Why Are There So Few Black Generals?

Despite strides made in previous decades, African Americans are a tiny fraction of military brass. Former Army Secretary Clifford Alexander explains why.

Last year a report by the Defense Manpower Data Center highlighted a decline in African-American representation among the U.S. military’s top jobs. Despite remarkable progress made over previous decades, in recent years those advances have flatlined. While blacks make up 17 percent of the nation’s active duty forces (skewing higher than their representation of 11 percent in the civilian workforce), they are just 5.5 percent of the military’s flag officers of generals, admirals and other equivalents.

Following up on these findings, in February the Military Leadership Diversity Commission (pdf) issued a paper attempting to explain the discrepancy. The report found that more African Americans prefer nontactical positions, like engineering and administrative roles, instead of combat and tactical operations. Meanwhile, tactical occupations have higher concentrations of white male officers — and are the units from which flag officers are usually picked.

So if it’s a matter of black people choosing to do other things, then the military’s hands are tied with regard to promoting them to senior positions — right? Not so, says former Army Secretary Clifford Alexander, who was also the first African American to hold the post.

“I can promise you, that’s nonsense,” he told The Root. “That’s an excuse for not doing what they should do.”

Alexander, who served as secretary from 1977 through 1981, famously encouraged African Americans to the top ranks of the Army. During his tenure he promoted 30 to general, including the first black woman and Gen. Colin Powell. He explained to The Root what he sees as the real reason so few blacks occupy top posts in the military, and what the current brass must do to change the situation.

The Root: Research has suggested that more African Americans opt for nontactical positions in the military, and that’s why fewer of them are now in the upper ranks. Would you say that’s a factor?

Clifford Alexander: I’d say, “Excuses, excuses.” The real reason is inattentiveness to equity and fairness — that the same opportunities for advancement that are presented to the majority are also presented to blacks, Puerto Ricans and others.

Let me make a civilian comparison. If you live in a white suburb, and you drive in with your boss to work, you’re going to know more about the job than a black person who goes to work from a different neighborhood. That means access to information, and contact with those who make the hiring and promotional decisions. The same is true in the military.

When you look at the upper levels, contact is white on white. Unless it is brought to the attention of those in leadership positions, that in order to level the playing field — and let me emphasize that this is nothing extra for black people — they must see to it that everyone has the same opportunity, the same information and military assignments, and fair evaluations based on the same factual information. Then, and only then, do you end up with a more representative upper level within the military.