Promises, Promises: Few Black Coast Guard Cadets

Dennis Conrad, Google News, September 8, 2010

At his inaugural parade a half-century ago, President John F. Kennedy watched the U.S. Coast Guard Academy’s marching unit pass him on Pennsylvania Avenue and declared it unacceptable. Not one cadet was black, he told an aide, and something ought be done about it.

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The cover of the academy’s 2010 cadet handbook comes close to summing up the situation. There are 14 faces, with a single black one barely visible and off to the side and behind a white cadet.

In a year when the academy proclaims the Class of 2014 as its most diverse ever, the share of blacks enrolled is even more modest than the picture would suggest. Only nine of the 289 students sworn in last June identified themselves as blacks or African-Americans–or 15 when mixed-race blacks are included. By mid-August, the total had dropped to 14 after one cadet withdrew.

The problem is so vexing–and so long-standing–that the Coast Guard last year spent $40,000 buying lists of names of blacks and others to recruit as cadets. It didn’t pay off, {snip}.

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An internal task force report at the academy described negative perceptions of blacks and recounted racist remarks by faculty. Just a few years ago, in 2007, a black cadet and an officer conducting race relations training found nooses left for them. A major investigation was inconclusive.

“There is no affirmative action but people think you are there on affirmative action,” said Lt. j.g. DeCarol Davis, who became the first black woman to be top of her class at the academy when she was the 2008 valedictorian as an engineering major. “It did persist throughout my tenure at the academy. I was even told I got where I was because I was the token black girl.”

This year’s figures are still an improvement over the five blacks who enrolled last year and represented only 2 percent of the Class of 2013. But twice in past years there were 22 blacks, in 1974 and again in 1999. As recently as the Class of 2010, there were as many as 13 blacks.

The latest figure is so small the academy shifts the focus to how its latest class is one-fourth composed of underrepresented minorities, including blacks, Hispanics, Asians, Native Americans and Pacific Islanders.

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Blacks make up 12.9 percent of the U.S. population–or 13.6 percent when including mixed-race blacks–according to census figures. That would translate into an academy class size of more than 40 cadets and raise overall black enrollment close to 130 students, about 100 more than the past year.

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According to current and former black Coast Guard cadets, recruiters and admissions officials:

* The black community doesn’t know much about the Coast Guard.

* Unlike at service academies for the Army, Navy and Air Force, there aren’t legacy generations of black graduates to steer their children toward Coast Guard service. Among the academies, the Naval Academy has the best record on recruiting blacks, who now make up more than 10 percent of its cadet classes.

* The Coast Guard is competing with public and private universities offering full-ride scholarships for the same black students with high science and math scores.

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Under pressure from lawmakers, the academy last year spent $40,000 to buy lists of names of blacks and others from the National Research Center for College University Admissions, but the effort resulted only in 15 blacks or mixed-race blacks in the cadet class. The Coast Guard emphasized its numbers of overall minorities.

“The results were astounding,” said Capt. Stephan Finton, the academy’s admissions director. “When you go from 16 percent diversity of our entering class last year to 24 percent this year, I would say that we were pretty laser-focused and we really did get the results we were looking for.”

Congress is restless for improvements. Under a provision passed in the House last year, lawmakers would nominate candidates for the Coast Guard’s academy the same way that all the other service academies have operated. {snip}

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