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General Says Minorities Face Many Challenges in 21st Century

By Rudi Williams
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Feb. 23, 2000, Feb. 23, 2000 – The military has made great strides for equal opportunity in its ranks, "but we still have some things to do," Air Force Gen. Lester Lyles told the audience during the recent Pentagon observance of National African American History Month.

Lyles, the Air Force vice chief of staff, said African Americans in the 21st century face many "challenges against our ability to progress and expand."

Some of the overflow crowd in the Pentagon auditorium listened to Lyles remarks on television screens in the corridor. They also heard remarks by Alford L. McMichael, the first African American sergeant major of the Marine Corps; Alphonso Maldon Jr., assistant secretary of defense for force management policy; William E. Leftwich III, deputy assistant secretary of defense for equal opportunity; and Coast Guard Chaplain (Capt.) Leroy Gilbert.

Noting that the theme for this year's National African American History Month -- "Heritage Horizon: the African American Legacy and Challenges of the 21st Century" -- was developed by the Carter G. Woodson Association for the Study of Afro-American Life and History, Lyles pointed out that he attended Carter G. Woodson Junior High School northeast Washington.

"But, even though the school was named after the noted black historian, there was no textbook [assigned] as required reading about his life," the general said. "And there was no history or biographies of any African American in the past."

Lyles said, in part, that's what African American History Month is all about -- teaching and reminding African Americans about their rich heritage and legacy.

The general said as a results of having African American History Month, many people of all walks of life, colors, creeds and both genders understand and know about the lives and contributions of such African Americans as 19th century abolitionist and author Frederick Douglass, 20th century educator Booker T. Washington, Nobel laureate and diplomat Ralph Bunche, activist and educator Mary McLeod Bethune, Martin Luther King Jr., former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Colin Powell and Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall.

Lyles said he learns something different each year during African American History Month. For instance, while stationed at Hill Air Force Base in Ogden, Utah, he learned three blacks are among the Mormon pioneers and scouts named on commemorative plaques in Salt Lake City. According to the Utah History Encyclopedia, Green Flake, Oscar Crosby and Hark Lay arrived in the Salt Lake valley with Brigham Young in July 1847.

"So, looking back into our history should make us all very proud -- regardless of color, race or ethnic background," Lyles said. "Our history gives us legitimacy, heroes and role models, and certainly a rich legacy."

African Americans and other minorities are faced with many challenges in the public sector and the military as the nation enters the 21st century, he noted. "The biggest challenge for the public community is how to keep our young minority men and women moving forward with new heroes, new role models and to give them the opportunity to become mentors, role models and heroes themselves.

Lyles said too many statistics are not laudatory. For example:

  • Homicide is the leading cause of death among black youth aged 15 to 19.
  • A single parent heads 62 percent of all black families. That's double the rate for whites and 75 percent greater than for Hispanics.
  • Among adults age 25 or older, about 76 percent of African Americans had a high school diploma in 1998 and 15 percent had a bachelor's degree or higher. In contrast, 84 percent of whites had a high school diploma and 25 percent had a bachelors degree or higher.
  • The median weekly income for black men working full-time is less than $500 per week. That's only 77 percent of what the average white male earns.
  • Black males remain the group with the lowest life expectancy in the nation. Those born in 1996, for example, are expected to live only to the age of 66 -- seven years less than the average white male.

Lyles said when he grew up in Washington, there were few role models for an African American youngster. "No one ever said to me, 'Hey, man, if you study hard and stay out of trouble, and get a college degree, you can join the United States Air Force, and there is literally no limit to what you can achieve,'" he said.

Though the military has made great strides toward equal opportunity, the results of the armed forces equal opportunity survey released last November indicate there is still cause for concern, Lyles noted.

He said, according to the survey, only 37 percent of African Americans felt race relations had improved in the military during the last five years. The rest believed race relations were about the same or had worsened.

The general pointed out that:

  • 39 percent of African Americans believed that, to a large extent, race relations on their installation were good.
  • Over three-quarters of African Americans surveyed reported experiencing an offensive encounter involving a DoD employee.
  • Minority service members were more likely than whites to report being unfairly punished. Some 9 percent of blacks, 6 percent of Hispanics, 4 percent of Asian-Pacific Islanders, and 5 percent of American Indian-Alaska Natives reported being unfairly punished compared to only 2 percent of whites.

"These statistics tell us that we've not yet achieved the goal of a discrimination-free military," Lyles said. "But the news was not all bad. The survey revealed some positive trends as well. For instance, more than 80 percent of all racial groups said that they have friends of a different race or ethnicity with whom they socialized in their quarters. That same number -- over 80 percent -- said that they have close personal friends of a different race or ethnicity."

Lyles noted most African Americans view their association with the military positively. Almost three-quarters of those survey respondents said they are proud to tell others they are members of their service.

He said the senior military leadership is responding to the survey by considering several initiatives, including conducting periodic surveys to monitor the racial climate closely and putting more emphasis on equal opportunities and fairness policies. They also plan to invoke strict guidance prohibiting offensive remarks and gestures and establish mentoring, communications and education programs.

As Lyles sees it, enhancing mentoring efforts is the most effective initiative that leaders need to focus on. "You can prohibit offensive behavior, but you cannot legislate people's attitudes and hearts and minds," he emphasized. "One way to address those is to make sure people are communicating with each other and talking more and more."

Calling mentoring a two-way street, Lyles said it's not just supervisors and commanders talking to people about what is expected of them, what to do to progress in their careers and what jobs and training they need to move up.

"Sometimes it's the other way around," he noted. "The person who wants to be mentored sometimes needs to just ask somebody. Don't be shy."

Calling himself an optimist, the general said, "I feel very confident that we can continue to make strides and progress, and not only be in the best communities, but also in the best military."

Lyles used an experience at Hill Air Force Base to drive home the point of what African Americans and other minorities want most in America. When he was installed as commander of the Air Logistics Center there in 1993, a Hispanic, Maj. Gen. Carlos Perez, was named vice commander.

"The two of us participated in a change of command ceremony on the same day," Lyles noted. "The next day, in the Salt Lake City paper, there was a front page story with the headline" 'Minorities Take Over Hill Air Force Base.' It was a very good story and very balanced, but the headline was a real grabber.

"I'll never forget what Carlos said to me," he said. "We laughed about the headline. But Carlos looked at me and said, 'You know, they really don't understand. Minorities really don't want to take over anything. All we want is just a chance to succeed.'"

Lyles said the challenge for the 21st century is to ensure that "we always give everyone, whatever gender, race or creed, a fair and equal chance."

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