Success Story: Blacks in the Military

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

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.

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.

Jump to comments
Presented by
Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

What Crazy Tech Idea Could Become Real?

"There could be great intelligence enhancements, like infinite memory."


Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Why Do People Love Times Square?

A filmmaker asks New Yorkers and tourists about the allure of Broadway's iconic plaza

Video

A Time-Lapse of Alaska's Northern Lights

The beauty of aurora borealis, as seen from America's last frontier

Video

What Do You Wish You Learned in College?

Ivy League academics reveal their undergrad regrets

Video

Famous Movies, Reimagined

From Apocalypse Now to The Lord of the Rings, this clever video puts a new spin on Hollywood's greatest hits.

Video

What Is a City?

Cities are like nothing else on Earth.

Writers

Up
Down

More in National

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In