Success Story: Blacks in the Military

Blacks occupy more management positions in the military than in any other sector of American society.

The banquet for black officers of flag rank fairly glittered with stars. Seventy-six black generals and admirals—active, reserve, and retired—were being honored at the National Guard Armory in Washington, D.C. The date was February 26, 1982. More than two thousand people were present. The secretary of defense, Caspar Weinberger, gave the principal address. Perhaps predictably, the banquet received little attention in the national media. Surprisingly, however, it also received little attention in the black press.

The absence of coverage was noteworthy because the record of the U.S. military in race relations is one that deserves recognition. Some 400,000 blacks serve in an active-duty force of 2.1 million. Most of these men and women serve in the enlisted ranks, many as noncommissioned officers, or NCOs, and an increasing number can be found in the officer corps. Blacks occupy more management positions in the military than they do in business, education, journalism, government, or any other significant sector of American society. The armed services still have race problems, but these are minimal compared with the problems that exist in other institutions, public and private.

A visitor to a military installation will witness a degree and a quality of racial integration that are rarely encountered elsewhere. At many points in their terms of military service whites are sure to be commanded by black superiors. In the performance of their military duties blacks and whites typically work together with little display of racial animosity Not only do whites and blacks inhabit the same barracks but also equal treatment is the rule in such non-duty facilities as chapels, barbershops, post exchanges, movie theaters, snack bars, and swimming pools. Observation of any dining facility (as the mess hall has been renamed) reveals little informal racial separation. A rule of thumb is that the more military the environment, the more effective the integration. Interracial comity is stronger in the field than in the garrison, stronger on duty than off, and stronger on post than in the world beyond the base.

By the fall of 1985 blacks accounted for 13 percent of enlisted personnel in the Navy, 17 percent in the Air Force, 20 percent in the Marine Corps, and 30 percent in the Army. Each branch of the military has a distinctive history and reputation with respect to blacks. Of the four services the Navy has been the slowest to recruit large numbers of blacks (although today it recruits actively). The Army has always been at the forefront. Ten percent of its officers today are black, a proportion twice that for the Air Force and Marine Corps and three times that for the Navy. The Army, with some 776,000 men and women on active duty, is by far the largest of the armed services. In terms of what blacks have achieved in uniform and the difficulties they still face, the Army is a bellwether for the military as a whole.

Military sociology is a small academic specialty, most of whose practitioners, like me, are white. My research has allowed me to observe at close hand the variable progress of race relations in the Army for three decades. The title of my first published journal article, written in 1957, when I was a draftee, was "Has the Army Killed Jim Crow?" My answer at the time was Yes. It was clear, however, that the end of overt segregation in the armed forces had not spelled the end of discrimination. The persistence of subtle forms of racism in an otherwise completely integrated setting defines to this day the experience of blacks in the military. Yet there is no question that on the whole the military has served blacks well, just as blacks have served the military well. The story of blacks in the military is instructive. So is the fact that it has received little attention.

The account that follows is based on my own observations of Army units in the United States and in Europe and on numerous interviews with blacks of every rank, including a half dozen black generals whom I have known for many years. Because the military personnel I spoke with asked not to be identified, I have used pseudonyms.

Some background information may be useful. In 1948 President Harry S. Truman abolished racial segregation in the armed services by executive order. Starting with the Korean War, in 1950, integration proceeded rapidly: first at training bases in the United States, then in combat units in Korea, and finally at U.S. military installations around the world. Racial integration in the Army was accomplished with striking speed (the process took only five years) and thoroughness, at least on a formal level. By the mid-1950s a snapshot of a hundred enlisted men on parade would have shown, say, twelve black faces; integration was a fact of life. At a time when blacks were still arguing for their educational rights before the Supreme Court and marching for their social and political rights in the Deep South, the Army accomplished integration with little outcry—but not without cost. It almost surely lost support from some of its traditional conservative allies, yet it did not gain support from liberal groups.

One reason that integration went so smoothly was that at first it affected enlisted men almost exclusively, and enlisted men of every race, as the saying went, had always been treated "like Negroes." There were few black officers in the Army during the 1950s, so integration required only relatively minor adjustments on the part of the command structure; resistance to greater change might have been intense. If the paucity of black officers (they would make up less than three percent of all Army officers until the Vietnam era) helped to facilitate integration, it was also one obvious indication that racial prejudice in the armed services remained a force to contend with.

The main reason that integration succeeded in the military has to do with the special nature of military life. Orders, once given, must be followed, whatever a soldier's private feelings or misgivings. Those who cannot adapt to Army life generally either fail to re-enlist or are weeded out. Thus once the decision to desegregate the military was made, it was final. There was no turning back, no recourse to delays, no catering to racist sentiments. From that time on, no known racist could expect to occupy a position of authority in the military hierarchy.

The integration of the military has taken place in three phases. From the Pentagon's point of view the 1950s and early 1960s—phase one—represented a quiet period in race relations. The increasing activism of the civil-rights movement, coupled with the widening of the Vietnam War, led to turbulent change. Truman's executive order had brought blacks partway into the military mainstream; the upheavals of the mid- and late 1960s provided the impetus for some measure of real equality.

