As I See It by Cynthia Tucker — With his rousing State of the Union speech, President Obama almost had me persuaded, once again, that he can change a political culture that is self-indulgent, hyperpartisan and steeped in monied special interests.
WASHINGTON — Last month, Lt. Col. Lee Archer, the only confirmed "ace" among the Tuskegee Airmen, died at the age of 90. His obituary reminded me of the ugly racism that he and his colleagues faced as they struggled for the right to die for their country. The story noted a 1925 Army War College study that had concluded black men lacked the courage, intelligence and leadership skills for combat, so training them as pilots was out of the question.
I thought of Archer's obituary last week when Saxby Chambliss (R), Georgia's senior senator, rattled off his objections to allowing gays and lesbians to serve their country openly. A member of the Senate Armed Services Committee — which held a hearing on reversing "don't ask, don't tell" last Tuesday — Chambliss declared that ending the policy would damage the military.
"The presence in the armed forces of persons who demonstrate a propensity or intent to engage in homosexual acts would very likely create an unacceptable risk to those high standards of morale, good order and discipline, and effective unit cohesion and effectiveness," he said.
As he and other senators objected to a change in policy, I could hear echoes of the old bigotry toward blacks in combat. (I could also hear a great deal of hypocrisy in Chambliss' words, since he never bothered to serve. He received several deferments to avoid the Vietnam-era draft.)
The comparison between the struggles of gay Americans and those of black Americans is not a perfect one, and some blacks object to any linkage. But there are certainly parallels.
One is that the American military had to exert leadership over decades to weed out overt racism in its ranks. By the time my father was drafted for service in Korea, Harry Truman had issued an executive order effectively integrating the armed forces; my father, a U.S. Army second lieutenant, was given a small platoon. But his stories about his service — the few he would tell — made clear that the Army was still treating black lieutenants as second-class officers. It took the open ruptures of Vietnam to persuade military brass that they needed to work harder on that vaunted unit cohesion.
Presumably, the armed services have learned useful lessons from that experience. That's why, according to Defense Secretary Robert Gates, the Pentagon is studying how to "minimize disruption and polarization within the ranks." Much of that polarization can be avoided if top military leaders show their support for repeal, as Gates and Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, did last week.
The winds of change are blowing mightily, with polls showing that a comfortable majority of Americans support the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell." That now includes Colin Powell, who, regrettably, helped hammer the odious policy into place when he was chairman of the Joint Chiefs. It also includes, of course, Mullen, who eloquently testified that forcing gay soldiers and sailors to remain in the closet tarnishes "integrity — theirs as individuals and ours as an institution."
Still, not all military commanders agree. The Marine Corps commandant, Gen. James T. Conway, has suggested that gay and lesbian troops wait a while longer. "Our Marines are currently engaged in two fights, and our focus should not be drawn away from these priorities," Conway's spokesman told The Washington Times last year. Several members of Congress have also suggested that a repeal of "don't ask" needs to wait for a more opportune time.
That attitude certainly has civil rights-era parallels; it reminded me of Martin L. King's "Letter From a Birmingham Jail." In his letter, King pointedly disagreed with local white ministers who believed that the city's black citizens should have a little more patience with the harsh lash of Jim Crow.
King wrote: "We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that 'justice too long delayed is justice denied.'"
Cynthia Tucker is the 2007 Pulitzer Prize-winning editor of the opinion page of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.