Smashing Stereotypes

for the week of July 29, 2002
by Rubel Shelly

Human beings are downright awful in the way we treat one another at times. Take the matter of stereotyping as a case in point.

Some is sexual, as in judging women to be "too emotional" or all men as "insensitive clods." Some is tied to age, as in supposing all teens "irresponsible" and all people over 65 "too old." Then there is the sort that is in vogue right now about all corporate executives being "greedy." The best-known and most universal form of stereotyping is racial Jew and Arab, black and white, etc.

Benjamin O. Davis Jr. died July 4 at age 89. In case you don't know his story, let me review just a few highlights for you.

Ben Davis' father was a first lieutenant in the U.S. Army when his only son was born. The younger Davis admired his father, took pride in his achievements, and wanted to follow in his footsteps. Oh, yes. He was also mesmerized by flying and wanted to be a pilot. He eventually combined the two passions of his life.

He was admitted to West Point in 1932 and graduated thirty-fifth in a class of 276 four years later. World War II gave him the opportunity to fly sixty combat missions, win the silver star, and command the 332nd Fighter Group. Don't assume, however, that his accomplishments came without struggle.

No one would room with Ben Davis at West Point, so he lived alone in a dorm room designed for at least two cadets. No one would eat with him in the mess hall. No one would be his buddy in the swimming pool, so he never received his Red Cross lifesaving certificate. As a matter of fact, no classmate at the United States Military Academy would speak to him except in the line of duty.

Ben Davis was black. So he was stereotyped by a racist culture. It was assumed that a black man could not and should not command white soldiers.

The need for pilots gave him and an all-black squadron the chance for flight training at Tuskegee Army Air Field in 1940. First in North Africa and then in Italy, his unit escorted bombers in combat never losing even one to enemy fighters.

Later Davis said he didn't have time "to sit back and feel sorry for myself" during his ordeal. He had to explode the myths and stereotypes that otherwise were in place to keep him from career opportunities to which he was entitled.

Resentment, malice, and trying to get even are self-destructive. Resolve and steadiness at a noble task can overcome prejudices. Ben Davis proved it.

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