Blacks in the Military: The Equal Opportunity Imperative

June 1, 1997 Topic: Society Regions: Americas Tags: Baltic Sea

Blacks in the Military: The Equal Opportunity Imperative

Mini Teaser: The United States armed services--army, navy, marines, air force--are together the most racially integrated mass organization in the world.

by Author(s): Alan L. Gropman

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 overrepresented 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.

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.

The military's progress in race relations has turned on three key factors: the essential demand for people to fill the ranks, the bonding that comes naturally to military members, and the nature of the mission of the armed forces. The charge of the military is to promote American national interests by being ready to defeat any foe that challenges them. The military calling, with its unique unlimited liability, requires each member to value people on the basis of their contribution to mission accomplishment, and to insist that the most be attained from everyone. It is not that military people are more enlightened than civilians on racial matters (or less so, incidentally), nor are they more benevolent than civilians (or less so), but they do concentrate very hard on their mission.

Even when the country practiced slavery, military service was seen as a haven for escaped slaves to obtain freedom or for free black men to better their lot in life. Given the strain of raising fighting men, blacks were often openly recruited into the military even in the eighteenth century. More than five thousand blacks fought as regulars in the Continental Army of Revolutionary War times, and the navy, although tiny in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, was never able to man its ships without black sailors. During the last thirty-five years of the nineteenth century, blacks made up a greater fraction of the U.S. Army than they did of the general population.

Because of outstanding black service in the Civil War, in which more than 180,000 blacks served in 120 infantry, cavalry, and artillery regiments, Congress in 1866 authorized the formation of six black army regiments. A drawdown in military strength in 1869 reduced this number to four: the 9th and 10th Cavalry and 24th and 25th Infantry. These units existed until after the Second World War. There were only ten cavalry regiments in the army in that era of Indian Wars, and three of the white regiments did not serve in the West. This meant that more than one-quarter--two out of seven regiments--of the fighting cavalry charged with pacifying the West, fighting cross-border bandits, defending settlers, and guarding stage coaches and railroad builders was black.

Similarly with the infantry regiments. About one-quarter of the infantry was not stationed in the West during this era, but the 24th and 25th were always in the West, performing the same missions as the cavalry. More than 10 percent of the fighting infantry, therefore, was African American. Like their predecessors in other wars, they earned the regard of those who commanded them (always white) and those white soldiers who fought beside them. During the Civil War period and the last part of the nineteenth century, the black infantry and cavalry earned seventeen medals of honor. And they were the most dependable troops in the West, having the lowest alcoholic rate and by far the lowest desertion rate of any army unit. These four black units, moreover, were fully manned--with waiting lists of those eager to join--whereas white units never were. The fact that it was difficult to get in, combined with their much lower desertion rates, made these units trustworthy. Their soundness was the major reason they were in the first ranks of those sent to Cuba to fight in the Spanish-American War, in which blacks earned six medals of honor.

It is worth reiterating that white soldiers are no more innately enlightened than white civilians on matters of race, but the mission of soldiering and the unlimited liability that comes with it usually produce a distinctive attitude on these matters. It follows that in times of prolonged peace--for example in the period between the Spanish-American War and the First World War--racism has an opportunity to spread its poison. When the United States reached bottom in race relations in the early twentieth century, the military descended with it. Blacks still signed up for the military--a reflection of the even greater bigotry outside the fort's walls--but the nearly two decades of peace from 1898 to 1917, combined with the toxic atmosphere in the country at large, hindered active black participation in the armed services.

In the navy, because conditions had improved to the point that a sufficient number of whites could be recruited to man ships, blacks, regardless of their capability or training, were turned into cooks and servants despite more than a century of qualified service. In the army, the four historic black regiments had become service units by the beginning of U.S. involvement in the First World War, even though they kept their combat designations. When the army began to gear up for the First World War there were only two black regular officers in its ranks (none in the navy until midway through the Second World War), and both of these were barred from fighting in France. Blacks were totally barred from the army's Air Service and the Marine Corps.

The American combat experience during the First World War was very brief, too short for heroic black service to overcome bigotry. It took about a year to train and equip a force of sufficient size to make a difference on the Western Front, and American forces were not in combat for more than six months. Two black divisions were formed during the war, one fighting under French command and the other under American command. The former, the 93rd Division, was treated with respect and performed heroically; the latter, the 92nd Division, was treated with racist disdain and did not perform well.

Soon after the First World War ended the War Department looked at the terrible losses the European powers had suffered; the French alone bore ten times more casualties than the Americans, even as their population was 60 percent smaller. American planners feared that the United States could suffer similar casualties were it to be engaged in a major war from the outset. Clearly, America might need to mobilize a more sizable army and, to that end, the War Department eagerly sought to find a way to employ many more blacks. It directed the Army War College to study the proper employment of blacks; the first report (one of many during the 1920s and 1930s) emerged in 1925. This was the product of the entire faculty and student body, and its recommendations were signed by the commandant, Major General H.E. Ely. (War College students were and are senior officers marked, potentially, for the highest ranks.)

