August 12, 2020

Challenges to Improving Racial Representation in the Military


Though the U.S. military appears as one of the true meritocracies in our society, many unaddressed legacies from the nation’s past regarding race and equity linger. Unresolved racial stress impacts all aspects of society, consistently leading to unequal treatment and tragic death for civilians and imbalances within the military. Nationwide protests demanding change have initiated dialogue across all levels and communication platforms in American society, giving many hope our country will finally address generations of inequity rather than merely have another moment of speeches and little action. While the scope of this movement may finally lead our country to address systemic racism and inequality, structural limitations and public perception will continue to affect the military’s ability to recruit and retain top tier, diverse talent. If military leaders are serious about their desire to improve overall diversity and inclusion efforts in the services—and many have recently conveyed their support—they must address head on several issues of race and representation in the military. Leadership should consider how representation is reflected in all levels of leadership; how and where young, diverse talented is recruited; how to speak on and engage U.S. policies that may have a detrimental impact on recruiting and retaining talent; and how to address the issue of generational family service that often does not include diverse families.

Structural limitations and public perception will continue to affect the military’s ability to recruit and retain top tier, diverse talent.

To strengthen the force and remain competitive, the military must make it a 21st-century national security imperative to ensure diversity of thought and life experiences within the national security apparatus. Proper representation adds to the stability, effectiveness, and growth of an organization at all levels. Diversity of our military forces plays a pivotal role in successful mission accomplishment: A 2019 CRS report dealing with diversity, inclusion, and equal opportunity identified the importance of military cohesion based on common values and shared experience: “higher overall levels of cohesion are associated with individual benefits of increased job satisfaction, retention, and better discipline outcomes.” The young intelligence analyst from Brooklyn will view her world with a different lens than her teammate from Wyoming or her leader from Georgia. Promoting inclusivity and building cohesion within the ranks is not simply a moral imperative but also a matter of national security—a more cohesive unit is a stronger fighting force. However, how might current barriers to increasing diversity, inclusion, and equity be properly addressed given ongoing concerns presented by both the political discourse in society and homogeneity within many aspects of the services today? How does the military forge a path toward success in retention and recruitment in today’s America?

As I stated in my Congressional testimony in December 2019, my family instilled in me a dedication to service. Notwithstanding their upbringing in a segregated south, they always stressed the importance of giving back both to our local community and to our country. My mother was a career educator in South Carolina, and my father, who was drafted and received the Bronze Star in connection with his service in Vietnam, spent his entire career helping veterans find work through the South Carolina Department of Employment and Workforce. But when my father was recruited to continue serving in the Army and attend Officer Candidate School, he declined. Though he excelled in the military, my father saw an Army with leadership that did not seem to value men of color equally with their Caucasian peers. His experience in the late 1960s, not long after passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, is distinct from realities today, however, the military, like any large-scale profession in the world, has not yet experienced the progress it should have.

Factors Affecting Representation

Representation remains a key element in leaders’ ability to maintain unit cohesion and improve diversity. Retention efforts begin at the highest levels of the service. Not only should subordinates see themselves through physical representation in their leaders, those leaders must look for opportunities to implement policies that better support people of color. The New York Times noted: “Some 43 percent of the 1.3 million men and women on active duty in the United States military are people of color. But the people making crucial decisions, such as how to respond to the coronavirus crisis and how many troops to send to Afghanistan or Syria, are almost entirely white and male. Of the 41 most senior commanders in the military—those with four-star rank in the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines and Coast Guard—only two are black: Gen. Michael X. Garrett, who leads the Army’s Forces Command, and Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr, the commander of Pacific Air Forces.”

Lack of diverse leadership is a feature of the military’s preference for senior leaders with certain backgrounds; many people of color, and African Americans in particular, in the officer corps serve in combat service and service support specialties, such as logistics and transportation, rather than combat arms roles. Traditionally, prestigious command roles are given to high performers within the combat branches. Of the 18 flag officers serving now—the chairman, vice chair, and the service chiefs of staff as well as the ten unified combatant commands and the new chief of space operations—four began in a combat service or combat service support role. Only four of those leaders are people of color and none are women. The lack of diversity reflected in these senior ranks does not go unnoticed and permeates the culture and collective psyche of the military, demonstrating to subordinates that while leaders may pledge to fight for greater diversity of the services, their actions are not emblematic of that promise. A continuous lack of representation within the highest levels of leadership reflect the priorities of the service. It demonstrates, through action, that while the services may have a strong interest in investing in its officers, leadership is still capping the opportunities for top level responsibility. It is a de facto glass ceiling for many leaders of color, with few exceptions over the years. To address this issue, senior leadership should be more diverse in occupational specialty, which would provide a broader pool of diverse talent for senior positions.

