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DoD an Integral Player in President's Race Initiative

By Paul Stone
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Feb. 12, 1998 – "When it comes to the subject of race, whites are talking to whites, blacks to blacks and Hispanics to Hispanics. But we aren't talking to each other."

That, according to William Leftwich III, is a key problem with American race relations today. And he's working hard to change it.

Leftwich is DoD's deputy assistant secretary of defense for equal opportunity. He's also the Pentagon's point man for the President's Initiative on Race. A White House program begun last summer, the initiative seeks to explore race issues in America and to encourage dialogue between people of different racial and ethnic backgrounds.

As DoD's coordinator, Leftwich has been traveling across the country hosting "One America" meetings in selected cities. These meetings bring together community members from different races, ethnic groups and socioeconomic classes. Their main purpose, as Leftwich said, is to give all races a forum in which they can begin to talk to each other instead of only among themselves.

Participants typically include community leaders actively involved in racial issues. But Leftwich said planners are careful to include "the grassroots person -- the person who may not have the cornerstone position in the community, but understands what's happening and has the ability to articulate it."

"You don't have to have a Ph.D to come up with the right solutions," he said.

Leftwich has already hosted several meetings, including one in Florida, California and at the Pentagon. Others are planned for Boston, Balitmore, Chicago, Atlanta and Seattle, just to name a few. While most are in civilian communities, meetings are also planned for Fort Carson, Colo., and the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y.

DoD is involved in the effort because President Clinton requested all federal agencies to support the project, which allows more meetings and increased public participation. Leftwich said the president's initiative is long overdue.

"It's been a long time since we've had serious dialogue about race relations in this country, perhaps not since Martin Luther King's death [in 1968]," he said. "We've had short-lived discussions after racial flare-ups over specific events, but not an extended dialogue designed to look for common ground and solutions.

"There's been an evolution in that we don't interact with people who are different than us. So when it comes time for us to consider these issues of race, we've had no exchange of philosophies or ideas. It puts us on the short side of understanding each other.

"While we may not be able to get to a point where we are family, we need to be family-like," he continued. "Being family-like is being in an environment in which we talk to one another about the real issues we're confronted with."

He sees DoD's participation in the president's initiative as natural, given the military's history as a leader in integration and race relations.

"We feel we work harder at it than anyone," Leftwich said. He cited the intense training provided at DoD's equal opportunity school at Patrick Air Force Base, Fla., as well as the programs operated by the individual services.

"We focus on the tough issues of discrimination, sexual harassment, extremist activities, and how we can become smarter to reduce the number of events," he said. "We'll compare our training to any organization in the country. And when you look at our diversification, we'll compare that to any Fortune 500 company as well."

While DoD has come under close scrutiny in recent years for a series of high-profile sexual harassment and extremist cases, Leftwich said, equal opportunity and race relations in the military remain strong.

"We are a reflection of society. That's where we get our service members. But I think we have a better mechanism to address, engage and start to deal with the problems," he said. "What we do is bear down. We continue to focus and intensify our efforts to make sure people get the message about how we need to conduct ourselves, and how we need to treat our fellow team members."

Leftwich said DoD's success with integration and equal opportunity have dividends people could not have imagined. Using Bosnia as example, he said U.S. forces, by their very presence, are showing the Bosnian people and leaders it's possible to work effectively and prosper, despite different ethnicity, race or ideology.

"They can look at our forces, which include blacks, whites, Asians, Hispanics, as well as females, and see how well we work together," he said. "There's a strong message being communicated."

One America meetings are producing an interesting exchange of ideas and communitywide enthusiasm and energy, but, Leftwich said, don't look for any immediate changes in DoD policies and programs.

The president's initiative is a multiyear program, with the first year focusing only on the community meetings and fact finding. Still, Leftwich is always on the lookout for innovative ideas.

"If we find something good, I'm going to do my best to implement it and give it life here at the Department of Defense," he said. "Because in order to be a leader in this area -- and we've been a leader for the last 50-some-odd years -- we need to do that. If it's good, we want to be first to make it happen."

For now, however, Leftwich said, he is both honored and excited about being involved in the race initiative -- an initiative he believes could create a new era in race relations.

"The reality of it is, no one's going anywhere. Whites aren't going back to Europe. I'm not going back to the West Indies or Africa. Hispanics are not going back to Mexico," he said. "What we have here is a golden opportunity to perfect this democracy with what we have."

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Click photo for screen-resolution imageWilliam Leftwich III discusses DoD's role in the President's Initiative on Race. Paul Stone  
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