Blacks Lose Ground in the U.S. Military

Unlike Vietnam, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have not accelerated the progress of African-Americans to the top ranks.

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In 1962, President John F. Kennedy decided to restart a committee to look into equal opportunity in the Armed Forces, which was aimed at devising ways to get more blacks into the military. Much of that work was made moot by the realities of the Vietnam War, where the draft brought many African Americans to the front lines.  During the height of the war, from 1965-1969, blacks formed 11 percent of the U.S. population and made up 12.6 percent of the soldiers in Vietnam. Many of them served in combat, prompting the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who opposed the conflict, to call it "a white man's war, a black man's fight."

As a result, the percentage of black officers in the Armed Forces nearly tripled even as the military contracted between 1976 and 2003, going from 3.4 percent to 9.1 percent. But that progress has stalled, with black officers now comprising 8.7 percent of the military's overall officer corps. That flattening is most pronounced at the highest ranks-a fact that has drawn the concern of Congress.

Beginning in 2007, members of the Congressional Black Caucus held a series of meetings with the military's top leadership to discuss ways to increase diversity within the senior officer corps. Those concerns led to formation of the Military Leadership Diversity Commission, which is examining policies that provide leadership opportunities for minorities in the Armed Forces.

The commission, which includes former military leaders and others, is looking at ideas from ways to further increase the number of blacks and other minorities who choose to attend service academies, to establishment of more Junior ROTC programs at the nation's high schools.

"Just as our military looks like America, so too must our general officers. If minorities are asked to go in harm's way, they must be allowed to lead as well," House Majority Whip Rep. James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.)  said when the commission was formed. "A military that is proportionally representative of all races, cultures and ethnicities increases the readiness and efficiency of our fighting forces."

Those sentiments were echoed by Rep. Kendrick B. Meek (D-Fl.). "The truest melting pot in our society exists aboard aircraft carriers, in barracks and on bases. Mess halls and exchange service stores, shooting ranges and training facilities are portraits of diversity," Meek said.  "But in the officers' clubs, a much different picture emerges. The diversity reflected within the enlisted ranks is lacking within the senior officer corps."

In a world where opportunities are now better outside the military than inside, keeping diversity in the top ranks may be more difficult now than it was three decades ago.


Michael A. Fletcher is a national correspondent for the Washington Post.