Many factors and events coincided to initiate phase two. If integration was the rule on base, beyond the gates discrimination was blatant, especially in the South. Blacks were no longer disposed to accept such treatment. Where, moreover, was the black officer corps? The black draftees of the l950s were fast becoming NCOs—the backbone of the Army—but as late as 1968 only 0.7 percent of the new class of plebes at West Point were black. Racial prejudice of some sort, blacks contended, was to blame. The Vietnam War heightened racial polarization. While many black leaders, notably Martin Luther King, Jr., denounced the war, the antiwar movement was led mainly by whites. Middle-class whites were the most adept at avoiding the draft, legally and illegally. Perhaps the most emotional issue of all—and one that politicians white and black still bring up—was the contention that black troops were used as "cannon fodder" in the field.

This charge, as it happens, is unfair. Black fatalities amounted to 12.1 percent of all Americans killed in Southeast Asia—a figure roughly proportional to the number of blacks in the U.S. population. But the other issues raised by blacks, inside and outside the military, were obviously legitimate. The war years were marked by well-publicized breakdowns of discipline among black servicemen and, more broadly by an atmosphere of racial hostility in the ranks. Racial clashes occurred in Vietnam, on military bases around the world, and on ships at sea. All of this must be seen in context, however. In the waning years of the war the Army was unraveling in more respects than racial ones.

Racial tensions subsided as the war wound down, and the military took a hard look at its procedures. Several steps were taken to improve relations between blacks and whites. Most visibly, courses in black history and the dynamics of racial prejudice became an integral part of every soldier's basic training. How much good this accomplished is impossible to say. Some soldiers—black and white—derided such efforts as attempts at "black pacification." And junior black officers were often shunted into race-relations slots (to teach the courses and serve as equal-opportunity officers) and thus were unable to pursue careers in other, non-race-related arenas of military service. Many senior officers retiring today do so with a heavy conscience, knowing that they did not do all they might have to save the careers of young black officers who were thrown into the breach.

More important for blacks than the new race-relations curriculum was the revision of the efficiency report, a performance evaluation that carries a lot of weight in all promotions. Starting in the early 1970s a new category appeared in the efficiency reports for officers and NCOs: race-relations skills. Filling out this section was mandatory, and the requirement was rigorously enforced. More blacks received promotions. Some officers with a poor record on race were relieved of command. All of this helped to set a tone. If only for reasons of self-interest, Army officers and NCOs became highly sensitive to the issue of race. Today one is more likely to hear racial jokes in a faculty club than in an officers' club. And in an officers' club one will surely see more blacks.

The end of the draft, in 1973, ushered in phase three. With the advent of the volunteer military, the white middle-class soldier became something of an endangered species. The military, armed with bonuses and the prospect of good pay, began recruiting at the margin. The citizen-soldier was replaced by Economic Man. For poor blacks and poor whites there was simply nothing like the Army. In the last year of the draft blacks made up about 17 percent of the enlisted force. By the early 1980s the proportion had nearly doubled. The qualitative improvement in the Army's race relations was thus accompanied by a major demographic shift. The appointment in 1977 of Clifford Alexander, a black, as the secretary of the Army seemed to ratify what was occurring at all levels in that branch of the service. Even today, in a Republican Administration not known for its openness to blacks, the Department of the Army remains an exception. Two of its five assistant secretaries are black: Delbert R. Spurlock, for manpower and reserve affairs, and John L. Shannon, for installations and logistics.

The army's enlisted men, three out of ten of whom today are black, will continue to come disproportionately from the pool of young blacks as long as opportunities for these youths remain limited in other occupations. But blacks are not only being pushed into the Army; they are also being pulled. In recent years several factors have made a spell in the Army increasingly attractive: a more positive image of military life as the memory of Vietnam recedes, a vastly improved recruiting command, the availability (since 1982) of GI Bill-style educational benefits, and the generous pay earned by new recruits. A buck private receives a base pay of $7,668 a year, in addition to room and board, medical care, pension, and other benefits. He may receive an enlistment bonus of up to $8,000.

A 1982 study published by Martin Binkin and Mark J. Eitelberg, of the Brookings Institution, showed that an astonishing 42 percent of all qualified black youths enter the military, whereas 14 percent of their white counterparts do. Since the end of the draft the proportion of high school graduates among blacks entering the Army has consistently exceeded that among whites, although the gap narrowed in the 1980s with the overall improvement in recruiting. In 1985, 95.4 percent of black men joining the Army had high school diplomas, in comparison with 87.6 percent of whites. Indeed, the Army's enlisted ranks are the only significant social arena in which black educational levels (though not test scores) surpass those of whites. A longtime employee of the U.S. Army in Europe—a German—told me during the late 1970s, "In the volunteer Army you are recruiting the best of the blacks and the worst of the whites." At the time, his observation was basically correct. Since then, as the Army's enlistment package has gradually become more generous, better-qualified whites have been lured to the recruiter and the proportion of blacks in the enlisted ranks has dropped by a few percentage points. Still, the overall picture since the end of the draft is one of growing black participation in the volunteer Army. And it continues to be true that the black recruits are among "the best of the blacks."

