Several weeks ago, Tony Kessler, senior content manager at BLR®, sent an e-mail asking for perspectives on the year 2020. His note prompted this article. Last year was full of challenges, including racial unrest. Systemic racism became a topic in businesses and organizations all across the country. Even well-meaning diversity training came under attack. Historians will tell us later whether we successfully responded to the long-needed racial reckoning of 2020. I know from personal experience we can do better in 2021.
‘Mess Hall Effect’
In late May 1972, I stood at my college graduation, raised my hand, and was sworn in as an officer in the U.S. Army. For most of the next two years, I was assigned to Fort Dix, New Jersey, which at the time was one of the Army’s basic training posts. During my stint, I served in training and command positions in several basic training companies.
About every eight weeks, I saw young men, some older than me, enter the armed services and go through basic training. They came from all over the country, from all walks of life, from farms, cities, small towns, some with just enough education, others college-educated. They were white, African American, and Hispanic, enlistees and draftees (the army was transitioning at the time to an all-volunteer force). A true melting pot.
One of the nonmilitary subjects taught to the basic trainees was race relations. The program’s cornerstone, in my view, was Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. I probably heard the program presented 10 times during those two years, and the words of the speech that struck me then and have stayed with me until today are these: “I have a dream that my four little children one day will live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
The race relations subject was generally taught early in the training cycle. I found it always seemed to help the young men break down their preconceived notions and barriers. I know this because I observed what I like to call the “mess hall effect.”
Before the training session, I would watch whites eat with whites and African Americans eat with African Americans within their units. After the training, the young men broke bread with one another. They intermingled as people at mealtime, talking, learning, and experiencing that we are all just human beings regardless of our skin color. At a minimum, the barriers stayed down for the eight weeks of basic training.
‘We Want a Color-Blind Society’
More than 20 years after Dr. King’s speech, we had another leader remind us again of the challenges in the journey to equality. In 1986, then-President Ronald Reagan in one of his radio addresses said, “We want a color-blind society. A society that, in the words of Dr. King, judges people not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”
I suspect some historians and commentators will cringe because I’ve mentioned these two very different men coming from very different perspectives in this article. But I believe each fundamentally desired a country that fulfilled the hope and promise of 1776—that all people are created equal and “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”
My Hope For 2021 and Beyond
The year 2020 has once again shown us the challenges of the journey to equality. My hope is that some of 2020’s carry into 2021. By the time I go back to celebrate the 50th anniversary of my college graduation in 2022, my fervent wish for all of us would be that the dream of Martin Luther King, Jr., Ronald Reagan, and our founders in 1776—that all people not only are created equal but in fact are equal—is the reality of our time.