Army probes alleged ‘Racial Thursdays’: What is military's diversity record?

Two soldiers say that an Alaska unit took part in what was known as ‘Racial Thursdays,’ a weekly event in which troops were allowed – and in some cases encouraged – to make racial slurs.

The Army is investigating allegations that an Alaska unit took part in what it called “Racial Thursdays,” a weekly event in which troops were allowed – and in some cases encouraged – to make racial slurs.

It had become something of a “tradition,” a black soldier told the Army Times. He had contacted the media because he thought the practice was wrong.

“It’s degrading to soldiers,” said the staff sergeant, who requested anonymity. “We’ve had soldiers almost fight over the crap that’s going on here.”

The US military has long been considered at the forefront of racial integration. In 1948, President Truman signed an executive order calling for “equality of treatment and opportunity for all persons in the armed services.”

Despite “undeniable successes, however, the Armed Forces have not yet succeeded in developing a continuing stream of leaders who are as diverse as the nation they serve.” This was the conclusion of the Military Leadership Diversity Commission, which was created by Congress to look into the topic and issued its final report in 2011.

“Racial/ethnic minorities and women still lag behind non-Hispanic white men in terms of representative percentage of military leadership positions held,” the commission noted.

It added that in the years to come, “Marked changes in the demographic makeup of the United States will throw existing disparities into sharp relief.”

In fact, the latest Pentagon numbers indicate that minority participation in the armed services is on the decline.

Today, about 1 in 5 Army soldiers is African-American, according to figures provided by the US Army, compared with nearly 27 percent in 1995.

In the Marine Corps, the proportion of African-American enlisted troops was 20 percent in 1985. Today, 30 years later, it stands at 11 percent. Of the 20,837 officers in the Marine Corps, 1,117 are African-American, according to Marine Corps figures provided to the Monitor. Of 81 general officers, five are black.

Across the military, the force is 16.6 percent black, greater than the 13.6 percent of the total US population who are African-American. But 10 years ago, in 2005, black troops made up 17.8 percent of the armed forces, according to a US military demographic report.

The number of African-American troops tends to be higher in support jobs such as cooks and mechanics, and lower in the combat positions, the profession that has traditionally offered the most reliable pathway to advancement in the military.

“Diversity is a source of strength for the Department of Defense, and is a key component to maintaining our highest state of readiness,” Lt. Cmdr. Nathan Christensen, a Defense Department spokesperson, said in a statement provided to the Monitor. “Our force comes from a diverse [populace], and certainly our military is better served when it reflects the nation it serves.”

To ensure diversity, it is “imperative that the Department focus its efforts on emerging talent to ensure that we successfully attract, recruit, develop and retain a highly-skilled” force, Lieutenant Commander Christensen added.

Fort Wainwright, Alaska, is the home of the battalion allegedly taking part in “Racial Thursdays” – the 25th Infantry Division’s 1st Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 3rd Battalion. It says it’s investigating the matter.

This is the same unit to which Pvt. Danny Chen belonged before he committed suicide in 2011 while deployed to the war in Afghanistan. He had told his family that he had been racially harassed and hazed.

A junior soldier in the 3rd Battalion backed up the story of “Racial Thursdays.” “The way it was put to me was it was a tradition among the guys,” the soldier, who also asked to remain anonymous, told the Army Times.

“Every Thursday, they wouldn’t make you, you didn’t have to participate, but they’d remind you.”

He said he didn’t speak up, but he saw that the practice nearly sparked fights. “For the soldiers who are minorities, we don’t want to be looked down upon or looked at as outcasts or traitors,” he said. “So we didn’t open our mouths.”

“It’s a shame that it’s coming to this, but I’m not even making this up. I’m not making any of this up,” the staff sergeant told the Army Times. “Somebody needs to be relieved.”

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