Success Story: Blacks in the Military

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

The influx of blacks in the Army has changed the culture of the barracks. A partial Afro-Americanization of enlisted life has occurred. Black Pentecostal congregations have been established on many bases; their services not only have attracted some whites but also have begun to influence the style of worship in more-conventional on-post services. White soldiers are moving away from a long-standing preference for country-and-western music. Rock-and-roll is now the music of choice, but disco, soul, and especially rap music have strong followings. If there is a favorite comedian among enlisted men today, it is undoubtedly Eddie Murphy.

How do whites and blacks perceive the racial climate in the military? Opinion surveys commissioned by the Army—there have been at least a dozen since the end of the draft—repeatedly reveal that whereas black soldiers are more likely than white soldiers to discern the persistence of racial discrimination in the military, they are also more likely to express satisfaction with their Army careers. The views of Specialist William Jones, a tank mechanic in West Germany, are fairly typical of what one hears from junior black enlisted men. Jones, who comes from the Cabrini-Green housing project in Chicago, credits the Army with "having pulled me up, and saving me from the streets." He does not mind fixing tanks but knows that his Army training will not have a direct civilian payoff. Jones sends money home to his mother on a regular basis, and he also puts fifty dollars a month into an educational fund (the Army matches it twofold). Jones likes the Army but knows it is not perfect.

"You can still bump into an invisible shield of racism, but you have to ignore it," Jones says. "I was at the EM [enlisted men's] club and heard a white call someone a nigger the other night. I was shocked to hear it. I know whites are still top dog. But I know that we've got to get along together in peacetime if we're going to fight together in wartime." Jones says that when he goes back home now he has little in common with his friends who stayed behind. "They're still hanging around waiting for something to happen. They'll never grow up. They'll always be losers. We don't have much to talk about anymore."

Relative rates of promotion have something to tell us about the status of blacks in the Army. During his first enlistment a soldier can expect to achieve the rank of specialist or corporal (E-4) or in some cases sergeant (E-5). Advancement to senior NCO grades—staff sergeant (E-6) and upward—takes much longer. A complex formula that weighs test scores, evaluations by superiors, service record, and interviews with a promotion board determines who will fill the openings that occur. Within twenty years of service a soldier will almost surely attain the rank of staff sergeant, and most likely will make sergeant first class (E-7) and get a shot at master sergeant (E-8). Sergeant major (E-9), the Army's most senior enlisted rank, is attained only by exceptional men and women, almost all of whom are making the Army a thirty-year career.

If there is a black center to the Army, it is among the 94,000 black noncommissioned officers. Because blacks are about one and a half times more likely than whites to re-enlist after their first hitch, the black presence in the Army is notably high in the NCO corps. About a third of all buck sergeants and staff sergeants and about a quarter of all first sergeants, master sergeants, and sergeants major are black. The rates of black promotion to the top three enlisted ranks are slightly lower than average. Primarily this reflects the relative underrepresentation of blacks in combat specialties, where promotion is easiest to achieve.

Sergeant Major Harold Smith joined the Army in 1956, the same year I was drafted. He has seen from the inside all the changes that I have seen as a frequent visitor. "The longer you stay in," he told me not long ago, "the more you can see that racism knows how to hide itself. But it's there. Still, I owe the Army a lot. When I came in, it was my last option. I wasn't middle-class and I sure wasn't upper-class. I wasn't even working-class. So you know what that leaves."

"The Army was my only chance to turn myself around, and I took it," Major Smith said. "I went to Vietnam three times. Along the way I picked up a bachelor's degree, and I'm halfway through my master's. But the thing I'll never forget is those days of race troubles. I used to think those race-relations and black-history courses were all to the good. Now I think we were tricked. The black soldier needs courses on how to use the system, not on telling whites our secrets."

"There are more-subtle forms of racism today than there used to be," Smith continued. "Some of the white boys have posters saying THE SOUTH WILL RISE AGAIN. I tell them to take them down, because it bothers the blacks. Some of the white sergeants say I'm too touchy. I'll say this, though. I know some of those white sergeants are racists, but they never once let anything slip. That's progress of a sort.

"Why did I stay in so long? I wanted to teach young black soldiers how to make it in a white man's world. If you expect to give orders, you have to learn to take orders. You have to adapt to the Army; it's not going to change for you. It's as simple as that."

Many black NCOs profess a kind of bootstrap conservatism. They can easily recognize a part of themselves in the character of Master Sergeant Vernon Waters, in the movie A Soldier's Story, set in the days of the segregated Army. Sergeant Waters is obsessively concerned that blacks not play the fool in front of whites. Waters can be seen as a martinet or as someone who challenges black soldiers to do their best. What is different today, of course, is that black NCOs lead soldiers of all races. Black sergeants take umbrage at any hint that they are partial to blacks. Indeed, an analysis of efficiency reports by Charles Hines, a black brigadier general who holds a Ph.D. in sociology, suggests that black sergeants grade "average" black soldiers more severely than white sergeants do. If there is any racial favoritism in superior-subordinate relations, it is certainly not black favoring black.