The report was a badly flawed, racist document reflective of the times. It ignored the valiant service of blacks in the First World War and all previous wars and accused them of inherent cowardliness: "In physical courage it must be admitted that the American Negro falls well back of the white man and possibly behind all other races." The report also stated that blacks were far behind the white man on the scale of human evolution: "The cranial cavity of the Negro is smaller than the white; his brain weighing thirty-five ounces contrasted with forty-five for the white." The report also found that blacks had abundant moral and character weaknesses: "Petty thieving, lying, and promiscuity are much more common among Negroes than among whites. Atrocities connected with white women have been the cause of considerable trouble among Negroes." At the same time, the report argued that since blacks were citizens they ought to serve and sacrifice. But because of the supposed incapacities of the black race, the report called for strict racial segregation and white officer leadership: "The colored soldier utterly lacked confidence in his colored officer."

The underuse of blacks in the U.S. military was studied on nine subsequent occasions by the Army War College (the last report was signed in 1939) and always with the same basic result. Racism governed the uses of African Americans by the army during the Second World War, and the navy was no better. It had barred black enlistments in the early 1920s and when it permitted blacks to enlist again a decade later, they were only taken on as cooks and servants. The Air Corps and Marine Corps continued to take no blacks at all.
During the Second World War blacks did get a limited opportunity to fight on the ground and in the air, and those officers who observed blacks in combat, usually--though certainly not always--came to respect black fighting prowess, endurance, and professionalism. The most technical position allowed blacks during the war was that of fighter pilot. This job they performed with great success--a triumph that helped bring about air force racial integration in 1949.

Korea, Vietnam, and After

It was not service during the Second World War, however, that made the armed forces what they are today. The army, navy, and marines were virtually as segregated at the beginning of the Korean War as they were on VJ-Day in August 1945, this despite President Truman's executive order number 9981 calling for "equal opportunity" within the armed forces. This order was signed by Truman in order to win the black vote in the 1948 election; it had had, however, virtually no effect on the services before June 1950 when war broke out in Korea. What propelled change in the military was the relentless demand for manpower during the Korean and Vietnam Wars. The relative reluctance of white Americans to supply the manpower requirements of the all-volunteer force then further magnified the importance of black enlistments in the services.

This demand drove the military to fill its ranks with those willing to serve (or, during the draft era, those unwilling or unable to seek exemption or evasion). And in an all-volunteer atmosphere where people have to be actively recruited--actually enticed--to enlist, the only way to recruit sufficient blacks is to guarantee equal opportunity and ensure an atmosphere free of discrimination. Once blacks enlist, the only way to get the most out of them and to keep them in the service is to abide by these promises. It works. Blacks have made greater progress in the military in terms of attainment of rank during the twenty years of the all-volunteer force era than they had made in the twenty years between the formal racial integration of the armed forces in 1948 and the inauguration of the all-volunteer force. There are today much higher percentages of black officers and senior non-commissioned officers.

Racial problems exist, to be sure, but these are small in comparison to those that endure in civilian America. Authenticated racial complaints over the past twenty years have declined sharply. It is not that the military has eliminated all bias; it is that it recognizes that it cannot perform its mission if its people are divided by racism or race prejudice. And once bias is found, the military attacks it.
A case in point concerns the fact that a few members of hate groups have joined (or perhaps infiltrated is a better word) the military. All of the service chiefs and secretaries reacted swiftly to the race killings at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, perpetrated by junior enlisted "skinhead" soldiers. Secretary of the Army Togo West and Army Chief of Staff Dennis Reimer immediately ordered an investigation of the situation at Fort Bragg and across the entire army. The army (and the other services with installations in North Carolina) cooperated with the state branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People as it conducted its own investigation of military installations there.

The army's research indicated that membership in white supremacist organizations is not widespread. This is not surprising; after all, why would a skinhead join a military, especially the army, where 30 percent of the supervisors are black? There is practically no way for a recruit to escape supervision by blacks from his or her first day in uniform. In its advertising brochures and television commercials, the services, and especially the army, make their interracial complexion clear. Moreover, during Basic Training, in all accessions programs and in all continuing training, service personnel are continuously reminded of the essential nature of non-discriminatory practices. All the services have professionally trained equal opportunity specialists assigned to all posts, bases, and ships. Their responsibility is to monitor the racial climate and to ensure that the force remains cohesive by eliminating biased or bigoted behavior.

Each service, moreover, has strictly enforced policies regarding discrimination. One example--the army's--will stand for all. Army Regulation 600-20 states that "Active participation by soldiers [in extremist organizations] is prohibited"--meaning that such active members are discharged under the provisions of the Uniform Code of Military Justice. Passive membership is "strongly discouraged as incompatible with military service", and "positive actions to limit soldier [passive] participation" are demanded. This regulation has been in existence for more than eight years.

An active member is defined as one who recruits people, passes out literature, or dresses in hate group paraphernalia on or off post, on or off duty. Passive membership is defined as paying dues and receiving literature. Passive members must be told that their membership will be taken into consideration when their "overall performance" is being evaluated, and will be formally commented on. Further, membership in a hate group is a "legitimate factor to be considered when selections for leadership" positions are awarded. "Removing or recommending removal of security clearances" are considered as well. And, finally, passive membership in an extremist group could be considered a "bar to re-enlistment."

This regulation, in addition to the soldiers, sailors, marines, and airmen assigned to maintain force cohesion, and the clear understanding by the entire hierarchy that mission fulfillment depends upon equal opportunity, are the reasons the U.S. military has the most positive race relations of any mass organization in the world. Within the broad spectrum of civil-military relations in the United States, race relations within the military are on balance a success story. Would that the other parts of the problem also find themselves on an upward trajectory.

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