A continuous lack of representation within the highest levels of leadership reflect the priorities of the service.

This insufficient representation hampers recruitment and causes instability in representation goals. For instance, a snapshot of the demographics of graduating West Point classes between 2014 and 2019 demonstrated a well-intentioned effort to create a more diverse culture. West Point met or exceeded its goal in 2014, 2018, and 2019 for the number of African Americans within those years’ classes, but failed to meet it targets for African Americans from 2015 to 2017. These numbers indicated an unstable path to securing and maintaining diversity in the Corps of Cadets. The Academy has also established a variety of key efforts focused on minority communities— the Office of Diversity, Inclusion, and Equal Opportunity as well as an emphasis on diversity and inclusion within the Academy’s strategic plan. While these cadets will enter into an Army whose ranks are about one-third people of color, they represent less than ten percent of the officer corps—its leaders.

It is not simply enough to recruit a wider demographic into service. Men and women of color who choose military service may find themselves adrift in their career development without proper mentorship, guidance, and senior leaders reflective of their own life experience because generations before them were not provided with opportunities for success to reach hire levels and remain in the services. Proper mentorship, particularly at the earlier stages of a young leader’s career, is key to the matriculation of young non-commissioned and commissioned officers. Those struggling with issues both personally and professionally are more likely to seek counsel and engage with trusted leaders whose experiences might mirror their own.

The military has identified these shortcomings and is working toward achieving true equity. Young recruits of color still witness shortsighted policy decisions that do not align with their values. For instance, President Trump intervened in three legal cases on behalf of service members accused or convicted of war crimes, which could also be an indirect detriment to recruiting minorities, who have historically lacked the privilege of finding redemption after major or egregious errors in judgment or mistakes. They have often found themselves forced to walk a fine line as they move toward success: a GAO report shows that African American and Hispanic service members are more likely to be court-martialed than white service members. To give those who commit the most heinous crimes clemency goes against the norms of the military and is a continued assault on the values, principles, and standards held dear by many service members. Members of marginalized communities are not simply disgusted by these actions, but remain distrustful of leadership. Watching a different standard being applied in these situations may lead many minorities to question their own service.

Another factor affecting demographics in the service is the ever-shrinking military recruitment pool and development of a warrior class within society. Children, particularly young men, of military families have served as a source of the talent pool at least since the 1960s. Fewer diverse service members overall who feel marginalized and unhappy in their service will make it less likely that they continue serving or their children serve. In 2019, nearly 80 percent of the Army’s recruits came from military families. The same year, the Army missed its recruitment goals by approximately 6,500. While the other services met their goals, there is no denying that a gap between the recruitment population of our society and the military continues to increase. Approximately, only one in three high school or college students even consider the military as a possible path to success. Roughly 70 percent of the target recruitment population does not meet the minimum standards for service. These numbers dictate an imperative to explore all reasonable methods of expanding the talent pool, particularly through increasing diversity numbers. Legacy service households are often non-diverse.

Doing it Well: Navy Inclusion and Diversity at a Glance

The services are actively working to address these issues. Following my December testimony, I was afforded the opportunity to speak directly with the Chief of Naval Personnel, Vice Admiral John Nowell, and his Inclusion and Diversity team regarding their best practices and what they envision for the future of the force. In 2019, naval recruitment had one of its best years, with approximately 25 percent of its recruitment population identifying as individuals with diverse backgrounds and 24 percent as female recruits. The belief is that a diverse candidate pool allows for greater diversity in skill sets and life experience. With the increased need for science, technology, engineering and math backgrounds, a broader candidate pool remains necessary to recruit topic talent with the necessary skills into service. Additionally, recruiters with the potential aptitude for special warfare training is highly sought after. Given the military’s ongoing operational tempo, particularly regarding special operations, there is an increased need for individuals capable of meeting the rigorous demand of special operations. Not only are varied skill sets critical to operational success, but individuals with an array of life experiences provide innovative thought in solving difficult problems in often less-that-suitable circumstances.

