In the span of 6 days, the first African-American leader of a US military service was confirmed (General Charles Q. Brown as Air Force Chief of Staff), the Navy’s first black female fighter pilot completed her training (LTJG Madeline Swegle), and the first woman joined the US Army Green Berets (unnamed for security reasons). These are tremendous accomplishments, and should be lauded as such. I have just one question: What took so long?
The ban on women in combat was lifted almost 30 years ago, in 1993. The US military was desegregated more than 70 years ago in 1948.
Despite these recent accomplishments, only 7% of general officers are African American. The Navy and Marine Corps have no African Americans serving above the 2-star level, and the Army has just one African American 4-star. Burk and Espinoza (2012) argue that some of this disparity is caused by racial discrimination at the unit level, which results in a biased promotion process. Regardless of the cause, the military believes that such under-representation at senior ranks “detracts from military effectiveness.”
Similarly, African Americans face a biased military justice system that mirrors that of civil society. African Americans are twice as likely to be incarcerated while in the military, and in a 1992 study, 8% of enlisted black males reported that they had been discriminated against during military justice proceedings. Further, only 38% of black enlisted men believed that white and black people in their unit received the same punishment for the same crime. African Americans also face an increased rate of courts martial, and longer sentences than their white counterparts.
Racial diversity is vital to our effectiveness as a military profession, but as evidenced by racial disparities in military justice and discipline, and the lack of diversity in the senior officer ranks — the Armed Forces have much further to go.
Richard and Carliss (2012) argue that “diversity is associated with better creative problem solving, innovation, and improved decision making.” Similarly, a Congressional Research Service report argues that “a more diverse force has the potential to be more efficient and flexible, able to meet a broader set of challenges.” “Diversity creates a synergy of different perspectives. This is particularly useful when trying to find solutions to perplexing and wicked problems such as the ones the national-security profession encounters daily.” More generally, a “broadly representative military force is more likely to uphold national values and to be loyal to the government — and country — that raised it.”
Simply put, combating racial bias in the military, and in the nation writ large, is a national security issue, as racial and economic divisions at home undermine U.S. security. As Bishop Garrison and Jon Wolfsthal argue so eloquently:
“The United States cannot claim to be a beacon of freedom in the world if it continues to witness and accept the ongoing murder of innocent black people. Unless the country makes fundamental changes, cities and communities will continue to be torn apart through over-policing and abuse, economic and racial inequality, and other persistent legacies of racism — all undermining the United States’ ability to function as a society and its credibility on the global stage.”
If the response to wearing masks to combat coronavirus is any indication, the United States is currently incapable of building any kind of true national consensus on a variety of issues needed to pursue national security priorities that keep our citizens safe. As a result, we are unable to address global injustice, human rights, peace and stability, democracy promotion, rule of law, and many more issues that we can’t even address adequately here at home.
So while the accomplishments of General Brown, LTJG Swegle, and the unnamed Green Beret deserve recognition, it is with a heavy heart that we must also acknowledge that these achievements come far too late for a nation that espouses the equality of all mankind.
Will Atkins is an Air Force veteran of 18 years, and writes about the intersection of national security and domestic issues, especially those that affect his home state of Florida. He can be found at @WillAtkins4FL on Twitter.
Burk, James and Evelyn Espinoza. “Race Relations Within the US Military,” Annual Review of Sociology, 38 (2012): 401–422.
Garrison, Bishop, and Jon B. Wolfsthal (2 June 2020). “An Appeal to the National Security Community to Fight Racial Injustice.” Foreign Policy. Retrieved from https://foreignpolicy.com/2020/06/02/race-relations-police-violence-national-security-community/