In 1969, I was investigated for engaging in racial discrimination. At the time, I was a green second lieutenant in the Air Force, serving as the Food Service Officer on McGuire Air Force Base in New Jersey.
The charge of employment discrimination was brought against me by a black civil service employee who had applied for a senior cook position in one of the dining halls I directed. Five other men (all white) had also applied for the position. I interviewed all six men separately, asking them technical questions like at what oven temperature a chicken should be roasted. On that particular question, the black applicant had answered incorrectly. (I think I had expected a temperature of 350, which was what the others had all answered; his was considerably lower, as I recall.)
I had set out in my mind to make the selection entirely based on merit. I didn’t want to engage in personalities, as the job was not one that required a great deal of personal interaction (or management skill). I was just looking for a good chef.
In any event, two or three months after I had made the selection, I was visited by an official from the Department of Labor, who was accompanied by a two-star general from the Department of Defense. In my extreme naiveté, I had no idea I was being personally investigated. I thought they were just checking on how I made the selection (which, of course, they were, but for far more serious reasons). I answered each question candidly and thanked them for their interest as they left. The general stood for a moment when I said that and stared at me angrily, but then he turned and left.
About two months later, my commanding officer came by to tell me I had been cleared of all charges. Still completely ignorant, I asked him, delicately, what he was talking about.
“Of the racial discrimination charges,” he said, “in the senior cook position.”
Only at that point, finally understanding what all the fuss had been about, did it occur to me that I may have been unfair to Mr. Wallace. My commander, however, assured me that he didn’t think I had.
“You went on merit,” he said, “and that’s exactly what you should have done.”
He then added something along the lines of, “there’s no racism in this man’s Air Force,” or words to that effect, and shook my hand, as if I deserved a metal.
My insensitivity to the racial issue I had been oblivious to was perhaps a product of my life to that point. I had never considered racial differences in the friends I had, or in the way I thought about people generally. I was, in a sense, color blind. Ironically, it was my lack of prejudice that caused me to act insensitively towards Mr. Wallace, whom I did later promote to a senior cook position when another opening developed.
I have thought often of the ways in which color blindness can be both an asset and a liability in the years since that incident. The latest prompt came last week when the Academy Award nominations were announced. No person of color was named in any of the twenty acting nominations, nor was a leading contender for best director (Ava DuVernay for “Selma”) nominated.
As a result, more than a few Hollywood observers have spoken out against the Academy voters, essentially accusing them, all 600 of them collectively, of varying degrees of racial bias.
It’s a curious charge, the kind that suggests the kind of conspiratorial action that would be hard to fathom, especially from those usually thought to be left of center on most social issues (equal rights and racial tolerance certainly prominent among those issues). But some have noted that last year’s best film selection, “Twelve Years a Slave,” was directed by a black man (Steve McQueen), and he didn’t win the director’s award.
So, is Hollywood comprised of closet bigots? Or is there some other explanation? And if there is, is that explanation enough?
And, of course, there is another explanation, which is the same one I had for choosing one of the white applicants for the senior cook position: merit. The Oscar nominations are determined in secret, with each member of the particular branch that the nomination represents allowed to vote. Thus the actors’ branch selects the acting nominees; the directors’ branch selects the director nominees. All members vote for the best picture nominees.
And the vote totals are never released. Thus, in the acting categories only the top five vote getters are listed as nominees. Ditto for the director nominees. And so it is entirely possible that David Oyelowo, who plays Martin Luther King in “Selma” and has been highly praised for his performance, finished sixth in the best actor voting. Likewise, it is very possible that Ms. DuVernay finished sixth in the best director voting.
All of which, even if true, doesn’t get to the heart of the issue, which is whether merit alone should decide these questions. And if not, then how should racial diversity be factored into each Academy member’s voting decisions? Stated in more general terms, at what point does color blindness beget racial insensitivity, if not racial prejudice? And when, if ever, should racial indifference be condoned, if not applauded?
Mr. Wallace was a good cook. He ended up, in fact, being one of the better senior cooks on my staff. He wasn’t, in my attempt to objectively judge all the applicants, the best cook who applied for that first position that was open. Should I have been more sensitive to his color in considering his application? Was I being racially insensitive by not?
“Selma” is a good movie. In fact, it’s one of the eight that the full Academy selected to be a best picture nominee. It is certainly well directed, but then, so are “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” “The Imitation Game,” “Birdman,” “Foxcatcher,” and “Boyhood,” whose directors were nominated.
I am more racially sensitive now than I was in 1969, but I still don’t know if I should have selected Mr. Wallace for that first senior cook position.