Young men and women can join the Army for enlistments of two, three, or four years. All soldiers undergo an eight-week basic course, essentially infantry training. Basic training represents a leveling process. At no other time in a soldier's Army career will racial differences be so utterly inconsequential. After basic training the recruit is sent to advanced training, where he is assigned a military occupational specialty (MOS). Most advanced training courses take six to twelve weeks, though training for some technical specialties may require as long as a year. Upon completion of advanced training the enlisted man is sent to a permanent duty station, where, in most cases, he can expect to complete his initial enlistment.

Blacks and whites diverge during selection for advanced training, because black soldiers tend to score lower than whites on aptitude tests. About two thirds of white recruits, and about one third of blacks, fall in the top half of the test distribution. Black and white test scores are much closer among soldiers than among civilians, but the gap in the Army is substantial nonetheless. Because scores on aptitude tests help determine a soldier's MOS, there is a racial differential in many military jobs. Thus blacks are more likely than whites to be assigned to "support" branches of the service. They make up 50 percent of those in supply, 46 percent of those in food service, and 44 percent of those in general clerical work. Blacks are less likely than whites to be found in highly technical fields, such as signal intelligence, cryptography, and electronic warfare. And in combat specialties—the guts of the Army—black participation has been declining. From 1980 to 1985 the percentage of blacks in the infantry dropped from 32 to 22 percent. Declines were also registered in the armored and artillery specialties. Although blacks are overrepresented in combat specialties relative to their numbers in American society, they are considerably underrepresented relative to their numbers in the U.S. Army. Despite popular perceptions, black males are not being tracked into combat units.

The disparities in job assignments stem ultimately from the fact that the Army's insulation from civilian life is not total. Whereas blacks in the military are more likely than whites to have high school diplomas, they are also more likely to have attended inferior public schools. The Army can often mitigate the effects of social and educational deprivation, but it cannot eliminate them.

In one important respect black soldiers do significantly better than white soldiers: making it through the initial enlistment. Since 1978 about one white male soldier in three has been prematurely discharged for reasons of undisciplined behavior, lack of aptitude, psychological problems, or the like. The figure for black male soldiers is one in four. Even among soldiers of similar educational background, blacks are more likely than whites to complete their enlistments.

For women soldiers, the racial contrast in attrition rates is even more striking. Blacks now make up 42 percent of enlisted women (who account for 10 percent of the enlisted ranks overall). Black females have been far more likely to complete their enlistments than white females. The low attrition rates for black women in the Army are not easily explained. Many black women claim that they have more street savvy than their white sisters, that they are simply better able to take the physical demands of Army life, or that they have a better sense of knowing when to "get over" (as goldbricking is now called) and when not to. Perhaps the main reason why blacks, male or female, are more likely to make a go of it in the Army is that they know that for them the grass is not necessarily greener in civilian life.

But blacks who return to civilian life after being honorably discharged earn significantly more than blacks who have not served in the military. The most carefully crafted research on the matter has been conducted by Harley L. Browning, Sally C. Lopreato, and Dudley L. Poston, Jr., a team of sociologists at the University of Texas at Austin. They have found that white veterans with a high school education fare the same in civilian life as their nonveteran counterparts, but that military service has a substantial positive impact on men who have not finished high school or who are black (or Hispanic). This finding is noteworthy because soldiers in general and black soldiers in particular do not leave the military with skills readily transferable to the civilian marketplace. The explanation seems to be that the military teaches deprived youths how to cooperate and how to cope with the bureaucratic complexity of large-scale organizations. The military, in the words of the Texas study's authors, functions as a "bridging environment."

But I think there is more to it than that. The interracial leveling of military service gives black soldiers a perspective on society less easily acquired by black nonveterans. Just to have completed a tour of duty means that a black soldier has competed, and competed successfully, with whites. The Army experience emphasizes the correlation between reward and effort (as opposed to reward and race). A black sergeant put it this way: "The Army showed me that life can be hard no matter what your color. No race has it easy." That realization surely accounts for some of the intangible advantage black veterans take away from military service.

If the Army is a bridging environment, it is also one in which relations between the races, particularly among enlisted men, remain complex. Racial harmony does not always prevail. Some whites see blacks as arrogant if not threatening, and as the beneficiaries of a double standard. Some blacks see whites as deceptive and sometimes racist, and as the beneficiaries of a double standard. When a post is large enough to have more than one enlisted men's club, the clubs tend to become monopolized by one race or the other. As elsewhere in society, the closest friendships normally develop between people of similar educational or social backgrounds.

Still, give or take a surly remark here, a bruised sensibility there, the races do get on. The most common topics of concern and conversation, among and between the races, have nothing to do with race but deal with the work of the Army and with the good and the bad of military life. The locus of friction in the Army lies not so much between whites and blacks as between soldiers and sergeants, enlisted men and officers, line units and staff units, and so forth.

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