Nulsen Jr., Charles K. "Rap It Out."
Army Digest 25, no. 11 (November 1970): 4-9.
SuDoc No.: D101.12
This article details the findings of a series of "interracial or human relations
seminars" held at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. Through the seminars came the realization that
the military was only a reflection of the society it served so that it was inevitable that
African-Americans with a strong sense of pride would enter the military. Identified as a
problem was the lack of understanding of African-American culture by white commanders.
Prejudices in promotions, hair styles, off base housing, and in reading materials were also
cited as problems.
The article recognized three dangers in this situation: "1) Over reaction to a situation that
may already be in hand, 2) Generating unattainable expectations for soldiers of minority groups,
3) And fanning, rather than cooling, the flames of racial tension." It was suggested that
although these seminars seemed to help with the communication problem, more could be done to
help bring about an understanding between the races.
"The Army is but a reflection of American society."
This statement is frequently heard among the interracial seminars held at Fort Bragg, N.C.,
where there appears to be a general consensus that individual racial attitudes are shaped and
set in the homes and  community before the soldier reaches the induction station.
Thus, the problem with which the Army is faced consists not solely of teaching nonprejudiced
attitudes, but rather of breaking down old prejudices and then instilling enlightened racial
attitudes. The latter is certainly the more formidable of the two challenges.
Few students of the situation would deny that the Army has a racial problem of growing
proportion. Equally accepted is the fact that the problem is not totally of the Army's own
doing. However, to be completely honest, there is a tinge of neglect born of past complacency,
for the Army sometimes has been satisfied to coast on the precedent-shattering success of the
first de facto countrywide integration of the races in the early fifties. (See "Soldiers
Look at Race Relations," April 1970 Army Digest.)
This bit of self-assurance coupled with the "no problem" attitude of many commanders
in the past, has caused a momentary lag in the Army's sensitivity toward the needs of minority
Perhaps the basic cause for foot-dragging has been a lack of communications between the races,
which is aggravated by a lack of understanding between the young and the old. The racial
problem is actually two dimensional – color and age, with day and night, or duty and
Many NCOs and officers 25 and over have never openly and frankly discussed racial feelings with
their soldiers. The manifestations of the new black pride are not yet understood, and
consequently many times are attacked impulsively by suppression rationalized as discipline.
Establishing interracial communication channels with open and frank discussions appeared to be
the best way to tackle this problem. This is exactly what the Secretary of the Army and the
Chief of Staff decided to try.
Following instructions of the Chief of Staff to the field in November 1969, Fort Bragg began
a series of interracial or human relations seminars.
The corps seminar committee was chaired by a colonel from the XVIII Airborne Corps staff, who
acted also as seminar moderator, and consisted of a lieutenant colonel from the corps staff,
a sergeant from the corps Inspector General's office, a chaplain, a captain trained as a social
psychologist from Womack Army Hospital, and a specialist 4 from the corp Judge Advocate's
office. (Four members were white and two black.)
Fort Bragg held 16 seminars over an 8-day period in December 1969. Eight seminars were held
with personnel in grades E-1 through E-4; four with grades E-5 through E-9; and four with
officers. Within each group of 15 to 20 men, blacks and whites were about equally represented,
with soldiers of Spanish-American and Indian extraction also included.
Four major units at Fort Bragg were represented at the seminars – the 82d Airborne
Division, the John F. Kennedy Center for Military Assistance, the 12th Support Brigade, and
the U.S. Army Training Center. The committee spent 2 days with each major unit.
Each session lasted about 3 hours. The discussions usually began to warm up and gather
momentum after the first hour. Enthusiastic groups discussions during the coffeebreak were
of such value that the moderator would delay reconvening the more formal proceedings. The
session following the coffeebreak was generally more animated and productive than the discussion
which preceded it.
Each seminar was opened by announcing the objectives – each individual was free to speak
out on the issue of racial prejudice within the Army as he personally saw it; there would be
no name taking or personal incrimination since the seminar's value depended on open and candid
discussions. It was emphasized that the seminar groups was there primarily to listen rather
than to debate.
Overall Assessment. Each session was unique in the way in which the participants spoke
out. Among the observations, one was that varying degrees of black/white tensions do exist in
all units. These tensions are predominantly influenced by the makeup and background of the
young soldiers in the unit, the attitudes of the unit NCOs and officers, and the non-mission
workload of the unit.
