Does The Army Still Have a Race Problem?

The Army brass is worried about its diversity in critical mid-level posts.


The Army has long been a trailblazer in opening doors for African Americans. Benjamin O. Davis became the first black general officer way back in 1940, commanding all-black units. Harry Truman integrated the force in 1948, years before the Supreme Court ordered the integration of the public schools and nearly two decades before the Civil Rights Act of 1965. Colin Powell was the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the top officer in all the US armed forces, a quarter century ago.

Yet, as Tom Vanden Brook, reports for USA Today, none of the Army’s 25 infantry, armor, or artillery brigades and only three of its 80 infantry, armor, or artillery battalions is today commanded by a black officer.  For 2015, those numbers will be two of 25 and one of 78, respectively. This “threatens the Army’s effectiveness, disconnects it from American society and deprives black officers of the principal route to top Army posts, according to officers and military sociologists. Fewer than 10% of the active-duty Army’s officers are black compared with 18% of its enlisted men, according to the Army.”

Brigadier General Ronald Lewis, the Army’s chief of public affairs (and a classmate of mine at West Point) tells Vanden Brook ”The issue exists. The leadership is aware of it.” Lewis, an African American, is an aviation branch officer (a helicopter pilot) who has commanded at the battalion and brigade levels. He says that, “The leadership does have an action plan in place. And it’s complicated.” It includes expanding the pool of black officers and helping them make career choices conducive to attaining high rank.

While the snapshot of brigade and battalion commanders in the three traditional combat arms branches is stark, it’s not clear that it’s a bellwether. After all, as Vanden Brook notes, there are currently three black four-star generals in the Army: Lloyd Austin commands Central Command, Vincent Brooks leads U.S. Army Pacific, and Dennis Via runs Army  Materiel Command. There are only 14 four-star generals in the entire Army.

Still, Colonel Irving Smith, director of sociology at West Point and himself a black Infantry officer, contends, ”It certainly is a problem for several reasons. First we are a public institution. And as a public institution we certainly have more of a responsibility to our nation than a private company to reflect it. In order to maintain their trust and confidence, the people of America need to know that the Army is not only effective but representative of them.”

Colonel Ron Clark, also an African American infantryman who has commanded through brigade level, adds, “If you don’t command at the (lieutenant colonel) level, you’re not going to command at (the colonel level). If you don’t command at the (colonel) level, you’re not going to be a general officer.”

That’s true, at least in the combat arms branches. But, again, the Army currently has three black four-stars. And one if them came up the logistics path, not from infantry, armor, or artillery. Lewis, who is one of very few general officers from the 1988 year group (the vast majority have either retired or are still colonels) comes from the aviation branch—which is also a combat arm.

Focusing only on the three traditional combat arms branches while ignoring the other sixteen branches (two of which are also combat arms) likely paints a very distorted picture. Not only are there general officers in all those branches but there are very good sociological reasons having nothing to do with current Army personnel management practices why black officers are not as well represented in those branches. As Vanden Brook eventually notes, deep into his longish report:

Two forces seem to reinforce the lack of black officers in combat command. For decades, young black men have tended to choose other fields, including logistics. With fewer role models and mentors in combat specialties, those fields have been seen as less welcoming to African-American officers.

Irving Smith remembers his parents being “heartbroken” that he chose infantry.

“African Americans have historically used the armed forces as a means of social mobility,” says Smith, who joined the infantry, has risen to the rank of colonel and now is professor and director of sociology at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. “That is certainly true for African Americans who have used the armed forces as a bridging opportunity (to new careers).”

Parents, pastors and coaches of young black men and women considering the Army often don’t encourage them to join the combat specialties.

“Why would you go in the infantry?” Smith says of a common question. “Why would you want to run around in the woods and jump out of airplanes, things that have no connection to private businesses? Do transportation. Do logistics. That will provide you with transferable skills.”

Developing marketable skills has been a key motivation for many African Americans, said David Segal, a military sociologist at the University of Maryland. That has often meant driving a truck, not a tank.

“There has been a trend among African Americans who do come into the military to gravitate to career fields that have transfer value — that pretty much excludes the combat arms,” Segal said.

