Can ROTC Solve Its Minority Problem?

As the training program returns to New York City colleges, the military has a chance to make officers' ranks more diverse.

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ROTC color bearers in 2008 (Dave Kaup/Reuters)

Luqman Stroud thought he'd be the last person who would end up in a college class that prepared students to become military officers. A Brooklyn native who got his GED and left John Dewey High School early because, he says, he was bored with school, Stroud was making good money in his family's construction business at age 20. And even when he was talked into giving college a shot, it was with the goal to become a policy lawyer, not an army officer. Besides, he had reason to be wary of armed authority: At age 13, he says, a New York police officer handcuffed him during an argument at his house, put a gun to his head and said, "I've killed three of your kind already."

Yet last fall, the 25-year-old Stroud found himself sitting in Military Science 1 at York College, part of the effort to re-establish Reserve Officers' Training Corps programs at the City University of New York for the first time since before the Vietnam War, and the larger effort by the military to put themselves back in urban areas throughout the country. Drawn by an interest in military history -- and the hope of an easy A -- he'd enrolled in the class during his senior year more as a test than anything else. After a lifetime of challenging police officers when they tried to search him without cause, Stroud wanted to see what it would be like to challenge the Establishment on its own turf. He knows soldiers aren't cops, but they have uniforms and guns and they work for "the man," and Stroud will tell you that the perception is the same. "I walked in there with a little bit of a chip on my shoulder," he recalled. "What can a guy in the Army teach me as a civilian?"

It's complicated interactions like these that promise to shade the military's return to New York City colleges after a four-decade absence from urban areas, an experiment that many both within and outside the U.S. armed forces hope will begin to address a persistent lack of diversity among officers. African Americans made up 12 percent of the U.S. population and 16 percent of enlisted personnel in 2008, the latest year such data is available, but comprised just eight percent of active-duty armed forces officers. Hispanics accounted for just five percent of military leaders that year, even though they represented 15 percent of the population, and 12 percent of enlisted personnel. For many in minority communities, the message behind those numbers is clear: The military would love to have them, just not in positions of much power, and some are skeptical of even the supposedly great career that lies at the end of four years of armed forces training. After all, officers and enlisted both see battle.

"Underserved: A Case Study of ROTC in New York City," a 2011 report authored by Cheryl Miller of the conservative American Enterprise Institute, worried that army officer recruitment had become restricted to the South and Midwest, which alienated the officer corps from much of American society. "By overlooking institutions like CUNY -- among the top producers of African American baccalaureates -- the military is not accessing minority officers fully reflective of the population," Miller wrote. "This absence might account, in part, for the lack of black officers in the top leadership ranks." The implied benefit in having minorities more a part of the military is the same for having more minority groups be a part of the political process. For blacks and Hispanics, if their numbers are larger, their voice is louder. For the armed forces, a louder minority voice means decisions will be more representative of what the nation wants.

Another part is that a lot of blacks and Hispanics don't trust the military. Stroud didn't. He had never gotten along with policemen, so why would he get along with other people with guns and uniforms?

"People in those communities perceive the military as an organization that will send their children off to war," said current York College ROTC chief Lt. Col. Juan Howie, himself an African American. "No one wants to have their children sent off to war."

The question now facing the military: How do they sell themselves to communities of color not as an organization that will put their children in danger, but as one that will open up career paths?

***

For Lieutenant Colonel Joe Pishock, the road to running the Reserve Officers' Training Corps programs at two New York city colleges began in 2007. He was an army communications officer sitting with his wife, an army physician's assistant, on a helipad in Diyala, Iraq, waiting to be picked up by a chopper. She looked at him and asked, "You ever think about doing something completely different?"

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Colin Daileda is a writer living in Washington, D.C.

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