The U.S. Army, I wrote three years ago this month, is "an essentially blue-collar organization that has overcome its own grim racial history to achieve a remarkable degree of racial integration and racial fairness." Perhaps, I observed, it has something to say to the rest of us.
That upbeat assessment followed the publication of "All That We Can Be," a book by John S. Butler and Charles Moskos.
This week the Department of Defense released the findings of a massive study of race in the armed forces, and the findings are not something to make the military leadership stand up and salute. Fully three-quarters of minority service members say they have experienced racial discrimination, and half expressed doubt that their complaints are thoroughly investigated. White service members have a much more positive view of racial fairness.
I asked Butler, a sociology professor at the University of Texas, if he's ready to change his mind about the Army being the most successfully integrated institution in America.
He isn't. "Charlie and I were looking at facts -- at recruitment, promotions, leadership -- and not at attitudes, as this survey did," he told me. "It may be, as the survey found, that not enough is done when there are complaints. But it doesn't change what we found. What we found was an opportunity structure where 40 percent of the managers were black and where rank-and-file minorities could feel that they had a decent chance at getting ahead.
"We never said the military was Mecca. We did say that in terms of opportunity, it was better than the civilian world. The survey supports that view."
But the survey -- reportedly the biggest ever of its kind -- also supports a view of the military as imbued with racism -- not just racial slurs but also constricted opportunity. Minorities, for instance, were more pessimistic than whites about their chances for promotion.
Says Butler: "I don't want to defend racism anywhere, but it may be that where there is more opportunity, people are more aware when avenues of progress are closed. Let's say I'm in a law firm where there are no other blacks. If I don't get ahead, it's hard for me to be totally sure what the reason is. But if I'm in a place where blacks are in plentiful supply, and doing well at all levels, I am more aware both of the opportunity and of somebody trying to block my path."
Besides, he noted, the findings may not be as pessimistic as early reports make them out to be. It's true, for instance, that three-quarters of blacks and two-thirds of Hispanics said they had experienced racially offensive behavior; 62 percent of whites said the same thing. On the other hand, more than 80 percent of the respondents in all racial groups indicated that they had close personal friendships or socialized with members of other races. Fifty-two percent said they had more interracial friendships than before they joined the military.
Butler keeps coming back to what he calls the military's "opportunity structure" which, he believes, is a more relevant focus. "The progress the military has made in racial terms is a byproduct of the defense of the country," he said. "The military didn't set out to say we're going to have racial opportunity. They said we're going to defend the country, and they did what was necessary to achieve that goal. Opportunity for minorities came directly out of that. We can't go back now and start doing feel-good training on who should like whom. Focus on the goal and everything else will fall into place."
Edwin Dorn, the former undersecretary of defense who commissioned the study, is frankly disappointed by the findings. "If people in an institution that has moved so far in equal opportunity continue to report these unpleasant experiences, think what must be happening on the average factory floor," he said.
"I see this report as a mandate for a lot of executives in the civilian world to do similar surveys of their own institutions so as to learn more about what the true experiences of their employees are -- and particularly to figure out the effect of those bad experiences on their employees' commitment to the institution and on their productivity."
Maybe the military has something to say to the rest of us after all.