Sixty years after President Truman desegregated the military, senior black officers are still rare, particularly among the highest ranks.
Blacks make up about 17 percent of the total force, yet just 9 percent of all officers. That fraction falls to less than 6 percent for general officers with one to four stars, according to data obtained and analyzed by The Associated Press.
The rarity of blacks in the top ranks is apparent in one startling statistic: Only one of the 38 four-star generals or admirals serving as of May was black. And just 10 black men have ever gained four-star rank — five in the Army, four in the Air Force and one in the Navy, according to the Pentagon.
The dearth of blacks in high-ranking positions gives younger African-American soldiers few mentors of their own race. And as the overall percentage of blacks in the service falls, particularly in combat careers that lead to top posts, the situation seems unlikely to change.
'Uncle Sam' poster
Still, officials this week can point to some historic gains by blacks in the services as the Pentagon commemorates Truman’s signing of an executive order on July 26, 1948, mandating the end of segregation in the military.
Best known among the four-stars is retired Gen. Colin Powell, who later became the country’s first black secretary of state, under President Bush. Another is retired Gen. Johnnie E. Wilson, who in 1961, at age 17, spied an “Uncle Sam Wants You” poster and joined the Army.
The second of 12 children, Wilson grew up in a housing project outside Cleveland. Enlisting in the Army, he said, was the only way he’d get a college education.
As a young recruit, he found that the older, black noncommissioned officers were eager to guide him, and they urged him to try for Officer Candidate School. Over the next 38 years, he rose through the ranks to become a four-star general.
Why haven’t more done the same?
For one thing, Wilson said, “it’s hard to tell young people the sky’s the limit when they look up and don’t see anyone” who looks like them.
According to Pentagon data, as of May:
- 5.6 percent of the 923 general officers or admirals were black.
- Eight blacks were three-star lieutenant generals or vice admirals.
- Seventeen were two-star major generals or rear admirals.
- Twenty-six were one-star brigadier generals or rear admirals.
- Three of the black one-stars were women.
The Army has led the way with black officers, with nearly double the percentage at times over the past three decades as the other services. Blacks represented 11 percent to 12 percent of all Army officers during that time, compared with 4 percent to 8 percent in the Navy, Air Force and Marines.
The reasons for the lack of blacks in the higher ranks are many and complex, ranging from simple career choices to Congress and family recommendations. Most often mentioned is that black recruits are showing less interest in pursuing combat jobs, which are more likely to propel them through the officer ranks.
“Kids I’ve spoken to, who choose to do supply, who choose to do lawyer, who choose to do admin, have the impression that ’If I go to Army and become an infantry person, that is not a skill that I can carry to the civilian work force,”’ said Clarence Johnson, director of the Pentagon’s Office of Diversity Management.
Wilson — who specialized in logistics and did not take the combat route — said he does not believe ROTC programs or the military steer black recruits to the non-combat jobs — although that may have been a problem many years ago.
'They want to prepare for a future'
Instead, he said young black officers choose other fields because “they want to prepare for a future outside of the military, and they believe that being in communications, being in logistics will provide them a better opportunity to succeed.”
In 1998, nearly a quarter of all active duty black officers were in various combat fields. As of this month, that had fallen to 20 percent, compared with nearly 40 percent for non-blacks, according to Pentagon data.
This year, roughly half of all black active duty officers gravitated toward supply, maintenance, engineering and administrative jobs — almost double the rate of non-black officers.
“That tells me, honestly, over the years the pipeline for those blacks going to general officer is not going to be markedly improved above what it is now,” Johnson said.
He said he hears recruits say, “I’m joining this ROTC thing, so that when I get out in four years or eight years, whatever time frame it is, I want a skill I can use.”
Army Lt. Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III, the No. 2 U.S. commander in Iraq, echoes those pipeline concerns.
