Kevin Bergquist, University of Michigan, University Record Online, Feb. 2
People in the military have to be able to recognize and manage differences among races, said a colonel in the United States Marine Corps Reserves (USMCR).
“For us to continue to be the finest fighting force in the world, we have to be able to handle these issues,” said Col. Michael Wagner, a University of Michigan alumnus who discussed issues of prejudice, race and affirmative action with the U-M Naval Reserve Officers Training Corps Unit as part of the MLK Symposium Jan. 29. “They are here to stay.”
Wagner used a question-and-answer format to address a variety of issues and to recall his experiences at the University and in the business world before he joined the USMCR. He asked if prejudice and racism were the same thing, and said he was told long ago that racism is prejudice that has a power with it.
“It is very bad when we use prejudice to affect someone’s life in a negative way, to hurt someone or to disadvantage someone,” he said.
Wagner told of a conversation he overheard in the hallway earlier in the day when one of the cadets asked, “Is Jew a bad word?” He also recalled a time when a woman he met was offended at being called Hispanic.
“We have to be aware of the little nuances of things,” Wagner said. “I have to be aware of what I am saying and doing, and how that might impact other people.”
Wagner graduated from U-M in 1978 and Wayne State Law School in 1987. He currently serves as a deputy chief prosecutor for Wayne County.
“I remember when I was growing up, I was told I could do well in life — get a job in the factory, etc.,” Wagner said. “But no one was saying I could become a lawyer or doctor or go into the military.”
Early in his career, Wagner said he learned about people’s perceptions of him as a Black person. While he was prosecuting a high-profile murder case, a woman whose child was killed asked him during a meeting where the other prosecutor was. The woman knew she wanted the best, he said, but she “also knew that I was not white.”
“Two weeks before the trial, she ran up to me and hugged me and said, Oh, my God, you are so good,” he said. “I was wrong; we have to stop doing this to each other.”
Wagner said he supports affirmative action and disputes the argument many opponents have — that if a white person was denied admission to U-M, it was because a Black person took his or her spot.
Wagner, who worked for General Motors Corp. before joining the USMCR, said a coworker assumed he had received special treatment after she learned that he had graduated from U-M. “She said her daughter didnt get in, and that I must have gotten in because of a special program,” Wagner said.
Wagner challenged the unit to be a leader in fighting prejudice and racism.
“Once you are in a command position, you can’t hide in the crowd,” he said. “What you have to do as the commander, the leader, is to set the standard. We have prejudice; we have bias, but will you rise above that? We have to.
“When we are fighting side-by-side, it doesnt matter what color you are. If you have my back, I love you.”
The discussion was sponsored by the Navy Officer Education Program.