Unit commanders who had reported that they had no racial problems, actually meant that they
were unaware of them or that they were managing tensions within the unit. While some black
soldiers thought that racial tensions were at the explosive level, most evidence pointed to
the fact that the situation was not dangerously volatile. Some tensions, it was noted, were
at a point that warranted immediate concern.
The current intensification of racial feelings between black and white soldiers is a result
of the present social environment within the United States which, among other things, is
producing a better educated, more articulate, and impatient young man.
Much of the young black soldiers' outspoken philosophy is directly identifiable with the
writings of such men as Eldridge Cleaver and Malcolm X. They basically desire to be identified
with a new black pride for which they are constantly seeking historical evidence and visible
symbolism. Many young black soldiers have been indoctrinated with the idea that to remain
within the white man's social structure will mean they will be forever subservient to the
white man. To break away from the establishment, and from the white man's culture, means
feeling black pride, regaining manhood, and a type of soul-cleansing that they cannot otherwise
obtain by continuing in the ways of their forebears.
Many feel that manifestations of the new black pride should be recognized within the Army.
Anything short of this means conformity to an "Uncle Tomism" which they have learned
Outward appearances of black pride are "Afro" haircuts, mustaches, soul music, and
continued rhetoric against the white man's imperialist and competitive society. Rightly or
wrongly, they view the war in Vietnam as a white man's war in which the majority of people who
are fighting and dying are black. These are but a few of the generalized anxieties uncovered
by the seminar committee. Some of the specific allegations were as follows:
It was frequently stated that the approved ways of seeking redress or being heard are
bureaucratic and outdated. The Inspector General's and the commander's open-door policy were
consistently under attack. The enlisted men felt that complaining to the Inspector General
only resulted in the inspector telephoning back to the man's commander, thus putting the
original problem back into the command channels from which it originally came.
- The Army institutionalizes racism or prejudice.
The open-door policy was under attack for not achieving its intended purpose. Either the
first sergeant would place obstacles in the way of enlisted men seeking to speak to the
commander, or the man would not attempt to see his commander because of the time limitations
set up by the stated open-door policy. Many men felt that, even though they did get to speak
to their commanders, there was not much understanding of racial pride involved.
Interviewers and Adjutant General placement specialists are put in a bind when selecting men
for skilled jobs, the men often felt, because most black men did not measure up to the desired
level of education. As a consequence, most black soldiers were put into non-skill infantry MOSs,
- The Army placement system is based on white educational standards.
It was pointed out that many white commanders felt that black literature was subversive, and that
finding black literature in wall lockers immediately labeled the soldier as a militant.
- White commanders and NCOs lack the proper understanding and/or sensitivity toward the
background and aspirations of black soldiers.
Also criticized and resented was the practice of transferring black troublemakers to black NCOs
or officers, and telling those in charge that they could better handle someone of their own race.
This might be termed as the "absentee landlord syndrome." It is claimed that there is
a command breakdown in the barracks at night that sometimes results in black and white privates
letting off steam and promoting racially inspired incidents.
- While NCOs are in charge of barracks, they invariably live outside the unit area.
Another symptom of this syndrome was the feeling by some of the enlisted personnel that they
should have some voice in the way things were arranged, since they lived in the barracks and the
NCOs did not. Army traditions that are viewed as impractical and outdated can cause tensions
which can develop into racial unrest.
Many men felt that, when entire units were not performing their mission became overloaded with
post details, the resulting lowered morale would inevitably lead to interracial clashes.
- Tensions may be generated by lack of job satisfaction – i.e. pulling too much
guard, KP, police details – which gives rise to racial anxieties.
These two complaints could not be supported as general practice throughout Fort Bragg, because
most of the men cited personally-slanted examples of prejudice against the black soldiers that
prevented them from being promoted, or resulted in harsher punishment than the white soldier
who had committed the same offense.
- Prejudices exist in promotion systems and inequities in Article 15 punishment.
Among the older NCOs and officers, there appeared to be no difficulty in accepting the need
for short Army haircuts, and many argued that to be more permissive toward the old standards
would result in major disciplinary problems. Most of the younger men argued for freedom in
individual hair styles, and they attacked the traditional short Army haircut.