Because of their unwillingness to show favoritism, a number of senior black noncommissioned officers say that they feel helpless to alter a trend that has disturbing implications for junior black NCOs. During the late 1970s, when recruitment and retention rates were relatively low, the Army accepted many people into its ranks—including many blacks—who were of less than superior caliber.

Army Secretary Alexander dismissed as racist any criticism of the quality of the new recruits. Now, at a time of high recruitment and retention rates, those enlistees are coming up for re-enlistment and promotion. Thanks both to the lingering effects of the recession of 198l-1983 and to new enlistment incentives being offered, the Army has been enjoying something of a buyer's market. Standards for re-enlistment and promotion have been raised. Some black soldiers who have performed well in subordinate roles and who would easily have won promotion several years ago cannot meet the new standards. The senior black NCOs I've talked to are of two minds about the situation. On the one hand, they know that many of the most vulnerable black candidates for promotion were coaxed to join by an Army desperate for recruits, and encouraged to think of military service as a career. On the other hand, they believe that the highest possible standards must be maintained, both for the Army's sake and so that there will be no question that blacks have met those standards.

What the near future holds is already clear. Blacks in the Army, hampered by low test scores, will be promoted into the ranks of the NCO corps at a rate somewhat lower than that for whites. But because disproportionately high numbers of blacks will be candidates for promotion, blacks will continue to account for more than their share of the Army's NCOs. The social importance of these twenty-and thirty-year soldiers transcends their function in the military. Every year for decades to come some 2,500 black NCOs in the Army (5,000 in the military as a whole) are expected to retire from service. Most of them will be relatively young and looking forward to second careers. The impact of this group of men and women on the civilian black community is impossible to predict, but it is likely to be tangible and positive.

Above the ranks of noncommissioned officers in the Army is the officer corps, where one person in ten today is black (the figure was one in twenty-five as recently as l972). If officers are the executives of the armed forces, then the armed forces boast more black executives than any other institution in the country. The Army's l0,000 black officers come from several places. The most prestigious source of a commission is still the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, and about seven percent of its graduating class in recent years has been black. However, most officers, white or black, come not from West Point but from campus-based detachments of the Reserve Officer Training Corps. ROTC produces six times as many officers as the Military Academy does, and one ROTC graduate out of five is black. The expansion of the black officer corps is due in part to the expansion of ROTC since l969 at historically black colleges—the Pentagon's response to the abolition of ROTC at many predominantly white institutions. Almost half of all Army ROTC, commissions received by blacks are awarded by twenty-one black schools.

Whether or not race enters into the officer-promotion process remains a bone of contention in the military. An equal-opportunity assessment conducted in l984 shows that black and white officers are selected at about the same rates for the advanced service schools, war colleges, and command assignments that are so important for career advancement. Still, white officers believe that blacks are unfairly favored in promotion decisions; black officers contend that they have to be better qualified than whites in order to advance. The truth seems to me to lie with the black viewpoint.

A very senior black officer gave me this succinct appraisal, one that is seconded by most older black officers: "You don't have to be a supernigger anymore, but you still have to be better than the rest to make it." Another senior black officer said, "We can run the race with handicaps, but don't expect blacks to perform miracles. The Army, to its credit, doesn't make us perform miracles." He continued, "I'm worried about some of the younger guys. They don't understand that a black still has to do more than a white to get promoted—maybe not as much as before, but still more. If they think equal effort will get equal reward, they've got a big surprise coming."

At the pinnacle of the military hierarchy are, of course, the generals. As of early this year there were thirty-one black Army generals on active duty, about seven percent of the total. Another six black generals were in the Army Reserves or the National Guard. About fifty were retired. Some one hundred blacks have achieved flag rank in the U.S. military, all but four of whom are alive today. Two have been four-star generals—the Army's Roscoe Robinson, Jr., and the late Daniel ("Chappie") James, of the Air Force. Eight blacks have attained the three-star rank. Two black women, Hazel W. Johnson-Brown and Sherian G. Cadoria, have become brigadier generals in the Army. The promotion of a black to flag rank is no longer a rarity in the American military. It occasions little comment.

To a person, black generals look back upon extremely satisfying careers. They are rarely shy about their accomplishments or abashed about their patriotism. If there is a sense of disappointment among them, it is not with the military but with what happens after they leave the military. Black generals feel that few of their kind attain post-retirement positions commensurate with their abilities. One retiree put it simply: "I will state categorically that no black general ever got a decent job in the private sector in Washington, D.C." Another said, "Look—the offers come rolling in for white generals even before they're out of uniform."

