On 'Frontline,' the military assault on racism


It's been said that there's the right way to do things and then there's the military way. It's supposed to be only happenstance when the two ways coincide.

And, indeed, when you hear that the United State Armed Forces have set up something called the Defense Equal Opportunity Management Institute in an effort to combat racism among its members, you get the feeling that it might be Vietnam all over again, that the military minds have again come up with the wrong tactics for this kind of warfare.

DEOMI, as the acronym-crazed military refers to this Florida establishment, sounds like an old-fashioned frontal assault on a problem that calls for the most delicate form of guerrilla warfare. In other words, it sounds like the military way, not the right way.

But, as recorded by the cameras of PBS' documentary series "Frontline," the three-month course that appears to be taken by servicemen preparing to be equal opportunity officers accomplishes a great deal for one very important reason -- virtually under orders, these people talk about something that usually festers unseen.

"The Color of Your Skin" will be on Maryland Public Television, channels 22 and 67, at 9 o'clock tonight. It follows one small class through DEOMI as it gives a brief history of the institute, which was founded following racial fights and riots in the military in the early '70s, and intersperses an interview with its director.

The class of about a dozen is fairly equally divided between blacks and whites with a couple of Filipinos. As correspondent David Maraniss points out, noticeably missing are upper-class whites, a group that is virtually non-existent in the all-volunteer military.

Yet it should be noted that this missing group is the one that lays down the social etiquette laws that govern the discussion of race in our society, the laws that this group spends much of its time following, consciously or unconsciously.

Those unwritten regulations basically say that race is to be discussed only with the mildest, politically correct platitudes except in abstract speeches and decrees from politicians and civil rights organizations.

Whites who violate this are usually denounced as racists. Blacks who violate it are generally dismissed as overly sensitive. And these rules are enforced by an overwhelmingly white group that uses its economic strength to segregate itself racially and socially even as it delivers the politically correct message against such racial and class distinctions.

As a result, one of the most important issues in our pluralistic society is swept under the rug, where it can never be dealt with constructively, emerging only in angry epithets or violent outbursts.

The DEOMI program doesn't solve the problem of racism, but it brings it out in the open where all can see it, perhaps learn to recognize it, talk about it, push and prod it, see how it reacts.

It is fascinating to watch the dynamics of this group as, under the guidance of trained discussion leaders, they go about examining their own feelings and learning about those of others.

miracles occur, there are no I-see-the-light transformations, but there is a peeling back of obfuscations and denials as a core of true feelings about the issue is revealed.

The closest the group has to a traditional liberal white, a sailor from a large Morman family in Utah, undergoes perhaps the most painful transformation, a wrenching experience for the black woman in the group whom he had befriended.

A native of the Pennsylvania coal mining country, who doesn't see what all the fuss is about because he thinks he's always looked at everyone as an individual, has an odd awakening following a startling revelation by a speaker.

"The Color of Your Skin" reinforces the obvious message that racism is not going to go away by pretending that it doesn't exist. The military has the power and authority to make its members confront it, and access to expertise to try to ensure that such a confrontation is a constructive one.

The DEOMI program might not be a laser-guided psychological smart bomb that can wipe out generations of tribal behavior in three months, but it is an instance of the military way being the right way.

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