A new survey of racial attitudes of more than 40,000 service members reflects the extent to which the armed forces are willing to undergo self-examination on a sensitive topic. That is as notable as the survey findings themselves. To little surprise, the study found that whites and racial minorities have widely varying perceptions of racial and ethnic relations in the armed forces -- perception gaps that mirror differences in society as a whole.
The military has compelling reasons for inquiring about racial attitudes. Cohesion and teamwork are not abstract concepts in the armed forces. The military's effectiveness depends upon discipline, order, high morale and an esprit de corps built around a willingness of members to stick together under difficult conditions. When three-quarters of all African Americans and other minorities in uniform complain of having experienced racially offensive behavior, and fewer than half express confidence that complaints of discrimination are thoroughly investigated, the military has a problem that, left untended, could do serious damage to unit cohesion.
The survey found a generally more positive view of race relations among white service members. That, too, is not out of line with the perceptions of whites in society as a whole. The overwhelming majority, or 96 percent, did not believe they had been given inferior assignments or evaluations because of racial bias -- in contrast to the feelings of 80 percent of the blacks and 87 percent of the Hispanics in uniform. Reports of offensive racial encounters, while more prevalent in the lower pay grades, also were noted in the senior ranks, and there too the gap was wide. Forty-six percent of white officers said they had experienced an offensive racial encounter, compared with 71 percent of black officers.
Among American institutions, the armed forces enjoy perhaps the best reputation for racial equality. Clearly, military leaders have worked hard at producing a better racial climate on posts, bases and ships. And as the survey showed, most members believed race relations were better in the military than in civilian life. But this congressionally mandated survey demonstrates that turning young adults into soldiers, seamen, airmen and officers does not necessarily eradicate bias or guarantee equal opportunity. The military, like the rest of American society, has much more work to do.