Clark, who now works at the Pentagon, wasn’t encouraged initially to join the infantry. His father enlisted in 1964 and had an Army career in food service.

“He grew up in a small town in southern Louisiana in the middle of Jim Crow South,” Clark says. “He was tired of having someone telling him where to sit on a bus, which water fountain to drink from and which bathroom he could use.”

At age 11, the younger Clark remembers climbing on a tank when the family was stationed in Grafenwoehr, Germany. The U.S. invasion of Grenada in 1983 sealed the deal for him: He wanted to be infantryman.

“I wanted to be an Airborne Ranger in a tree,” Clark says, “and my dad was not having it. He said, ‘Nope, you are not going following my footsteps. I want you to go to college.'”

The compromise, after his father had him speak with an African-American brigade executive officer named Larry Ellis, was to enroll at West Point. Ellis went on to become a four-star general, and Clark graduated from the academy in 1988.

Additionally, the Army in general and black officers in particular were lamenting a quarter century ago the fact that the best young black officers were prime targets for civilian head hunters looking to poach talented African Americans to meet diversity goals in the private sector.  One suspects that remains the case today.

Vanden Brook’s report was apparently inspired by an internal directive from the Secretary of the Army to diversify the combat arms leadership.

USA TODAY obtained a copy of the memo, which notes that the Army historically has drawn the majority of its generals from combat fields, specifically “Infantry, Armor and Field Artillery.” For at least two decades, however, young minority officers have selected those fields in the numbers necessary to produce enough generals.

“African Americans have the most limited preference in combat arms, followed by Hispanic and Asian Pacific officers,” the memo states. While black officers make up 12% of Army officers in all competitive specialties, they make up just 7% of the Army’s infantry, armor and artillery officers. For junior officers, that figure is lower, 6%.

Minority groups need a “critical mass” of about 15% to feel they have a voice, Smith says.

This makes the perverse assumption that the goal of every officer should be to become Chief of Staff. If that’s the metric, virtually all officers fail to achieve the goal; Ray Odierno is only the 38th man to hold that post. But it’s true: If that’s your goal, then you really should branch infantry, armor, or artillery and command at every level.

Note, too, that the report seems to be calling for a disproportionate representation of black officers. They’re currently “12% of Army officers in all competitive specialties,” which just so happens to coincide with the proportion in the overall American population. Smith is suggesting that, at a minimum, it should be 15%.

Given that the African American representation at both the junior officer and four-star general level is shockingly representative—markedly more so than it is in corporate America or, indeed, media outlets like USA Today—I’m unpersuaded that there’s a real problem here.

FILED UNDER: Military Affairs, Race and Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. steve says:

    I think you mostly have it correct here. I would look a bit at what your recruiters are doing as they also have a hand in steering people into specialties, but I suspect you will mostly find that your explanation is correct.


  2. President Camacho says:

    Short answer: no. Any minority will likely get their top branch choice in combat arms except women

    The issue I see is the flawed belief that being a combat arms GO makes you an effective executive in jobs that have nothing to do w ur basic branch. Combat arms, oh let me put u in charge of personnel or budgets or , my favorite, the DOD’s sexual assault program rather than bringing in a true expert. I am sure for the $250k in pay and benefits DoD could find a real sexual assault expert from a civilian university but I digress

  3. superdestroyer says:

    To survive (career-wise) as a infantry or field artillery officer, one will probably have to pass Ranger school. This causes many officer to seek other branches and careers. Also, black officers seem to come out of the HBU universities and that probably puts many of them at a disadvantage. If a black high school graduate is smart enough to get into a Tier I university (even with affirmative action) there is a world of career choices open to them that are not open to white students at lower Tier I or Tier II universities.

  4. Dave Schuler says:

    I suspect it’s more likely that our military has a class problem than a race problem. It might be worthwhile charting out who the black officers are and whether they’re representative of the black enlisted population or the black population overall.

  5. Tony W says:

    And as a public institution we certainly have more of a responsibility to our nation than a private company to reflect it. In order to maintain their trust and confidence, the people of America need to know that the Army is not only effective but representative of them.”

    So we’re bringing back the draft and refusing deferments?

