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.

Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

The impressive strides that African Americans have made in the leadership ranks of the military following integration have all but stopped in recent years, and they now occupy just a tiny share of the nation’s top military jobs.

Nearly 62 years after President Harry R. Truman signed an executive order to   desegregate the nation’s Armed Forces, African Americans make up just 5.5 percent of the military’s flag officers-generals, admirals and the equivalent, according to the Defense Manpower Data Center. Overall, African-Americans comprise 17 percent of the nation’s active duty forces in the Army, Air Force, Marines, Navy and Coast Guard.

The flattening of the number of African Americans in the military’s very top ranks is a reflection both of the progress that African Americans have made in civilian life and of the professions African Americans tend to pursue in the new slimmed-down military, according to some experts. One need look no further than President Barack Obama, who will be honoring the nation’s war dead at a Memorial Day ceremony at the Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery outside Chicago, to understand the nation’s racial transformation.

Now, with job opportunities in the often lucrative defense industry and other fields open to African Americans as never before, more black officers are opting out of military careers in what once was one of the few fields that offered black people a chance at top leadership.

Meanwhile, African American officers are less likely than whites to serve in Special Forces and other elite combat units that are often on the front lines of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. And those units are the ones from which many flag officers are chosen.

Roughly one in five black military officers serve in combat jobs– half the percentage for non-blacks. Rather than choosing combat, black officers tend to gravitate to administrative, engineering, supply and maintenance professions — areas that tend to translate best to civilian work. “The opportunity structure of America has changed. If people choose to do other things, you can’t argue with that,” said John Sibley Butler, a University of Texas professor, Vietnam veteran, and co-author of  All That We Can Be: Black Leadership and Racial Integration the Army Way. Butler acknowledged that combat experience is also crucial for military officers who want to make it to the very top. “It is certainly true that combat officers form the top leadership of the military,” he said. “In the future, it is going to be those who have high-tech experience.”