Posted on May 26, 2020

African-Americans Are Highly Visible in the Military, but Almost Invisible at the Top

Helene Cooper, New York Times, May 25, 2020

A photograph of President Trump and his top four-star generals and admirals, tweeted in October by Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper, was meant as a thank-you to the commander in chief. But it angered a lot of others, and not just those who erupted on Twitter.

“You would have thought it was 1950,” said Lt. Col. Walter J. Smiley Jr., who is African-American and fought in Iraq and Afghanistan before retiring last year after 25 years in the Army. Dana Pittard, a retired major general, also African-American, was equally frustrated. “It’s America’s military,” he said. “Why doesn’t this photo look like America?”

Yet the picture of the president surrounded by a sea of white faces in full military dress is an accurate portrait of the top commanders who lead an otherwise diverse institution.

Some 43 percent of the 1.3 million men and women on active duty in the United States military are people of color. But the people making crucial decisions, such as how to respond to the coronavirus crisis and how many troops to send to Afghanistan or Syria, are almost entirely white and male.

Of the 41 most senior commanders in the military — those with four-star rank in the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines and Coast Guard — only two are black: Gen. Michael X. Garrett, who leads the Army’s Forces Command, and Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr, the commander of Pacific Air Forces.

Gen. Paul M. Nakasone, whose father is second-generation Japanese-American, leads the United States Cyber Command. The Army has sometimes counted Gen. Stephen J. Townsend, the head of Africa Command and the son of a German mother and an Afghan father, as a minority commander. There is only one woman in the group: Gen. Maryanne Miller, the chief of the Air Force’s Air Mobility Command, who is white.

The reasons there are so few people of color at the top lie deep in the history and culture of the United States military. A 1925 guidance for Army officers stated that black service members were a class “from which we cannot expect to draw leadership material.” The armed forces were not fully integrated until after World War II, a legacy that has left African-Americans without the same history of generations of family service shared by so many white enlistees.

The elite service academies that feed the officer class — the United States Military Academy at West Point, the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., and the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs — have increased their enrollment of minority recruits in recent years but remain largely white. The African-Americans who do become officers are often steered to specialize in logistics and transportation rather than the marquee combat arms specialties that lead to the top jobs.

Interviews with more than three dozen white, black and Hispanic service members and officers depict an entrenched and clubby system with near cement ceilings for minority groups.

The Trump presidency, minority service members said, has only magnified the sense of isolation they have long felt in a stratified system. “You had the feeling with Obama, that people were looking up” and trying to impress the country’s first black president, General Pittard said, adding that similar sentiments existed under Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton. That pressure, he said, has disappeared with Mr. Trump. “There’s not somebody pushing it,” he said.

Racism within the military appears to be on the rise. A survey last fall of 1,630 active-duty subscribers to Military Times found that 36 percent of those polled and 53 percent of minority service members said they had seen examples of white nationalism or ideologically driven racism among their fellow troops. The numbers were up significantly from the same poll conducted in 2018, when 22 percent of all respondents reported personally witnessing white nationalism.

In recent years, the Pentagon has faced intensifying criticism for a series of racist episodes. A lawsuit filed in federal court in February by a Navy fighter pilot accused airmen and officers at the Naval Air Station Oceana in Virginia Beach of seeking to cover up institutional racism directed against African-American aviators, which he said resulted in their wrongful removal from pilot training programs. The pilot’s lawyer said in an interview that black airmen at the base were, among other things, given racially derogatory call signs like “8-Ball” and referred to as “eggplants” in group chats on social media.

In December, West Point announced that its Black Knights football team had removed from its flag the initials G.F.B.D., for “God Forgives, Brothers Don’t,” after learning that it was a slogan demanding loyalty by the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas, a white supremacist prison gang.

The small sniper community in the Marine Corps has often used a Nazi symbol, the lightning bolt insignia of Hitler’s SS units, as a stand-in for “Scout Sniper.” Although the Marine Corps leadership moved quickly to stamp out the symbol after a photo of a unit posing with an SS flag surfaced in Afghanistan in 2012, it still persists, Marines say, much like a secret handshake.

