West Point Diversity Leadership Conference

Speech as Prepared for Alphonso Jackson

Friday, April 13, 2007

Thank you. Good evening.

Photo: Left to right - LTG Franklin Hagenbeck and Secretary Jackson
LTG Franklin Hagenbeck, Superintendent of West Point, who hosted the Annual Diversity Conference, presents Secretary Jackson with a commemorative thank you for speaking at the Diversity Conference at West Point April 13 , 2007.

I would like to thank the Association of Graduates for organizing this event. It is an important contribution to the academic and personnel preparation of cadets. The agenda today has been most impressive. There were good discussions about recruitment, retention, professional life, and even popular culture. I congratulate each of the speakers on the quality of their presentations.

The hallmark of any great educational institution is the contribution of its graduates. There is an old saying at places like Harvard, Morehouse, and other great institutions: "You graduate but never leave."

And certainly that is true at West Point. You graduate but keep giving and giving to those who follow. Every student becomes forever part of the tradition and the history. The Association of Graduates is more than an alumni organization: it is the collective memory of West Point.

So, when that collective memory highlights minority issues and places an emphasis on preparation, then we must all take notice. Experience is speaking to us.

I thank Colonel Andre Sayles and Colonel John Calabro for coordinating this conference. I am told that West Point is the only service academy that conducts such a conference each year. I will remember that next time I speak in Annapolis or Colorado Springs. They have some catching up to do. Not the first time�

And I thank Superintendent (F.L.) Hagenbeck, and the cadets and faculty, for hosting this conference. Your hospitality is most gracious.

Tonight, I was introduced by my good friend, Herman Bulls. Most of you know him. Herman, thank you for that kind introduction.

I also want to thank Coca Cola, Citibank, and Booz Allen Hamilton for co-sponsoring the conference.

Ladies and gentlemen, not far from here, on a day in May, 45 years ago, Douglas MacArthur gave his most celebrated remarks.

Every cadet knows that speech: "Duty-Honor-Country."

General MacArthur was right� those are "hallowed words"� sacred words. The words of West Point.

And he was right: "The Long Grey Line has never failed us."

It hasn't. West Point is a source for greatness in leadership. This campus is a shining symbol of excellence and commitment. And all Americans are proud of the tradition and scholarship that envelopes this historic spot.

"Duty-Honor-Country." You can almost hear those words today. They haunt these halls and echo down the Hudson River Valley. Those words seem to hang with crystal clarity from the trees and the rooftops.

But this life of service comes at a personal price. Often the life of a soldier is rootless. A tour of duty takes an officer to one place for two or three years, then another, and another.

These are years spent in officers' quarters and off-base rental properties. Easy in and easy out. You have to be mobile and live out of two bags.

I have spoken to many former and current military officers, including a retired Army Colonel on my staff at HUD. Repeatedly, they have expressed the same view: that home ownership needs to become a larger part of the military experience.

Starting a career, home ownership is not a priority. It should become one.

I know it becomes important later, as an officer gains rank and more pay. But, that ownership often comes mid-career, or later, with maturity and seniority.

Some officers literally buy their first home in retirement.

I believe that we can change that, without sacrificing the needs of the Army. And conferences like this can point the way. The Association of Graduates can help make home ownership a top priority at the beginning of a career. I believe there should be a strong expectation, almost a tradition, of home ownership early in a career.

And why not? Home ownership is easier now that in the past. There is recognition, an understanding, that an officer's pay is predictable. An officer is a good investment economically as well as militarily. There are people like Herman and myself working very hard to make home ownership available for those who can truly afford it.

I believe that one important step we can take is to make every officer a home owner at every posting. In this way, equity can build for decades. Such a culture would help officers invest their money earlier with more productive return. Imagine the financial difference if an officer could begin to build equity at the start of a career. Imagine the positive influence in our communities. I am sure most Americans would be proud to have an Army Officer -and a West Point graduate - living next door. And such an effort would help address the lower rates of home ownership in our minority communities.

Right now, after a century of effort, home ownership for Black Americans is above 50 percent. We can do better. That is why President Bush has challenged Americans to create 5.5 million new minority homeowners by the end of the decade. And we're more than half-way there already. This record level of minority homeownership would have seemed impossible at the turn of the last century. It is an improvement from the beginning of the 20th Century, when only 10 percent of Black Americans were home owners. But black home ownership still lags almost 20 percent behind white ownership, which now stands at 70 percent.

And the recent problems with sub prime lending threaten to undo some of our progress.

I believe home ownership is more than a good investment; it is a civil rights issue. It is one of the battlegrounds for equality and freedom in our time. Dr. Martin Luther King and other advocates fought for fair housing practices. In fact, this is the month we celebrate our national struggle for fair housing, and the same month in which we remember the martyrdom of Dr. King 39 years ago.

Just as we fight to protect freedom and the security for our nation, we must fight for equality and justice in housing. Why? Because of what housing represents. It is one of the most important ways we become part of a community. It represents an investment shared with neighbors. It is a responsible and sensible way to gain economic security and financial stability. It is where we shelter and protect our family�our children�and sometimes visitors who have overstayed their welcome.

One of the great civil rights leaders, Dr. Benjamin Elijah Mays, said that homeownership was central to the self-esteem and pride of Black Americans. It elevated them from being perceived as just sharecroppers, renters, or wage-hands. It gave status. It was a sign of leadership and prudent judgment. It was, and remains, a cornerstone of the American Dream.

That is why I believe that home ownership is a vital part of our civil rights works today.

And we need to use home ownership to address another problem. One commentator has said that the central problem of Black Americans is a feeling that life is meaningless, hopeless, or worthless.

You see that view reflected in much of popular culture. We witness a culture of callousness. It demeans women, promotes mindless violence in our communities, celebrates "gangsta" lifestyles, and embraces mediocrity.

Much of popular culture steals the soul. How? Well, there are those who reject value of education. Some accuse successful Black and Latino and Asian Americans of "selling out." Many are turning computer games into entertainment and television into a narcotic. Some are promoting intolerance and hatred.

All of this diminishes our expectations and robs us of our dreams. We can do better. General Colin Powell has said that "Our black heritage must be a foundation stone we can build on, not a place to withdraw into." I agree. We must work to improve black self-esteem and emphasize excellence as a part of black culture.

Home ownership can do that.

Also, the Army experience can help lead the way to a new culture of character. The life of a cadet is a good preparation for the highest levels of leadership and success. This is why so many West Point graduates do well in the military and outside of it. You provide direction, structure, scholarship, discipline, hard work, and mentoring. You help elevate and encourage. You teach that excellence is more than a goal; it is a way of life. And you show how that life can be lived in service, in commitment, and in pride.

"Duty-Honor-Country." Good words indeed.

And these are words meaningful to all Americans, regardless of ethnicity, class, gender, or circumstance. As the Army recruits with more attention to preparation and diversity, I know that spirit of excellence and commitment will continue to inspire and guide our country. West Point graduates can lead the way.

We need to send a profound and positive message about home ownership. It is a wise move, especially early in a career. Home ownership is good for the officer, good for the community, and good for the country.

I strongly urge you to make home ownership a part of the Army experience. Forty-five years ago, General MacArthur called the American soldier "the instructor of future generations in the principles of liberty and freedom."

So, I ask the graduates of West Point to guide us now. Teach us by example. Set the pace. Begin a tradition.

Again, I congratulate the Association of Graduates for this outstanding conference. Thank you for including me.


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