Posted on October 19, 2023

Behind Closed Doors, Marines Struggle With a Glaring Diversity Problem

Hope Hodge Seck, Washington Post, October 16, 2023

Zach Mullins was used to walking into rooms filled with White faces. But he was taken aback when, at an air show last year in San Diego, a man approached to ask: “Did you know that you’re the only Black fighter pilot in the Marine Corps?”

Mullins, who flies F/A-18 Hornets, is one of five, in fact. But in recalling the exchange, he said that, “I never really thought about the numbers just because it was the job that I wanted to do” — though it was “a little staggering,” the Marine captain conceded, to learn the number of African Americans in elite jobs like his was so small.

The Marine Corps, in step with the rest of the U.S. military, has spent decades making a concerted push to become more reflective of the diverse nation it defends. Officials point to sustained gains in recruiting women to join the force and in growing overall diversity among the service’s officer ranks.

But within its community of fighter pilots, these efforts have failed to keep pace. And while leaders acknowledge they have work to do, observers say the institution appears unwilling to take the aggressive and resource-intensive steps that experts deem necessary to put Black candidates for those jobs on more equal footing with their White peers.

Gary Graham Jr., a film producer whose father flew fighter jets in the Marine Corps, has researched the imbalance and concluded that the service’s leaders underestimate what’s required for African Americans to overcome certain obstacles that can stymie the prospects of otherwise qualified individuals. He points to previous flying experience, which is expensive. Graham also faults a recruiting system that he said has done a lackluster job engaging the Black community specifically.


Over the past quarter-century, the number of Black Marines who fly fighter jets has fallen from an all-time high of 15 in 2000 to just the five today — not even 1 percent of the approximately 580 fighter pilots serving across the Marine Corps. It’s the military’s worst such disparity — and one made more striking by the rise of Air Force Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr., a fighter pilot and African American, who as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff holds the military’s highest post.

David Berger, who retired in July as the Marines’ top general, commissioned during his tenure as commandant an independent study that yielded a road map for the service to start closing the gap. But two years later, the study’s most transformative recommendations remain unimplemented as leaders opt instead to remain on a course that emphasizes a broad concept of diversity rather than targeting shortfalls in individual demographics or career fields.

To lead the effort, Berger tapped Charles Bolden Jr., a former NASA administrator and the second Black Marine aviator ever promoted to general officer, and Bolden’s son Ché, who spent 26 years in the Marine Corps. {snip}


The Boldens’ study, a copy of which was obtained by The Washington Post, has not been made public. It concludes that the Marine Corps cannot overcome generations of discrimination and mistrust merely by having removed barriers to participation in top-tier jobs such as fighter pilot. Rather, the Boldens assert, the service must establish new pathways to reach and recruit African Americans and entrust the role of “chief diversity officer” to the commandant himself rather than delegate that responsibility to a leader with less visibility and influence as it does now.


Only the Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps operate fighter jets, and while all have struggled to recruit and retain Black pilots, the Marines have performed most poorly.

There are 60 Black fighter pilots in the Air Force, or 2 percent of the community. Navy data show 15 Black pilots out of 1,124, about 1.3 percent. Those figures could be higher, however, as both services allow personnel to identify as multiple races or decline to respond.

In the Marine Corps, the fighter pilot community has an outsize impact: The service’s top officers are almost always promoted from within the infantry and aviation fields. One takeaway from the Boldens’ study was that Black Marines often take themselves out of the running for these positions at the start of their military careers by pursuing fields such as logistics or administration that transfer more readily to future civilian employment.


Statistics provided by the Marine Corps show that, in the past two years, about 35 percent of newly commissioned lieutenants came from what the service calls diverse backgrounds, defined as anyone other than a White male. The data show, too, that last year nearly 45 percent of those enrolled in enlisted-to-officer programs were categorized as diverse.


The Boldens’ study noted only a few reported incidents of racial hostility within the Marines’ aviation units, and none from recent years, but it described a culture of “silence” in which Black and White Marines are unwilling to engage in conversations about race and representation{snip}

The Boldens have called for the creation of Socratic-style discussion groups, centered on topics of diversity and race, at Marine Corps training hubs. Officials said the service will consider such groups.