Blacks in the Military

By Gropman, Alan L. | The National Interest, Summer 1997 | Go to article overview

Blacks in the Military


Gropman, Alan L., The National Interest


The Equal Opportunity Imperative

The United States armed services - army, navy, marines, air force - are together the most racially integrated mass organization in the world. No organization nearly as large, anywhere, has more harmonious (which is not to say perfect) race relations, and none has as many whites being supervised by blacks - as meaningful a proof of racial integration as one could ask for. These are not assertions but facts open to examination by anybody who may care to do so.

One measure of this truth is the number of young black men and women - several tens of thousands - who enter the armed services each year. Every year since the Vietnam War, around 20 percent of the first term enlistees entering the armed forces are black, well above the African-American fraction of the population (14 percent of the prime age group). Why? Because blacks see in the military services opportunities often unavailable to them in civilian America. African Americans see the armed services as practicing equal opportunity, and as having far higher percentages of black supervisors than those found in any other occupation. Moreover, blacks are not recruited or employed solely or even mainly in combat organizations. While African Americans are 30 percent of the army's enlisted force, they hold more than 30 percent of the non-combat specialties. The medical career field, for example, is disproportionately black. Blacks are thus not over-represented in the combat arms; about 20 percent of today's army recruits are black, but fewer than 10 percent of those enlistees destined for infantry training are black. Blacks, in other words, are not recruited solely as warriors and usually choose careers that have civilian transferability.(1)

For these reasons - career opportunities and equal opportunity - the re-enlistment rates for blacks are considerably higher than they are for whites; across the Defense Department, about 150 blacks re-enlist each year for 100 whites. Hence, while the army takes about 20-22 percent of its annual enlistees from the African-American community, the total army enlisted force is 30 percent black because blacks stay in the army longer than whites. Also, blacks are promoted to senior enlisted ranks, on a merit-only basis, in proportion to their representation in the service. This is to be expected because the army takes black and white recruits with similar aptitudes and education. More than 90 percent of today's recruits have high schools diplomas (a higher percentage of diploma holders than this age group in general), and more blacks than whites enter the service with diplomas. Thus, about 30 percent of the highest ranking enlisted personnel - E-9s or sergeants-major - are blacks, as are about 11 percent of the officer corps and 7 percent of the generals.

The other services have lower percentages of black officers, but all of them have senior enlisted black personnel in proportion to the African-American percentage of their force. Clearly, African Americans see benefits in military organizations that continually educate all personnel at all ranks on the need to operate in a bias-free atmosphere; that severely penalize those who cause racial friction; that bar promotions for officers and supervisory enlisted who do not maintain a healthy racial climate; that discharge all known active members of hate groups; that treat all people of the same rank equally in terms of pay, allowances, housing, and medical care, regardless of race; and that scrupulously study the results of promotion boards to ensure freedom from racial (or any kind of ethnic or religious) prejudice.

A Mixed History

Although the armed services were the first mass U.S. institutions truly to integrate racially, the services did not always practice equal opportunity. They usually reflected the biases of the greater American community, and there is much ugliness in the military record. How and why the services reached the point where they are today ahead of the rest of America may be instructive. …

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