For decades, many young African-Americans have considered military service a gateway to career opportunities denied them in the civilian world. But that view could be changing.
Surveys conducted annually by the Pentagon among 16- to 21-year-olds have charted an unprecedented decline in recent years of interest among blacks in signing up with the armed services.
The shift in attitudes has not translated into a falloff in the number of blacks the military actually recruits. But the United States Army is sufficiently concerned about the implications for the all-volunteer force that it has commissioned a study into the factors behind the dramatic rise in "negative propensity to enlist" among blacks.
At the same time, the military has also, as a result, stepped up recruit advertising, which some say is one of the reasons for the decline in interest among blacks.
"African-American propensity is still higher than any other group in American society, but there was a drop. It was enough to cause concern, not for the immediate present, but for the future," says Lt. Col. Scott Henne, the Army's chief equal-opportunity action officer.
"We need to know if this was a one-time phenomenon or is this a pattern that would continue in the future," he says.
Alan Gropman, a military historian at the Industrial College of the Armed Forces who is conducting the study for the Army, says he has yet to draw any conclusions. But he suspects that one key reason why young blacks are less interested in pursuing military careers is growing affluence among African-Americans.
"We know that as the middle class expands, propensity declines because there are other opportunities out there. We also know that the black middle class is expanding. So logically, you can make that link," Dr. Gropman says.
At the same time, the US military faces heightened competition from corporate America, which has stepped up its recruiting efforts of minorities.
"What we are competing against is the college market as well as some of the civilian labor markets," notes Deborah Bosick, a Pentagon spokeswoman. "We all want the best and the brightest."
Blacks currently are 19.6 percent of the nation's 1.5 million service personnel, a margin that has largely held steady for the past decade despite the military's post-cold-war "downsizing" that began in 1989.
Colonel Henne says he believes that increases in negative propensity found among both blacks and whites was due to a withdrawal of recruitment advertising that accompanied the beginning of the downsizing.
Another reason, Henne says, is "the age of uncertainty and some of the isolationist attitudes that prevailed" after the Gulf war. Young people "from all groups" began asking themselves "do we really belong in places like the Gulf, Bosnia, and Somalia," he says.
As measured by the Pentagon's annual Youth Attitude Tracking Surveys (YATS), interest among blacks in joining the military fell from 49 percent to 32 percent between 1989 and 1993. It was the largest decline of its kind charted since YATS was initiated 21 years ago. For the same period, interest among whites dropped from only 25 percent to 23 percent.
Propensity for both groups remained steady in 1994 and then rose slightly last year, possibly as a result of a major boost in recruitment advertising triggered in 1993 by the YATS findings.
"We have reallocated advertising dollars and we have already seen some benefits," Henne explains.
Some experts say the increase in negative propensity among blacks also contributed to a decision by retired Gen. Collin Powell, then-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to initiate in 1993 a massive expansion of the Junior Reserve Officers Training Corps, the Pentagon-run military training program for high school students.
While the armed forces deny that JROTC is a recruitment device in disguise, critics contend that it is targeted mainly at disadvantaged urban areas with the aim of encouraging promising high-schoolers, particularly African-Americans, to seek military careers.
Gropman says the drop in interest in soldiering among young blacks defies a trend set for more than a century. He points out that even 125 years ago, there were waiting lists for the Army's only two African-American cavalry regiments, while white regiments were always short-handed.
"Black interest in the Army was much higher than whites," he contends.