  6. James Joyner says:

    @superdestroyer: Ranger school is a virtual requirement for infantry officers. It’s helpful but by no means standard for artillery. Odierno (Artillery), the current chief of staff, is not only not Ranger qualified but he didn’t even go to Airborne school. His predecessor and current Chairman of the JCS, Marty Dempsey (Armor), is Airborne qualified but does not have a Ranger tab. The three COSes before them were Ranger qualified but Gordon Sullivan (1991-95) was not.

    I don’t have data on the undergraduate backgrounds. Obviously, more black than white officers were commissioned through HBCUs. Otherwise, I don’t know.

    @Dave Schuler: I honestly don’t have the data. Anecdotally, they seemed fairly representative when I was in a quarter century ago.

    @Tony W: No. The Army tends to represent the middle three quintiles. The sons and daughters of the very rich tend to see the military as a poor option—especially as a long term career—and those of the very poor tend not to meet the standards for enlistment, much less commissioning.

  7. Tony W says:

    @James Joyner: I agree – we 1%ers do see it as a poor option for our kids, however my son serves in the Army, NCO, mostly on account of other options for him being unavailable due to his high-school grades. Bad choices then mean limited choices today.

    Interestingly, his favorite service has been in Korea – they do many joint exercises with the South Koreans who must serve for one year – regardless of whether their daddy is a senator or a grave digger.

    It’s not hard to see how such an arrangement in the United States would cause a big drop in the number of wars we take on to protect big business interests. When we have a military class, by definition we then have a non-military class as well – with little skin in the game. Arm chair generals with stock in Halliburton have a very different view of war than those families with kids serving.

  8. James Joyner says:

    @Tony W: I’ve written quite a lot on this topic over the years. While intuitively obvious there’s no evidence that draft means war is less likely. We fought a lot of wars far more bloody than Iraq and Afghanistan with a draft on.

  9. Anonne says:

    Yes, and no.

    You cannot look at just the distribution of officers, but also where the troops are. Some divisions have very high concentrations of black people, and yet you have a problem finding black leadership in the officer corps leading them.

    Part of that is because of self-selection into CS or CSS branches to gain social mobility, and part of that is cultural – you have to get good assignments to get battalion command and above, and the assignments process was deeply broken for years. It may only be somewhat broken now, but if you don’t get above center of mass on your evaluations you’re not tracking toward battalion command, and the way to get above center of mass is heavily influenced by an old-boy culture.

    As for the HBCUs, that is just bollocks. So what if they come out of there? They are not inferior schools by education; that is certainly true of Howard, Morehouse and Spelman. Howard has a very rigorous program that stands on its own right. Ranking tiers is not necessarily the best way to judge schools, when the criteria are often very subjective and heavily influenced by old-boy culture. Why do you think that Harvard, Yale, Princeton and Stanford merely exchange positions each year?

  10. superdestroyer says:



    most black officers were being commissioned through ROTC units from
    historically black colleges and universities.

    And from

    Mean SAT score of those admitted:

    Howard 1050
    Morehouse 1050
    Spelman 1025
    Hampton 1060
    And for comparison, the largest ROTC program at a military that is not military oriented university is Virginia Tech with a mean SAT of 1210.

    Also, in Atlanta, the third tier commuter school, Georgia State, has a mean SAT score of 1095 for comparison to Morehouse and Spelman. Maybe part of the old boy network is the first tier universities versus the third tier universities. And no, Howard does not have a rigorous program unless you care to provide some data that demonstrates that even its medical and pharmacy schools are always on the verge of losing their accreditation due to bad academic performance.

  11. Mikey says:

    @James Joyner: Odierno’s a West Point grad who didn’t go to jump school–wow, I thought pretty much every cadet went through it. I guess I was mistaken.

    I’ve heard Ranger School referred to as “finishing school for officers,” which I think is a bit unfair, since that term seems to diminish the legitimate toughness of the school.

  12. superdestroyer says:

    @James Joyner:

    Looking at the academic backgrounds of recent Army Chief of Staff

    General Raymond T. Odierno -USMA
    Martin Dempsey – USMA
    George W. Casey, Jr. -Georgetown
    Peter Schoomaker -Wyoming
    Eric Shinseki -USMA
    Dennis Reimer -USMA
    Gordon R. Sullivan -Norwich

    One has to go back to Sullivan ( A vietnam veteran) to find someone who went to a university with similar academics to the top level of HBU.

