Success Story: Blacks in the Military
Blacks occupy more management positions in the military than in any other
sector of American society.
by Charles C. Moskos
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
Copyright © 1986 by Charles C. Moskos. All rights
The Atlantic Monthly; May 1986; Success Story: Blacks in the Military;
Volume 257, No. 5;