The tragic death of George Floyd has focused the entire nation on the still-festering problem of racial injustice and prejudice infecting us. Now, while the outrage is still fresh, is the time, especially with a national election less than five months away, for American leaders to come together to somehow find ways to cure this national disease. We must seize this moment and begin by acknowledging the failures of many past programs no matter how well-intentioned.
The challenge will not be coming up with ideas. There will be plenty of them. The first challenge will be putting aside political biases long enough to avoid wasting precious time on nutty ideas that will make matters worse such as defunding or disbanding police departments. While there are multiple versions of what that would entail, the need is for reform, not defunding or disbanding. Big city public school systems have failed blacks also but the solution would certainly not be to defund them.
Reforming police departments will require much better recruitment practices to include effective testing to help screen out applicants with a history of intolerance, bias or anger management issues. It will include more training before young men and women are permitted to wear a badge, detain and restrain people, carry and use weapons and make life or death decisions. This will require larger, not smaller, budgets.
In seeking the transformational change required, the devil will be not so much in the details as in implementing the changes. There are many reasons for this but one is that politicians tend to leave the implementation part to others while they turn back to their main priority of getting re-elected. I’d like to see presidents and governors limited to one, five-year term, but that’s a subject for another day.
Proponents of change need to understand that actions speak much louder than words. When I served as a member of a county commission on the prevention of drug and alcohol abuse in the workplace and chair of its business council, I was disappointed to find some of the members seemed to believe that just by meeting periodically and talking about the problems that they were actually solving them. As we look for ways to eliminate racial injustice, actions which will actually create more opportunities for blacks will mean a lot more than just spending a few hours marching and chanting slogans.
Consider two small examples from my own limited but lengthy life experience. Over half a century ago while serving as communications officer in a navy destroyer, I was dealing with a shortage of radiomen necessitating that they stand 8 hours on watch each day in addition to other duties. I spent several hours reviewing personnel records of crew members to find non-rated sailors with an ARI/GCT average high enough to predict success in graduating from Class A Radioman School. I found two who were serving as stewards in the officers’ wardroom. In those days, black sailors were mostly relegated to duty as stewards or cooks and their career opportunities were limited to put it mildly. I asked them if they would be willing to attend the school and they were. I was then summoned by the ship’s executive officer who asked me if I was planning to implement a social experiment on board. I said my motivation wasn’t nearly that noble. I just needed radiomen and I didn’t care what color they were. Both men graduated. One made it to Chief Radioman, the other to Radioman First Class.
Years later, as commanding officer of a research and development center, with the largest group of research psychologists at the Ph.D level west of the Mississippi at the time, a position became available. We advertised it and dozens applied and were screened by a board established for that purpose in accordance with civil service requirements. Among them was a newly-graduated black female Ph.D from a prestigious university. The requirements for the position included significant research experience and a record of published research. Being newly graduated, her resume didn’t match those of most of the other applicants and she was not selected. Her husband wrote to me expressing amazement that a young black female Ph.D research psychologist with an outstanding academic record from a prestigious university was deemed not qualified to fill our position. His reaction was totally understandable. I hired her (along with the top-rated candidate). We found the funding to create a position for her and she became a valuable addition to the research staff.
I cite these small examples of what we referred to then as affirmative action because I believe that we need to return to affirmative action. Equal opportunity programs just weren’t enough to make up for all the racial injustice that has occurred for decades. Many successful black professionals say they have had to work twice as hard as whites to get to where they are today. That is not suggestive of a level playing field.
Some day we may achieve Dr. Martin Luther King’s vision of a colorblind society. We’re not there yet, so in this short period remaining before the election let’s hear some specific ideas from the candidates on how to get there soon. No more platitudes, please. What do you plan to actually do to make things better and how do you plan to get it done? Start by realizing that some of the old ideas just didn’t work or weren’t enough. It’s a tough challenge, but you candidates are asking for the job. Are you up to it or do you need to step aside in favor, perhaps, of younger candidates with bolder ideas?
(Dr. Kelly is a freelance writer living in Coronado. A retired Navy Captain, he commanded three San Diego-based ships and a research and development center and taught ship handling, seamanship and navigation at Naval Base San Diego. He earned his doctorate in education at USD, taught graduate students and was a senior vice-president and director of training and development at Great American Bank. He has written over 1500 newspaper and journal articles and has been a regular contributor to the Eagle&Journal since 2001.)