Traditional talent pools have had issues maintaining the recruiting levels necessary to meet all of the military’s goals and needs. The Navy’s efforts to expand its recruitment practices could be a best practice worth replicating elsewhere. The service has its own history with integration and aims at developing a shift through the promotion of “the Culture of Excellence.” This doctrine strives to move beyond the traditional status quo in all aspects of work and life. It promotes excellence in a manner that frames ultimate success as the end state and not empty ideological rhetoric. In other words, leaders hope to achieve tangible and favorable outcomes rather than “excellence for the sake of excellence.” This should be done hand-in-hand with a new emphasis on the need for information exchange between team members, staffers, and leaders as new personnel enter the unit and transition authority with their peers. Navy leaders stressed the importance of the “warm hand-over” as a part of the shift of this culture.

Traditional talent pools have had issues maintaining the recruiting levels necessary to meet all of the military’s goals and needs.

An additional effort within the Navy’s Inclusion and Diversity program falls within the service’s 21st Century Sailor campaign. This campaign is a wholistic approach designed to improve multiple facets of life for sailors and families focused on providing programs, resources, training, and a supportive network to address obstacles and ensure prosperity for all. Resources and strategic vision for the program highlight the importance of cross-cutting diversity and inclusion practices across all aspects of the naval operations. As leaders relayed to me, a more diverse force is a more agile force. A more agile force has the ability to respond to a variety of threats with the professionalism necessary for mission success. This is deemed as a “warfighting case for diversity,” or in more colloquial terms, “our diversity is our strength.” This is a concept previously espoused by Lieutenant General Lori Reynolds, Deputy Commandant of Information for the Marine Corps: “I believe diversity is the thought that will matter in the future ... And I believe a dramatic mix of talent, of all races, religions, backgrounds and genders will be the difference in the future.”

The Navy uses human-centered learning and team-building techniques that focus on measuring outcomes service-wide, and the service terminated repetitive training practices that did not advance goals. By studying efforts from civilian institutions such as Harvard Business School or examining resources from the Harvard Business Review, Navy leaders are diving deeply into how to build high-performing teams. Lessons dictate that these teams are often filled with diverse talent, prompting units to focus more on how individual backgrounds, experiences, and talents can be leveraged across any team to increase efficiency and rates of success. As the Harvard Business Review stated, “In recent years a body of research has revealed another, more nuanced benefit of workplace diversity: non-homogenous teams are simply smarter. Working with people who are different from you may challenge your brain to overcome its stale ways of thinking and sharpen its performance.” And subsequently, retention lies in the services’ collective ability to challenge this talent and map the career of talent high performers that allow for growth, increased opportunities for success, and greater responsibility based on performance.

Recommendations and Next Steps

These issues are incredibly complex with myriad dependent and independent variables that will affect outcomes. Congressional action can play a crucial role in identifying priorities that demonstrate to service members the importance of supporting vulnerable communities, as well as re-emphasizing the need for diversity across the military. Where possible, legislation should be introduced to address policies that have a direct negative impact on service members and their families. Representatives Gil Cisneros and Jason Crow in the House, and Senator Tammy Duckworth in the Senate, introduced the Military Family Parole in Place Act, which would legally formalize a program that currently provides undocumented family members of military service members one-year reprieves from deportation. Senator Duckworth also introduced a bill to evaluate barriers minorities face when looking to serve in special operations. This type of action is a prime example of steps that can be taken to reassure these diverse communities that not only is their service important, but it reemphasizes the importance of family.

Next, Congress should conduct a comprehensive review of the demographics of candidates applying and receiving nominations to the service academies as well as those entering Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC). This is being addressed to some degree with gender, but must also be done on race. The congressional nomination process for the academies serves as a barrier to entry for many who are uninformed on how to properly navigate it or who may not have the structural support from family or school systems. A review of this process could help identify gaps within it and determine the best way to address these shortcomings. Additionally, a similar review of the ROTC statistics based on regional and demographic considerations should be conducted with a congressional task force designed to draft both recommended practices for inclusion in legislation. These types of congressional reviews have taken place in the past, but it is important to ensure that they are partnered with strong bipartisan support.

This historic moment illustrates the necessity of representation of diverse communities in all aspects of planning, training, and operations like few before it. Representation must be attained through investments in young people of color and women must at the outset of the recruitment process. Efforts to reach these communities cannot be an afterthought focused on simply achieving numbers that serve as a successful metric. They must be an inherent aspect of the Department of Defense’s overall strategic plan designed to ensure that our force is equipped with the most capable and talented individuals this country has to offer. With the importance of diversity to our national security interests, we must do better.

Bishop Garrison serves as Director of National Security Outreach at Human Rights First and is co-founder and president of the Rainey Center, a public-policy research organization in Washington D.C.

Read more in the CNAS Military, Veterans and Society Program's "Supporting the Military Community" commentary series.

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