Reality Vs Myth Record 9 of 200 Scripps Howard News Service, SCRIPPS HOWARD NEWS SERVICE, January 17, 1999 MILITARY GETS HIGH GRADES, BUT STILL SHORT OF KING’S DREAM Author: LISA HOFFMAN Topics: race relations blacks armed forces military history Estimated printed pages: 4 Article Text: It is said that the military is the only American institution in which blacks routinely boss whites around. The armed forces were the first segment of U.S. society to desegregate and now – 50 years after the Army opened its doors to blacks – the military remains the largest living example of the meritocracy the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. envisioned in his dream. But even in the military, where uttering a few racist words can end your career, racial equality is still elusive.
Below the egalitarian surface, some white GIs grumble that less qualified blacks are being promoted ahead of them, while some African-Americans in uniform complain that they are both being unfairly passed over for higher ranks and held to stricter standards of behavior. “The Army has come a long way in the past 50 years toward achieving a colorblind institution,” Army Chief of Staff Gen. Dennis Reimer acknowledges. Still, “We are far from perfect and we still have some work to do.” While the Army and other services may not yet have created a prejudice-free meritocracy, there is no question that they have traveled far farther toward that goal than the rest of society. Of all 1.4 million uniformed personnel in the military, about 300,000 are African Americans. “They are a role model, especially the Army,” said Charles Moskos, a Northwestern University military sociology professor and co-author of a book on blacks and the armed forces.
He also was the first to observe that only in the military do minorities regularly outrank whites. It wasn’t an easy path. Although President Harry Truman ordered the military to integrate in 1948, it wasn’t until the Korean War that the services accelerated the process of enlisting more blacks and melding them with white units. The reason for the push had little to do with lofty notions of equality or morality; instead, it was a function of the military’s need for more soldiers. Over the years, the military environment – where commands must be followed no matter who is barking them, and where individuality is not valued but getting the job done as a team is – spurred an atmosphere of fairness for blacks, who found nothing like it in the civilian world. Sociologists and others also credit the military with helping to establish a black middle class, both by providing career opportunities and through the GI bill’s help for blacks to attend college.
Even so, periods of racial hostility have marred the military’s record. During the Vietnam War and for several years after, animosities erupted into the open. In response, the Army began to focus on fostering better relations and in promoting the notion that racial diversity is good. Education and other programs were instituted to encourage the rising of blacks through the ranks. The transformation of the Army, which has both the highest number and proportion of African-Americans of all the services, has been dramatic.
In 1948 there was one black general and blacks made up only 1.5 percent of the officer corps. Last year, the Army counted 26 black generals and blacks filling 11 percent of its officer corps. The numbers were even larger when enlisted personnel were tallied: About 30 percent of enlisted GIs are black now, compared with about 13 percent in 1948. Fully 35 percent of all supervisory sergeants are now African-Americans. But now voices of discontent are rising again.
Some of the loudest came during the sexual harassment scandal that tied the Army in knots during the past two years. As the Army uncovered more and more examples of drill sergeants harassing young female recruits, criticism grew that a preponderance of the sergeants charged or disciplined were black while the alleged victims were white. Grousing also grew that other instances of sexual misconduct committed by white officers were being winked at. When Sergeant Major of the Army Gene McKinney – the first black to hold that prestigious post – was charged with an array of sexual misconduct charges, his lawyer buttressed part of his defense on the argument that McKinney was being singled out because he was African-American. A recent study by Army Col. Carrie Kendrick tapped into other veins of resentment.
Kendrick, while a fellow at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies in Washington, found both black and white Army officers unhappy about perceived racial unfairness, manifested mostly by complaints about who gets promoted and who doesn’t. Kendrick’s survey discovered that nearly two-thirds of white officers felt that less-qualified African-Americans were promoted ahead of more qualified white officers – even though only 21 percent of the whites said they personally had been so disadvantaged. More than half of the black officers, on the other hand, said they had been subjected to some form of racial discrimination. Most said they did not report it for fear of being branded troublemakers and jeopardizing their careers. Even more troubling to black officers was the apparent leveling off – and in some cases decline – of the proportion of blacks in top leadership positions. “In today’s Army, the black officer is not progressing at an equal or near-equal level with his or her white counterpart,” Kendrick concluded. That situation is mirrored in the other services, where blacks are even more absent from the top rungs.
“(W)e’re not there yet,” said Air Force Gen. Lloyd “Fig” Newton, commander of the service’s air education and training command. “Unfair biases and stereotypes continue.” (Lisa Hoffman covers military affairs for Scripps Howard News Service. E-mail hoffmanl(at)shns.com.) Copyright (c) 1999 Scripps Howard News Service Record Number: 012450DA8D3F012986D2A Sociology.