“It’s all about how many people you put in the front end of the pipe,” Austin said in an interview from Baghdad. “It’s very difficult for anybody to get to be a colonel or general in any branch of the service if you don’t have enough young officers coming in.”
'We treasure diversity'
Austin took the combat path to his three-star rank, starting as an infantryman and tactical officer. Later — as a general officer — he commanded troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The forces he sees now, he said, are far more diverse than when he graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in 1975. Then, he said, blacks made up only about 2.5 percent of the Army’s officer corps.
“We treasure diversity because it brings in a lot of different viewpoints and blends in a lot of cultures,” he said. “It makes us better.”
To achieve that diversity, he said, the military must encourage more blacks to join, highlight the successes of those who have done well and “talk about the opportunities that are offered and how those opportunities can help them in their quest to be successful people.”
Another stumbling block is getting more members of minority groups into the military academies.
While white cadets often come from families steeped in military history, black students may not have that long line of ancestral officers.
Few congressional nominations
A review of congressional nominations to the military academies shows that black and Hispanic lawmakers often recommend fewer students.
The fewest appointments to the academies came from Rep. Nydia Velazquez, D-N.Y., who forwarded just three names for the classes of 2009-2012. Two other members of Congress — Massachusetts Democrat Michael Capuano and New York Democrat Jose Serrano — sent up five names.
According to Pentagon data, the number of lawmakers who failed to nominate at least one candidate to each academy increased from 24 in 2005 to 38 this year. Of the 75 lawmakers overall who did not nominate someone to each academy in all four years, 40 were either black or Hispanic.
Senior black officers say they work hard to mentor younger troops, and they can all recall the people who helped shape their careers. And not all of them were black.
Navy Rear Adm. Sinclair Harris vividly remembers his white commander on the frigate USS Jarrett — a tough, Pittsburgh Steelers fan from western Pennsylvania.
“Tough love,” said Harris, who was a lieutenant at the time. “He insisted I take my command qualifications test, and when I didn’t do good, he had me take it again.”
Harris, deputy director for expeditionary warfare for the Navy chief, said networking and relationships are critical. But he cautions that mentoring is a two-way street that hinges on what the recruits do with the help they get.
“You can’t get lazy in this man and this woman’s Navy,” he said. “You have to keep learning to stay ahead.”
Nonetheless, blacks have come a long way since Truman, with the stroke of a pen, ordered the integration of the military. Before that, the Army had segregated black units and the Navy had minority members assigned to particular, lower-level jobs.
His mandate was aided by the Korean War, when a shortage of soldiers forced American commanders to begin integrating their units.
Defense officials say the Pentagon is now colorblind, offering the same opportunities, promotions and jobs to all races.
Compared with the corporate world, the military appears to provide a bit more high-level opportunities. As of late 2007, just five of the Fortune 500 companies were headed by black chief executives — or just 1 percent.
While the percentage of black recruits has grown during the past 60 years, it peaked at almost 26 percent in 1979. That year, they represented nearly four in 10 of all Army recruits and almost three in 10 for the Marines, both all-time highs for the services that see the most battlefield combat.
The Air Force and Navy, meanwhile, peaked in later years, with blacks accounting for roughly 20 percent of enlistees.
Since the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan began, the percentage of blacks coming into the Army has plunged from 22 percent to 13 percent. Also, the percentage of blacks in military overall has dipped in the past 10 years, from more than 20 percent to 17 percent today.
The decline has come in part because family members and other adults who influence young people have become less likely to recommend military service.
Still, Johnson points to positive indicators. Over the past decade, the percentage of black officers has grown slightly, including the share of black women at higher grades.
The military, Wilson said, has worked hard to create mentoring and outreach programs that identify and encourage minority officers. But, he said, the services have to do more marketing and recruiting.
“We as a military just have to find a way to tell our story,” he said, adding, “If I had it to do all over again, I would still join the Army. It has paid off for thousands of us. If it had not been for the U.S. Army, I’m not be sure what our station in life would be.”