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.

TR: But when high-ranking generals are selected from combat units, most people don't interpret that as being a "boy's club." Isn't having that experience just a necessary requirement for the job?

CA: Well, it is necessary. And any colonel in the military, black or white, has had that experience. Now, some might ask, do you need five years or 10 years of that experience? But the point is, if you look at the rank of colonels you'll find that they've had it. Again, reports like this tend to give excuses for results that are unfair. Rather than accepting that excuse as a fact, they should get to the real problem.

The reason why 30 black people became general when I was secretary of the Army, and only one in the Marines during those four years, is that when we had the boards that looked at these ratings, I noticed there were a lot of black colonels who weren't moving through the system.

When they gave me a list with no minority people on it, I wouldn't sign off on it. I emphasized to the boards that they should look at whether their black assignments were different than the white assignments. Miraculously, they found these highly qualified black people -- and it was really not miraculous. It took leaders who were just following the same old patterns to relook at what they did and treat people fairly.

You cannot create opportunities just because you say it's fair. You have to make sure that the prejudices and the predeterminations about skill and ability are thrown out the window. In order to do that, leadership has to take a substantive hard look at how people really perform -- not that you feel good with somebody, not that you socialize with somebody, not that you have some presumption about what they're going to do if they get this position. They're just not doing that now.

TR: While you, as secretary of the Army, made it a priority to have diversity among the upper ranks --

CA: Let me put it this way: I made it a priority that people who put on a uniform get treated fairly, no matter who they were. It was the kind of thing that anybody in a leadership position should do. The efficiency of your force has to do with utilizing the talents of men and women, and people of all ethnic and racial backgrounds.

TR: Do you know what conversations are happening among military officials now to address the issue?

CA: No, I do not. The fact that you're writing this article at this point, and the fact that you've shown me this report, indicates that the conversations that are taking place aren't being effective. It isn't good enough to stand up and say that the military is really great about providing opportunities. It is only good if the different branches all show the same interests and attention to this.

Going back to my example about the Army and the Marines during my time as secretary -- we had 30 black generals to one. One place wasn't paying any attention to it; the other was. At least for that short time, it worked and had a profound effect. That is not what we're seeing today.

TR: I imagine 30 years ago there was also more blatant discrimination that you had to address. Even though a lack of representation in the upper ranks still exists, hasn't the culture changed since then?

CA: Certainly some things have changed in the culture. But the progression of full opportunity ebbs and flows; it is not a steady straight line up. Otherwise you'd have unemployment rates that were similar between black and white. It's two to one, and it was that way 30 years ago. We all have color TVs now, so in that sense things have changed. [Laughs.] But as a general society, we don't treat people with the same equality as we should. We still carry prejudices.

TR: And how are you spending Memorial Day?

CA: I will be remembering that there are people who put on this uniform and make sacrifices for us all, so it is a very serious day. To talk about positive societal changes, we've learned to respect people in uniform rather than, as the civilian population did in the Vietnam era, to treat them with disrespect. When people decide to make the ultimate sacrifice as members of the military, that ought to be respected. And that's what I try to think about.

Cynthia Gordy is The Root's Washington reporter.