  13. President Camacho says:

    @Anonne: very rigorous program. You might be the first person to associate those words w those schools.

  14. Anonne says:

    I spoke only of Howard in particular because, perhaps unlike you, I know someone who actually went there and heard about the kinds of standards they had.

    Are they elite schools? That depends how you define elite, doesn’t it? But I am not convinced that US News rankings is a proper indicator of the quality of education. Tell us your SAT scores and if you think they were indicative of your full potential. I’ve gone to Tier I schools and the programs were as good or better than those in the rarefied air at the top. But someone’s got to be #1, 2, 3 or 4, right? What really differentiates one from the other?

  15. James in Silverdale, WA says:

    They way the military treats women and non-believers is far worse.

  16. dazedandconfused says:

    A am also unconvinced it is a problem. There is an entire generation of blacks, raised by parents who lived through the Vietnam draft era and came away with the impression the military used them for cannon fodder. More to it than that, but the negative association with military service stuck around. A gap is to be expected.

    I suppose that could still be called “a problem”, but one likely to fix itself in time, unless a requirement for high scholastic achievement test scores are keeping too many out now. If that looks like it is happening, perhaps the Army could consider what many colleges are doing now, looking at other things as more reliable indications of success in the institution. Like attendance and consistency. Some folks are noticing high LSAT scores haven’t been as great a predictor of completion and success as many had assumed.

  17. bill says:

    @Tony W: seriously? our armed forces are the best in the world- and it’s voluntary. i don’t think you’ll find many leaders who want “forced servitude” in our armed forces- as slackers suck in general, they’re even worse if someone really depends on them to do something. thx for throwing “halliburton” in there, they’re still kicking ass even with obama in the house, and we’re still at war…..just can’t seem to find the “anti-war” protesters anywhere for some lame reason?! whatever happened to cindy sheehan anyway?
    back to the facts though- the military are our hired killers, and i trust them to kill those who threaten us more than i would any affirmative action bs. heck, i don’t see anyone investigating the nba for having to few white guys on the court…

  18. Just 'nutha' ig'rant cracker says:

    @Tony W:

    Interestingly, his favorite service has been in Korea – they do many joint exercises with the South Koreans who must serve for one year – regardless of whether their daddy is a senator or a grave digger.

    While I will agree with your assertion in principle, I wish the reality that I see on the ground here matched. Exemptions from military service for the sons of the rich and politically connected here are not the outlying cohort I would hope. Hardly a week goes by without some story about a political or business leader’s son getting an exemption or fleeing the country for “foreign study opportunities” to avoid mandatory military service. Especially at election times.

    Overall though, the characterization that the service is mandatory is accurate as long as you are ok with exemptions for Olympic Games gold medalists, Asian games gold medalists, World Championship finalists, students in foreign countries, students who are selected to do internships in “sensitive industries”…

  19. Barry says:

    @James Joyner: “We fought a lot of wars far more bloody than Iraq and Afghanistan with a draft on.”

    I think that *now* a draft would mean less likelihood of a large and long war of choice [note that a true Pearl Harbor situation changes everything].

  20. John D'Geek says:

    @James Joyner:

    I don’t have data on the undergraduate backgrounds.

    It’s well known (though not necessarily accurate) that one needs to be West Point to be GO. Obviously there are exceptions, but I would start by looking to see how many GOs are West Pointers and how many West Pointers are Black.

  21. President Camacho says:

    @John D’Geek: That used to be true until, well, about the past 25 years. Shelton, Powell broke the mold long ago. Look at the GOMO (General Officer Management Office) website and look at the bios. Data proves you wrong.

  22. Pharoah Narim says:

    @superdestroyer: What does SAT scores have to do with Aptitude for being an effective soldier? Dummy.

  23. MR X says:

    i dont know. but that rape in the military article in GQ was pretty disturbing.

  24. superdestroyer says:

    @Pharoah Narim:

    The army gives tests to everyone who enters. Officers compete with each other starting at the entry officer courses until they are at the War College. Those who are academically weak are going to have problems climbing up the ladder.