Originally created 03/19/01

Guard members allege prejudice



ATLANTA - This month, more than 1,200 members of the Georgia National Guard are deploying to Bosnia to serve as peacekeeping troops.

But for some black members of the Guard, the real battleground is at home.

They say they fight skirmishes every day against racial prejudice within the corps of full-time Guard employees where blacks are under represented. Now they are looking for help from outside the military family.

Sebra Davis-Jones, a staff sergeant who retired from the Guard after nearly 20 years, is a veteran of the conflict.

She has filed four formal discrimination complaints through the channels specified by the National Guard Bureau in the Pentagon. Investigators concluded three of her complaints did not meet the bureau's definition of discrimination and were thrown out as groundless.

One complaint filed in 1996, however, was found to be valid. Yet, Ms. Davis-Jones says, things remained difficult because white supervisors and officers continued to hold her career down in retaliation.

"I have been fighting these guys so long, and they have it all in check," she said. "It's not just me. There have been a lot of African-Americans that have been denied promotions."

Sgt. Larry Brown worked in personnel with the Georgia Guard from 1980-1991 and now is a pastor. He agrees with Ms. Davis-Jones, adding that the members of the good-old-boy network within the guard's white leadership are experts at manipulating the bureaucracy.

"There are rules, but you can get around rules," he said, noting that friends still in the Guard tell him nothing has changed since his retirement.

Active members of the Guard are less eager to talk publicly, but privately they acknowledge their frustration.

One willing to step forward is Master Sgt. Leroy Bentley, a South Carolina resident who trains part time with the Georgia Guard and recently retired as a full-time employee from the Guard.

Proud of calling himself the first black hired full time by the Guard, Master Sgt. Bentley recites a handful of examples he says show white supervisors and officers giving preferential treatment - including jobs - to other whites.

"It's not that blacks aren't qualified," he said. "They just don't give them the jobs."

The full-time staff of the Georgia National Guard consists primarily of technicians and active-reserve guardsmen, with a few federal and state civilians. These are the people who run things on a daily basis and lay out the missions for the weekenders in the traditional Guard.

Race appears balanced in the makeup of the state's traditional Guard - those who train one weekend a month and who are among those being sent to Bosnia.

Of the 12,000 or so traditional guardsmen, blacks constitute 43 percent of the enlisted Army Guard members and 26 percent of the enlisted Air Guard. In the Guard's Officer Corps, 14 percent of the army and 9 percent of the air components, are black.

Those percentages are all higher than the black representation in the regular Army, Air Force and civilians working for the U.S. Department of Defense.

Georgia's traditional Guard diversity could be called commendable when compared to the regular military, often considered the most fully integrated sector of American society.

But the black ranks of the 2,000 full-time, uniformed Guard employees pale in comparison.

In the Air Guard, there is only one black officer among the technicians and just three black officers in the active-guard reserve, and blacks make up only 19 percent of the enlisted for the combined techs and AGRs.

The Army side is a little more balanced with 13 black officers and a quarter of the enlisted jobs going to blacks.

Compare that with a company such as Georgia-based Coca-Cola, which recently settled a class-action employment discrimination lawsuit. Coke reports that one in 10 senior management jobs is held by a black in its 9,000-member U.S. work force.

Officers of the Georgia's Guard point to a comprehensive diversity plan that began in October, the first of any state. It lays out objectives and target dates, from sensitivity training seminars to reductions in discrimination complaints.

"A work place that promotes trust, opportunity, fairness and open communication among all members of the Georgia Department of Defense is a concept we need to embrace and strive diligently to achieve," wrote Maj. Gen. David Poythress in the forward to the plan document.

"Competition for defense dollars is intense, and we must build a more harmonious and productive work environment to maintain our leadership role in the National Guard."

But the words of Maj. Gen. Poythress, who resigned as state labor commissioner to run for governor in 1998, ring hollow with one man, Clifford Green, who could be called a citizen soldier in the struggle against discrimination in the Guard.

He recalls Maj. Gen. Poythress' campaign to become labor commissioner in 1992 against a black incumbent, Al Scott of Savannah. Maj. Gen. Poythress used Mr. Scott's picture in his ads in a tactic Mr. Green says was designed to play off of some voters' racial prejudice.

Mr. Green, a Savannah demolition contractor, has never been a member of the Guard. But he engaged the battle two years ago because of a brush with the Guard. He had recommended to a local unit that a retiring guardsman be recognized for his 20 years of service.

After all, he notes, the Guard named a street in honor of Gen. William Bland when he retired to Savannah as adjutant general, creating the vacancy Maj. Gen. Poythress was appointed to fill by Gov. Roy Barnes.

After getting what he considers a brushoff because his retiring friend is black and Mr. Bland is white, Mr. Green began looking at the racial breakdown of the Guard.

"It was shocking," he said.

He wrote to Mr. Barnes, flew to Atlanta at his own expense to meet with the governor's aides and grew more frustrated.

A lifelong Democrat, as Mr. Barnes and Maj. Gen. Poythress are, Mr. Green was becoming disillusioned.

"It's unfortunate that it's the Democratic Party that has run Georgia for 100 years," Mr. Green said. "What good is a party to you if it doesn't enforce the rules and regulations?"

Mr. Barnes' aides note that most of the Guard's operation is funded and governed by the federal National Guard Bureau, with just 3 percent coming from state appropriations.

But after talking with and corresponding with officials from the state Guard, Mr. Green carried his assault to the political arena through letters and calls to congressional offices and state legislators. One person who is listening to Mr. Green is Rep. Lester Jackson of Savannah.

