern University.

© Copyright 1995 The Washington Post Company

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