What is particularly puzzling is that most of these retired black generals once had responsibility for thousands of soldiers and oversaw logistics systems of enormous cost and complexity. Many are familiar with the contracting and procurement procedures of the defense industry. Yet consultancies and seats in the boardrooms of the military-industrial complex continue to elude even the most highly qualified black generals. Why is this the case? It is hard not to conclude that the discrimination these men have overcome in the military overtakes them again in civilian life.

For the time being, the state of the black officer corps appears healthy. If there is concern among black officers, it has to do with the quality of newly minted black second lieutenants, fresh out of ROTC. A relatively small percentage of blacks at predominantly white schools participate in ROTC. And though ROTC enjoys more general support at historically black schools, this support is not as strong as it once was. These schools, moreover, no longer attract the cream of black high school graduates. Observers agree that the levels of writing and analytic skills among recent ROTC graduates from the black colleges are lower than those of their predecessors—a development that could eventually affect promotion rates. Black leaders in the Army worry that the pool of highly qualified black officer-candidates could dry up. One senior black officer told me that unless the black middle class somehow gets behind ROTC, the patterns of the old segregated Army might recur—with blacks aplenty in the enlisted ranks and a senior officer corps consisting almost solely of whites.

Whereas the black community is alert to the opportunities that the military offers its young people, it has difficulty focusing on the black career officer. Certainly, black officers are seen as individual success stories by their families, friends, and neighbors. But the leaders of black organizations seem reluctant to recognize the achievements of blacks in the military. I have asked many senior black officers why this should be the case, and the following reply is typical of what they had to say: "To pat us on the back would be to pat the military on the back. This they can't afford to do. It galls them that of all institutions, it is the Army that is really making a go of integration."

It galls them, I was told, for several reasons. One is that blacks in the military have chosen to pay their dues in the white system, not the black one; as a result, career blacks in the Army have less of an affinity with established black organizations than many other blacks have. More important, though, is the ideological orientation of civilian black leaders. Most of them are uninterested in, even alienated from, the long-term goals of American foreign policy, among which resistance to Soviet expansion is central. When foreign-policy issues are raised by black leaders, the discussion generally involves racist features of U.S. behavior overseas, especially in Africa and the Caribbean. I do not know of a single elected black official or prominent spokesman who supports increased defense spending. Among traditional black leaders there does not seem to be much conviction that blacks have a stake in broad defense issues. Black leaders often find it hard to reconcile themselves to the fact that black officers are the military executors of policies that they deem irrelevant at best. When the Congressional Black Caucus issued a formal condemnation of the U.S. invasion of Grenada, the reaction of one black general was, "Why can't they support us just this once?" Another general explained, "I just tune out the so-called black leadership when it comes to anything military."

As such comments suggest, the estrangement is mutual. Black officers tend to be unimpressed with the black civilian establishment. Senior black officers emphasize that as military managers they have acquired a special set of skills. They command thousands of men, and they give orders to whites as well as blacks. They have learned from the inside how a mainstream organization functions. Inevitably, their circumstances affect their perceptions. Among black civilians a large majority sees in Jesse Jackson a stirring leader who was shortchanged by the Democratic Party establishment. Many black military officers, in contrast, see Jackson as a man who does not understand the white world and who is therefore destined to be largely ineffective on a national stage. Black officers view some aspects of the civilian black leadership's agenda as highly dubious; those who argue that affirmative action is necessary nevertheless believe that preferential treatment is inappropriate in the military. They draw manifest self-esteem from the fact that they themselves have not been beneficiaries of such treatment—rather, the reverse. Black officers distrust black leaders in civilian life who would seek advancement through racial politics or as supplicants of benevolent whites. As a group they are unquestionably less liberal than blacks outside the military. While no precise data exist on the subject, career blacks in the Army were probably much more likely than civilian blacks to vote for Ronald Reagan in 1984.

Even so, however, my own informal poll indicates that by far the majority of black officers and NCOs voted Democratic. For the fact is that blacks in the military, unlike whites, cannot forget their color. One career soldier told me, "My wife said I should vote Reagan because the man gave me a raise. But my father made me promise I would never vote for anyone who kept the black man down. I kept my promise to my father."

I have asked many Army blacks what it was that made a military career attractive as an avenue of mobility. For one thing, many of them have said, there were enough blacks in the Army to promise a certain degree of social comfort and professional support. For another, there were enough non-black and non-poor people to prevent the Army from being thought of as a "black" institution or a haven for society's underclass. The Army, in short, delivered the uplift but not the stigma of a government social program. If the Army has succeeded as a remedial organization for many youths with otherwise dead-end prospects, it may be precisely because the Army does not admit to being a remedial organization at all. In the coming debate on whether the nation should institute some sort of system of national service for the young, this point might profitably be borne in mind.

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