Also a Democrat, Mr. Jackson recognizes there might be merit to Mr. Green's allegations of discrimination and retribution and acknowledges the reluctance active guardsmen might have to speak out.

"The Guard is a closed system, and they tend to protect their own," he said. "And, if you are talking bad about your organization, others around you may take issue."

Mr. Jackson says he knows of blacks leaving the regular military who were denied full-time jobs with the state Guard. He also says he knows a black officer who has no complaints about the way he's been treated.

"I think that (Mr. Green) has legitimate concerns," Mr. Jackson said. "Right now, we don't know if there is a reason for the discrepancy" in the Guard's racial composition.

Shortly after the General Assembly wraps up its 2001 session this week, Mr. Jackson plans to hold public hearings in Atlanta and Savannah as the chairman of a five-member study committee of the Black Legislative Caucus. He wants to hear from Maj. Gen. Poythress and from members of units throughout the state.

Mr. Green, who is so concerned that he has supplied pages of materials to Mr. Jackson, has hired a private company to field calls from members of the Guard interested in sharing their experiences. He says that if he stops pushing, the issue will disappear.

Of the 12 discrimination complaints filed with the state Guard in the past two years, three were from Savannah units. Four of the 12 were resolved before formal investigations were launched, but four more have exhausted state-level inquiries and now are in the hands of federal investigators.

That comes at a rate of three complaints yearly per 1,000 full-time uniformed employees, triple the rate reported by the regular military.

"If we get areas of a lot of complaints we conduct focus groups," said Master Sgt. William Pinkney, state equal employment manager for the Georgia Guard.

Those sessions are designed to allow soldiers and airmen to talk freely, out of uniform and without regard to rank.

"We aggressively go out from our office," he said. "We don't take these matters lightly."

Besides the group training, the Guard is beginning to institute career mentoring so younger members can learn how to advance, learn which classes to take and what avenues hold the most promise. Master Sgt. Pinkney said he spent 12 years as an airplane mechanic with no promotions until a counselor suggested he transfer to another job in a field that wasn't as crowded.

The anticipation of advancement should entice more blacks to renew their enlistments or keep their commissions, said Lt. Col. Jim Driscoll, public affairs officer for the Georgia Guard.

"We're not like other employers," he said. "We can't just take a black lieutenant and make him a colonel. It's a 20-year process, something they have got to mature into."

Ironically, Lt. Col. Driscoll says much of the emphasis on diversity within the Guard originated with Mr. Bland rather than Maj. Gen. Poythress, the former labor commissioner.

With a strong economy providing other job options and numerous Guard deployments away from home, turnover for all races has increased in recent years.

Frequent black turnover obviously limits the number of senior black officers and senior enlisted men who have come up through the ranks. Black turnover is highest where black leaders are the fewest, the Air Guard.

Members of the Air Guard blame frustration over favoritism as one reason blacks get out.

There was the black woman who asked her white boss if she could be deployed to Germany while her husband was there, counting that as her weekend drill. It was denied, Master Sgt. Bentley said, although a white woman was permitted to do the same thing when her husband was shipped to South Korea.

Then there was the case of a black technician who lost a promotion for not reporting a fuel leak while white technicians were advanced in spite of not reporting their errors in repairing a plane engine that could have cost the crew its life.

Black employees, Master Sgt. said, aren't always notified of training opportunities needed for advancement. But white employees seem to hear about these opportunities.

Master Sgt. Bentley said he was accused of prejudice, but instead of an investigation, his subordinates were allowed to transfer without his permission.

"They should have investigated and done something to me if I did something," he said.

Master Sgt. Bentley says three blacks were passed over for promotion because of prejudice, including one who lost out to the brother-in-law of the commanding officer.

Ms. Davis-Jones said she was forced out of the Guard in September just months shy of earning a full retirement. She says her commander took her off active duty after she endured a herniated disk caused by work, but because she wasn't on active duty, she no longer had access to medical treatment. Without the treatment, she was judged unfit for duty and dismissed.

"The corruption is from this local unit and throughout the Guard because the commanders have come out of this unit," she said. "They all went to college together and they are all buddy-buddy."

The Guard won't discuss individual personnel matters. But some officials acknowledge that, regardless of the facts, there are signs of a morale problem caused by at least the perception of discrimination.

Outside experts read the same signals.

"It all comes down to a statistical analysis in a lot of these cases," said Elizabeth Dorminey, an Athens lawyer with Wimberly, Lawson, Steckel, Nelson & Schneider.

"It certainly still happens," said Ms. Dorminey, who specializes in defending employers against discrimination claims. "The larger the organization, the less likely it is now. Certainly with the U.S. military, minorities, if anything, are over represented because it has been a vehicle for getting ahead."

Breakdown

Percentage of blacks in each of the Georgia National Guard's divisions

.....................Officers.....Enlisted

---------------Air Guard----------------

Technicians.............2%..........14%

Active guard reserve....5..........27

Traditional.............9..........33

---------------Army Guard--------------

Technicians.............5..........24

Active guard reserve....8..........25

Traditional.............16.........49

Percentage of blacks on the payroll

The Georgia National Guard's air and army divisions have a smaller percentage of full-time black employees than other large employers:

Employer....................Leadership Positions......Full Work Force

AGL Resources.....................19.0%...................30.0%

U.S. Army.........................12.2...................26.4

Coca-Cola..........................9.9...................18.7

U.S. Department of Defense.........8.7...................20.3

Ga. Army National Guard............6.9...................24.6

U.S. Air Force.....................6.4...................18.5

Ga. Air National Guard.............3.4...................18.6

Reach Walter C. Jones at (404) 589-8424.

Comments

Members of the Guard who want to make comments to a survey company hired by Clifford Green can call (912) 235-8233.