“The absence of minorities at the top means the absence of a voice to point to things that should have been addressed a long time ago,” said Brandy Baxter, an Air Force veteran who served in Iraq and Afghanistan and is African-American. “And from a human standpoint, this absence sends another message that here’s another space where we are not accepted.”

Minority service members applaud two recent changes: In March, General Brown was nominated to be the next Air Force chief of staff. And in January, the Navy announced that its newest aircraft carrier would be the first to be named after a black seaman, the African-American World War II hero Doris Miller, who manned antiaircraft guns during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and helped save the wounded. But service members note that two other aircraft carriers retain the names of segregationists, John C. Stennis and Carl Vinson.


If you enter the Pentagon at the Potomac River entrance, where foreign dignitaries are greeted by the defense secretary, you will walk down the E Ring hall with its portraits of the men who have led the United States armed forces for the past century. To nearly a one, the African-American service members interviewed for this article said they paused when they walked by the painting of Gen. Colin L. Powell, the first and only black chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. His portrait, they said, came as both a relief — that he was there at all — and a reminder that no one else with their skin color had made it.

“I walk their halls, and nobody on their wall looks like me,” said Lila Holley, a former Army chief warrant officer. Until she gets to the portrait. “I exhale when I see Colin Powell.” she said.

Mr. Powell, who became President George W. Bush’s first secretary of state, declined to be interviewed about his military service for this article. But in a 1995 article for The New Yorker, he spoke about the subtle racism he had experienced. “When I was a young lieutenant, I would have commanders come up to me and say, ‘Powell, you’re doing great — goddamn, you’re the best black lieutenant I’ve ever seen,’” Mr. Powell told Henry Louis Gates Jr., a Harvard professor and the author of the article. “And I’d say, ‘Thank you.’ Just file it away.”


The elite Special Operations forces — Navy SEALs, Army Green Berets, Rangers and Delta Force commandos — tend to be as white as the military’s top ranks. {snip}


The Other Reason

In the Marines, the term for a black Marine is “nonswimmer.” In the Army Rangers, it is “night ranger.”

“I heard the name ‘night ranger,’ ” said General Pittard, who did his Ranger training in the North Georgia mountains. “‘Come here, Night Ranger.’ That doesn’t make you feel very welcome.”

The “nonswimmer” name, meant as a slur, refers to the ages-old trope that black people cannot swim. Like any trope, there is just enough of a glimmer of truth to make it hard to shake. General Pittard, who made it as far as the commander of land forces for the American-led coalition battling the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria in 2014, said that when he entered West Point in 1977, fewer than 10 out of 100 black freshmen knew how to swim. To graduate, they had to learn.

“We graduated 42” black cadets, General Pittard recalled. “So we lost 58.”


In interviews, African-American, Asian and Hispanic officers and enlisted service members described a feeling of not being accepted that was sometimes so intangible that many grew frustrated trying to describe it. In ways large and small, they said, they felt constantly challenged over their right to be in elite units, let alone lead them.


African-American officers said they had no room for error, and that episodes that had little consequence for their white counterparts ended careers for them. {snip}


The United States Marine Corps has never in its 244 years had a four-star general who was not a white male.


There are people at top levels of the Pentagon who would like to see a military leadership that is more reflective of America. Ryan McCarthy, the secretary of the Army and a former Army Ranger, is one of those who is trying to increase the number of minority leaders in the Army’s top ranks. Last summer he traveled to Philadelphia for the annual convention of the black fraternity Kappa Alpha Psi, stumping for more African-Americans to join the Army’s officer corps.

“If we don’t get greater diversification in each officer cohort, we will never catch up,” Mr. McCarthy said.

It was sunny and windy in Philadelphia as Mr. McCarthy, along with a majority black delegation from his office, got off the plane and traveled to the convention center downtown. As he headed up the escalator to the convention hall for his speech to the Kappas, Mr. McCarthy looked up at a sea of black faces.

It was a turnaround from what usually faces him in meetings at the Pentagon. This time, he was the minority in the room.