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raceAhead: May 27, 2016

May 27, 2016, 3:23 PM UTC

This week, a photo went viral for all the right reasons.

It was a picture of West Point Cadet Alix Schoelcher Idrache at his commencement ceremony at the U.S. Military Academy. Tears streamed down his face, but he never broke formation. The picture, which was posted on the Academy’s Facebook page, captured the hearts of millions, partly due to his personal story: the Haitian immigrant grew up watching U.S. troops perform humanitarian missions in Port-Au-Prince, and he earned his citizenship and served in the Maryland National Guard before attending West Point. By all accounts, he was an outstanding student. And now, he’s headed to flight school. “I could not help but be flooded with emotions knowing that I will be leading these men and women who are willing to give their all to preserve what we value as the American way of life. To me, that is the greatest honor. Once again, thank you,” he wrote on Instagram.

Soldiers like these are all too rare these days, says Lawrence B. “Larry” Wilkerson, a retired U.S. Army Colonel and former Chief of Staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell. He recently returned from a symposium on the all-volunteer force held by the Center for the Study of the U. S. Military at the University of Kansas. “Frankly, it’s a mess,” he says.

As the economy improves, the military is a less attractive option, particularly among black “influencers” like parents, coaches, and pastors. It’s also the extended war. “Study after study shows us that millennials are going to be incredibly difficult to recruit,” Wilkerson says. “They want to live a different life.”

But the bigger issue is leadership. It’s imperative, he says, that military leadership reflect the demographics of the enlisted ranks, and that the military as a whole look like the country it serves. And the tide is shifting. “We’ve gone from having a dependency on African Americans in the enlisted ranks to a dependency on Hispanic Americans,” Wilkerson says. “It happened overwhelmingly fast, and we haven’t had the personnel management in place to make sure that we have the requisite core of Hispanic officers.”

The solution, he says, is intention. “It’s what Powell and others did, and it worked. They directed all the promotion and selection boards to pay special attention to minorities—not to give them a break beyond their merit—but to make sure they weren’t overlooked.” If you don’t have a diverse force that is representative of America, you’re going to alienate the military from the population, a dangerous outcome, he says. “You won’t have a military that is as strong and innovative as it can be.”

Happy Memorial Day. RaceAhead returns Tuesday, May 31.

On Point

China on the couch.
If, according to economic theory, sustained economic development leads to a more democratic society, how to explain China today? Minxin Pei explores the psyches of the growing Chinese middle class – some 70% of the population, by some estimates – and wonders why this educated and tech-savvy group hasn’t shrugged off one-party rule for a more democratic system.

Wedge issue.
In response to a recent complaint filed by the Asian-American Coalition for Education asking the U.S. Department of Education to investigate the admissions practices of several Ivy League schools, the Asian American Civil Rights Organization has published an open letter in support of affirmative action. “Affirmative action is a holistic approach that promotes diverse educational learning environments essential in our multiracial society. Affirmative action should be firmly upheld in our nation’s institutions of learning, including in Ivy League universities such as Brown, Dartmouth, and Yale.” Follow #edu4all and #IAmNotYourWedge for more.
Asian American

It's all about the race.
Elspeth Reeve compares the spectacle of Donald Trump the candidate with Barry Goldwater’s campaign of 1964. Her take? There is nothing about Trump’s combative, inconsistent, and error-filled rhetoric that should be read as sophisticated messaging or a master plan. “In the case of Trump, many of us want to believe that it cannot be his awful substance that’s the core of Trump’s appeal. But it is! Trump’s rallies are big parties not because of his charisma but because he says he wants to kick Mexicans out of the country and keep Muslims from coming in.”
New Republic

Head start-up.
A new collaboration between between local philanthropies and the city of Detroit is helping to get low income kids into desperately needed early childhood education programs. The situation is dire. Some 94,000 children are living in poverty in Detroit, and the need for licensed childcare exceeds availability by some 23,000 kids. But the ongoing problem of finding qualified teachers threatens to derail progress. One example: of the 4,895 seats that the federal government funds for Head Start programs in Detroit, nearly 800 are empty because providers are having trouble opening and staffing classrooms.
Detroit Chalkbeat

The Woke Leader

Game, set, matching money.
We know Venus Williams as an extraordinary athlete, but we know little of her as a fair pay activist who successfully lobbied Wimbledon to compensate women players on par with men. ESPN tapped filmmaker Ava DuVernay to create a documentary of Williams' efforts for its Nine for IX series—named for Title IX, the federal law that ensured that girls and women have access to sports and other educational programs. What emerges is a powerful portrait of a complex woman who has, with conviction and grace, shaped conversations about race, gender, class, and civil rights in surprising ways. There’s lots of exciting tennis, too. 

Hair on trial.
Hair is such a loaded subject for all women, women of color in particular. In a personal essay, Vanessa Willoughby explores the subject of her hair as it relates to identity, her relationship with her mother, and with society in general. What does it mean to be beautiful? “As the daughter of a Black man and an Asian woman, I have always been more than my hair, but I didn’t always know it,” she begins. 

A visible history.
L.A. Times critic-at-large Rebecca Carroll reviews Aperture magazine's summer issue, titled Vision & Justice,  and guest edited by art historian Sarah Lewis. The rich photos, many unfamiliar views of familiar subjects, have been matched with commentary from a wide array of artists, scholars, and commentators. From Lewis: “Understanding the relationship of race and the quest for full citizenship in this country requires an advanced state of visual literacy, particularly during times of turmoil." As a companion piece, Carroll provides welcome context and inadvertently, a summer reading list. 
L.A. Times


 Leadership is solving problems. The day soldiers stop bringing you their problems is the day you have stopped leading them. They have either lost confidence that you can help or concluded you do not care. Either case is a failure of leadership.
—General Colin Powell