After 60 Years, Black Officers Rare

AP, July 23, 2008

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

{snip}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.

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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.

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