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Did you notice the difference?

PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. (AFNS) -- As I contemplated this article and the fact that it would be published during February, which is African American History Month, I thought at first that perhaps I'm not the best candidate to write this.

After all, I'm not African-American or any other ethnic minority.

Upon further reflection, I decided that some of the experiences I had growing up may be applicable. So step back a few decades in time with me for just a few minutes.

The area of the country I'm from was very late in ending racial segregation. Even though my home county in Georgia was nearly equally divided between Caucasians and African-Americans, the only black person I knew until I was 8 years old was a lady that worked for my grandfather.

The entire society around me was segregated. My elementary school was all white and the black elementary school was on the other side of town.

Before I started third grade, my father tried to explain desegregation to my siblings and me. I didn't really understand what was happening. I wasn't happy though because most of my cousins and friends had enrolled in neighboring counties and I would no longer see them at school.

The first day in Mrs. Mays' class was rough. Desegregation had arrived, I didn't know many people and this one black kid kept picking on me. He called me names (racial slurs) I had never heard before. I didn't know what those names meant, but I could tell he wasn't being nice.

After school was over, we went outside and lined up for the bus. The same boy got in line behind me and continued to pick on me. I'd had enough by that time. I turned around and shoved him as hard as I could. He fell down, then quickly got back up, ready to fight. Before we could get started, Mrs. Mays broke it up and administered some much needed discipline (the old fashioned kind).

The boy's name was Wayne Whiting and we became best friends shortly after sharing that experience. We were inseparable for many years, although we drifted apart a bit in high school. He retired from the Army several years ago and I lost contact with him, but I think of him often.

Why do I tell this story? Because none of us are born with prejudices, racial or otherwise.

Wayne didn't know what to expect from me and I didn't know what to expect from him. Maybe he'd had some negative experiences from other white people. I don't know what he thought about me, but he figured out pretty quickly that the only real difference between us was the color of our skin and that didn't really matter to two 8-year-old boys full of energy and mischief. We had many great adventures together after that (and received a number of paddlings for those adventures).

One of the things I've enjoyed most about my Air Force career is the zero tolerance we have for racial discrimination. It's very different from the racially tense atmosphere I grew up in. Once, early in my career, I was visiting home and met with another black classmate who had also joined the Air Force.

We talked about the Air Force and after a while I asked him, "Did you notice the difference?"

He said, "Yes, definitely."

I didn't have to explain to him the context of what I meant. The difference in racial tolerance between what we were experiencing in the Air Force versus what we had experienced growing up in southwest Georgia was evident.

Does this mean the Air Force has no further work to do in the area of racial reconciliation? No, sadly it is an area in which we must always remain diligent.

We bring in people from many different backgrounds and cultures. Some come in with social prejudices that are not compatible with our core values. We must continue to educate our Airmen on the meaning of racial equality and equal opportunity and we must never tolerate deviance from the standard we have set.

Our Air Force is much more diverse than when I joined it 30 years ago. I enjoy talking with Airmen from many different cultures. We have so much we can learn from one another. I hope all of you will take the time this month to look around and celebrate our Air Force diversity.

(Lt. Col. Lonnie Hammack is the deputy commander of the 21st Mission Support Group)

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