Two ways to read the story
- Quick Read
- Deep Read ( 5 Min. )
African Americans may be overrepresented in the United States military, but not in the officer corps: Only 9% of officers are black, compared with 19% of enlisted troops. To right this imbalance, the Pentagon wants to expand its training programs on historically black college and university campuses. Other paths to improving the pipeline of future military leaders lie in social media campaigns targeted at minority communities.
Yet even when African Americans are commissioned, their careers can stall before they approach command posts. Retired Gen. Larry Spencer, former Air Force vice chief of staff, says that black officers can be unintentionally sidelined, in part because senior officials aren’t aware of the barriers to diversity in their organizations.
Recent years have been tough on military recruiters in general. But the biggest challenge, which the Pentagon says it is determined to tackle, is the face of military leadership in an increasingly nonwhite nation.
Minority soldiers should be able to “look upward and see themselves,” retired Gen. Carter Ham, president of the Association of the U.S. Army, told a Heritage Foundation panel held in January. Right now, he said, the officer corps “does not look like America.”
As a first-generation college student in Texas, George Bolton was hooked on an Army career through the stories of the Buffalo soldiers, the black cavalry units formed in 1866 to serve on the western frontier, becoming icons of African American military service.
Today, Lieutenant Colonel Bolton runs the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) program at the historically black Alabama A&M University outside Huntsville. He often invokes these stories to inspire his students to take on the combat jobs that can in future vault them to the highest echelons of military leadership.
The more leaders of color willing to serve, he says, the better the military becomes. “When you have people that can bring diversity to the policymakers, then you have a better product for the nation. And that’s how you become part of the solution,” he says.
Judging by the current makeup of the United States military, that solution is still lacking. While African Americans make up nearly 1 in 5 of the enlisted ranks, they comprise only 9% of officers. Across all minorities, the distribution is similarly lopsided: More than half of all enlisted women, and 43% of enlisted men, are Hispanic or a racial minority. Yet virtually all U.S. combat brigade commanders – a stepping stone to becoming a general – are white.
The Pentagon is working to change this by using social media campaigns and recruiting potential officers in cities with large minority populations. In January, President Donald Trump announced an initiative to expand ROTC programs on the nation’s 102 historically black colleges and universities (HBCU) campuses, roughly one quarter of which have them. Among all colleges and universities, more than 1,700 currently host ROTC programs. The White House has not yet provided details of how it will expand onto the campuses.
Minority soldiers should be able to “look upward and see themselves,” retired Gen. Carter Ham, president of the Association of the United States Army, told a Heritage Foundation panel held in January on the ties between the military and HBCUs. Right now, he said, the officer corps “does not look like America.”
A strong U.S. labor market – at least until the coronavirus-induced economic shock – has made it harder for the U.S. military to replenish all ranks including minority officers. The Army, which is the largest military branch, missed its recruiting target in 2018 for the first time in more than a decade. “I find that competing with a highly functioning economy forces the military to take a broader look at the populations they’re trying to recruit,” says Nathalie Grogan, an analyst at the Center for a New American Security.
While the South has long supplied a disproportionate number of troops, military services are now focusing on urban areas like Chicago and Detroit. The Pentagon is also trying new recruiting strategies: The Navy targets roughly 20% of its ads toward “multicultural and female prospects.”
For their part, Army leaders have reached out to the 55-strong Congressional Black Caucus, asking lawmakers to beat the drum and sharing data on how few African American military recruits from their districts are on leadership tracks. “The message is, ‘If you’re serious about advancing the opportunities of your constituents, here’s an avenue you’re not taking advantage of,’” says General Ham.
Yet once recruiters bring service members of color in, it needs to do a better job keeping them, says Ms. Grogan, noting that midcareer black officers are more likely to leave than their white colleagues. Between the promotion from lieutenant colonel to colonel – a key career marker in the Army – 64% of black officers chose to leave, compared to 51% of white officers.
To retain black officers, Pentagon leaders need to be attuned to the ways they are unintentionally sidelined, says retired Gen. Larry Spencer, former Air Force vice chief of staff. “It doesn’t mean that folks at the top are against or have any issues with diversity, but left alone to work itself out, it’s complicated,” he says.
Years ago, for example, General Spencer expressed interest in being the military assistant to the next secretary of the Air Force – a plum assignment. The problem, he was told, was that the leading candidate was African American, and it would look like favoritism for him to choose a black aide. “White males hire white males all the time. That’s still the case.”
Most students who receive a full scholarship on an ROTC program are obliged to serve for four years after graduation, providing a pipeline for future top leadership.
At HBCUs, ROTC students say they receive the sort of leadership coaching that pushes them to tackle everything from the tyranny of low expectations to the pressure they put on themselves when they’re the only nonwhite people in the room. “I see what works and what doesn’t,” says Mia Robinson, a senior at Howard University who plans to become a military intelligence officer. “Those people with leadership qualities that work, they go far. I also want to be a good leader for my peers.”
Among her own mentees, this is vital, she adds. “I notice that in the event they don’t have someone who looks like them, they’re not going to feel as comfortable.”
Barriers to diversity
Yet White House efforts to reach out to potential black recruits come at a time when many African Americans are wary of President Trump, says Katherine Washington-Williams, northeast regional head of the National Association for Black Veterans. “I used to tell young people, ‘Join the military,’ because it’s one of the best things I’ve ever done. But now I look at our commander in chief, and I’m not seeing anything positive. I’m a proud American, but where’s the love?”
Maj. Gen. John Evans, head of U.S. Army Cadet Command, says he’s promoted women and officers of color onto his staff and that it’s made him a better leader. Their varied experience and backgrounds are particularly important, he says, because he came up in the notoriously white special operations world where, “through our own fault or not, it was hard to get diversity into the conversation, because there weren’t other [non-white] officers you could bring in.”
Military officials say that they are increasingly pushing young officers of color into jobs that aren’t their first choice to give them a better shot at career advancement.
In the Army for example, the top generals overwhelmingly come from the fighting fields – infantry, armor, field artillery – known collectively as the “combat arms.” Yet less than 10% of young black officers chose these fields, versus some 25% of white officers, according to the Military Leadership Diversity Commission. “This means that women and minorities have fewer opportunities for advancement and will, therefore, be underrepresented among leadership,” it concluded in a 2011 study.
It’s a good illustration of why mentors must be “insistent” about pushing young minority officers into combat specialties, says Major General Evans. One drawback is that combat jobs don’t easily transfer into civilian jobs compared to logistics and other fields. “You don’t get paid a lot of money on the outside to go and kill someone with precision,” he says.
For his part, Lieutenant Colonel Bolton says he’s “tripled” interest in infantry and armor careers among his students at Alabama A&M, particularly among female cadets, who could not until recently pursue these jobs because women were banned from combat arms. Those who had marked it 5th or 6th on their list of top career fields “turned it into a 1 or a 2.”
He takes up a new job next month as a battalion commander in an Armor division, one of the Army fields most likely to produce four-star generals. He wants to work his way up and into one of the rare military positions where he can create policy – and be a role model. “When we see success at a high level,” he tells his students, “We say, ‘Yes, this is possible. For everyone.’”