By Jonathan S. Landay, writer of The Christian Science Monitor
The Christian Science Monitor
For decades, many young African-Americans have considered military service a gateway to career opportunities denied them in the civilian world. But that view could be changing.
Surveys conducted annually by the Pentagon among 16- to 21-year-olds have charted an unprecedented decline in recent years of interest among blacks in signing up with the armed services.
The shift in attitudes has not translated into a falloff in the number of blacks the military actually recruits. But the United States Army is sufficiently concerned about the implications for the all-volunteer force that it has commissioned a study into the factors behind the dramatic rise in "negative propensity to enlist" among blacks.
At the same time, the military has also, as a result, stepped up recruit advertising, which some say is one of the reasons for the decline in interest among blacks.
"African-American propensity is still higher than any other group in American society, but there was a drop. It was enough to cause concern, not for the immediate present, but for the future," says Lt. Col. Scott Henne, the Army's chief equal-opportunity action officer.
"We need to know if this was a one-time phenomenon or is this a pattern that would continue in the future," he says.
Alan Gropman, a military historian at the Industrial College of the Armed Forces who is conducting the study for the Army, says he has yet to draw any conclusions. But he suspects that one key reason why young blacks are less interested in pursuing military careers is growing affluence among African-Americans.
"We know that as the middle class expands, propensity declines because there are other opportunities out there. We also know that the black middle class is expanding. So logically, you can make that link," Dr. Gropman says.
At the same time, the US military faces heightened competition from corporate America, which has stepped up its recruiting efforts of minorities.
"What we are competing against is the college market as well as some of the civilian labor markets," notes Deborah Bosick, a Pentagon spokeswoman. "We all want the best and the brightest."
Blacks currently are 19.6 percent of the nation's 1.5 million service personnel, a margin that has largely held steady for the past decade despite the military's post-cold-war "downsizing" that began in 1989. …