Army Officers In Black And White

It's been said the army is the only place in America where blacks routinely boss whites around.

Take Col. Remo Butler. He directs some of the army's toughest training and turns out some of its most elite soldiers -- the Green Berets.

Butler has a shot at becoming the first black general in the history of the Green Berets, but he'll be the first to tell you inequality still exists.

"Myself, I consider myself a successful officer. I see a problem because a lot of my friends that I think are of the same ability as myself have been lost to the wayside," said Butler.

Author of a study entitled Why Black Officers Fail, Butler contends: "Black officers are falling behind their white counterparts . . . at an alarming rate."

That was just another study gathering dust until the latest list of officers promoted to colonel was posted in the Pentagon. The percentage of white officers selected for colonel was twice that of black officers.

It was the biggest gap on record.

While 39 percent of the white officers eligible for promotion to colonel made it, only 19 percent of the black officers. The results of the promotion board came as a nasty surprise to Gen. Frederick Vollrath, chief of Army personnel.

"It was a wake up call. We have know that we have more work to do in the area of equal opportunity. . . But did we expect this kind of result from a board? No frankly we didn't," said Vollrath.

Lt. Col. Michael Bell is one of those who did not make colonel, and he believes race is the reason.

"In my opinion the playing field is not level and the Army has some ways to go in leveling the playing field," said Bell.

As a young lieutenant learning to fly helicopters, Bell says he had to overcome blatant racism by one of his instructors.

"His comment to me was, um, you people can play basketball and sports, but you just don't have the ability to fly,"said Bell.

Bell broke through that bias and went on to command a company in the 82nd Airborne, but he says his career hit a dead end when he encountered a more subtle form of bias from his commander in Germany.

Bell said, "This individual did not want me to be his executive officer, and he made no bones about it."

Vollrath insists the army is trying hard to rid itself of institutional discrimination -- white commanders unwittingly reluctant to put black officers in the key jobs needed for promotion.

Butler has found even the best intentioned white officers can still be captive of racial stereotypes.

Blacks can and do get to the top of the Army. General Larry Ellis, for instance, currently commands U.S. troops in Bosnia. But to Butler that does not mean the playing field is level.

These would-be Green Berets are already working as hard as they can. Whether the blacks among them get a fair shot at promotion will depend on how much farther down the road to real equality the army can travel.

For David Martin'full Eye on America report, click above.

©1998, CBS Worldwide Inc., All Rights Reserved
  • CBSNews.com staff CBSNews.com staff

Comments