- A major discussion point at all seminars was the haircut problem.
They expressed a desire to see more black company and battalion commanders and more black
clerks in so-called white collar positions.
- Many of the blacks of all ages and grades stated they are trying to obtain a
greater visibility for the black man in command and technical positions.
They felt that American society in general, and the Army in particular, owes the black man a
more equal chance to obtain higher training. The proposed preparatory training should be
instituted to lessen the difference between civilian white education and the so-called black
inferior education. Many felt that training would, in fact, help close the education gap for
the black man.
- Many black soldiers and officers felt the Army should have some special preparatory
training for blacks whose prior education was not adequate to qualify them for officer
candidate or hard-skill MOS schools.
Many of the white soldiers complained that black soldiers were getting a better than even break
because of their color. They tend to feel there is so much pressure placed by commanders on
not wanting to show prejudice that black soldiers are often selected for promotions or good
jobs based on their race rather than their ability.
- Other racial groups had complaints also.
By and large, the soldiers of Spanish-American and Indian extraction expressed opinions that
they feel the same prejudices as the black soldiers. However, they feel that both the blacks
and whites are prejudiced against them.
Aside from these conclusions, many of the soldiers presented emotional, and at times seemingly
irrational, themes which appeared to be based on misinformation or lack of information.
The notion was sometimes espoused that there was a directed conspiracy by the Army to send
black soldiers to Vietnam and further assign them to combat units as part of an overall plan
of genocide. Many such arguments did not appear rational to the seminar panel, but were
obviously a reflection of the real fears of some black soldiers.
Three Dangers. The seminar group recognized three inherent dangers in taking specific
action to reduce racial tensions in the Army. These were: overreaction to a situation that may
already be in hand; generating unattainable expectations for soldiers of minority groups; and
fanning, rather than cooling, the flames of racial tension.
However, it was realized that even worse than the apparition of these dangers would be the
inexcusable failure to do anything at all. Realizing the necessity to override these possible
dangers, the committee recommended five general areas in which action could be taken to improve
Fort Bragg set out on a program incorporating the above actions to improve racial harmony.
By March 1970, all major subordinate units had held seminars at battalion and separate
company/batter level. The consensus has been that the seminars have provided an emotional
release for many who had developed anxieties concerning racial prejudice and who were unable to
obtain satisfaction in previous attempts to discuss racial problems.
- Bring problems into the open in a frank, uninhibited manner, through discussions.
- A more positive approach by commanders in talking to their men, rather than relying on the
passive open-door policy.
- Sensitivity training to provide white leaders with information as to exactly what the young
minority group man wants, and why he wants it.
- Continuing programs to provide members of minority groups with greater visibility and
recognition of past accomplishments, such as classes in heritage, inclusion in training films,
and recognition in post newspapers.
- Improving environmental factors, such as eliminating the condition of too many post details,
and attempting to provide more job satisfaction.
At the same time, the open discussions have provided commanders and small unit leaders with new
notions on how the young Negro, the Indian, and the Spanish-American feel about their racial
background. In this connection, many units conducted sensitivity sessions for their commanders
on the premise that an informed commander is better able to handle racial tensions.
Studies have been made in satisfying the new self-pride of the black soldier. Classes in
Swahili and Afro-American history are now offered by the Fort Bragg Education Center. The
Special Services libraries have made a concerted effort to increase the number of books
dealing with the problems and accomplishments of minority races. The post exchange has
increased its stockage of those items that appeal primarily to the black soldier and his family.
All units have increased the number of black periodicals available in the dayrooms, and a
concerted effort has been made by the editors of the post newspaper to publish articles on
black history and black culture. There also has been an effort to obtain a balanced
representation of the minority group soldier and his family in pictures in the post newspaper.
All in all, progress in improving race relations at Fort Bragg has been perceptible. The drive
to open lines of communication between military men of all races, superiors and subordinates,
old and young, has begun to pay dividends. The idea of leading from a position of being informed
on racial matters is gaining increasing acceptance.
While it is perhaps too early to tell whether the Fort Bragg program will be a complete
success, there is every indication that speaking about racial tensions openly and frankly,
and making commanders more aware of the causes of racial tension, is the right approach to
improving race relations within the Army.