Fear of a Black General?

My latest for Defense One.

Col. Anthony Henderson, commanding officer 13th Marine Expeditionary Unit, receives the Legion of Merit award on Camp Pendleton, California, Dec. 15, 2016. U.S. MARINE CORPS / LANCE CPL. TYLER BYTHER
Col. Anthony Henderson, commanding officer 13th Marine Expeditionary Unit, receives the Legion of Merit award on Camp Pendleton, California, Dec. 15, 2016. U.S. MARINE CORPS / LANCE CPL. TYLER BYTHER

Defense One has published my essay “Fear of a Black General?

disturbing new report notes that “never in its history has the Marine Corps had anyone other than a white man in its most senior leadership posts” and charges that the Corps is “an institution where a handful of white men rule over 185,000 white, African-American, Hispanic and Asian men and women.” The reality is more complicated. For one thing, most Marines are directly led by noncommissioned officers, whose ranks are much more diverse. For that matter, so is the officer corps writ large, and few Marines will ever meet a general. But the issue bears a closer look.

The New York Times report in question is built around an anecdotal case of a superstar black colonel who has not been selected for brigadier general in three tries. I demonstrate that this isn’t particularly problematic; most Marine colonels are superstars and only 8% of them get promoted.

Still, while a single anecdote can be dismissed, the overall data is worrisome. The report notes that the Corps has seen only 25 Black officers make one-star rank, only six have made three-star, and “none has made it to the top four-star rank, an honor the Marines have bestowed on 72 white men.” Further, “Out of 82 Marine generals overall today, there are six African-American brigadier generals and one African-American major general.” 

Obviously, America has a long history of racial discrimination and Black servicemembers were only relatively recently admitted to the officer corps as anything like equal members. Still, the Army had a Black one-star general, Benjamin Oliver Davis Sr., in  1940—eighty years ago next month. The Air Force’s Daniel “Chappie” James Jr. became the nation’s first Black four-star general in 1975. Colin Powell became Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in 1989. Michelle Howard became the first Black woman to pin on four-star rank in 2014. And Charles Q. Brown, Jr. became the first Black service chief just last month. Against this record, the Marines’ lack of even a single Black four-star merits investigation.  

I then delve into plausible benign explanations for the problem before concluding:

It is challenging to make an objective evaluation of the situation from the outside. Even the above-cited RAND report, which is the source of most of the data in this essay and which was commissioned by various Defense Department offices, had to rely only on Defense Manpower Data Center data because they were denied access to service data. It would behoove the Marine Corps to make more detailed information available to scholars for examination.  

If you’re interested in the arguments and evidence in between, they’re available at the link.

FILED UNDER: Military Affairs, Published Elsewhere, 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 and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. ptfe says:

    In general, though, the Marines are the least diverse branch. It’s the only military-only service (so excluding the Coast Guard, NOAA Corps, and US Public Health Service Corps) where the Black representation is less than the civilian labor force population.

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  2. James Joyner says:

    @ptfe: Yes. And, oddly, also the one with the most overrepresentation of Hispanics.

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  3. MarkedMan says:

    I’m curious about something. Many modern organizations recognize a need for diversity at all levels, even absent racial or gender diversity. For instance, I just hired a lead position right now and had to decide whether the person be more electronics oriented or more firmware oriented, although they will oversee other engineers in both areas. I opted for electronics because that was where we were weakest.

    I ended up being involved in opening an R&D center in Asia specifically because American and European countries had historically under-performed in designing products for the Asian market. You can do 100 interviews with nurses in the US and never run across one that is 4′ 10″ or less, is south of 90 pounds and has hands the size of a typical American 9 year old, while in Vietnam or Laos they might make up 15% or more of the workforce.

    What I’m getting at is your comment: “…this isn’t particularly problematic; most Marine colonels are superstars and only 8% of them get promoted.” I’m assuming, maybe incorrectly, that the Services try to promote people with a variety of specialties. It also seems to me that if you have women, or blacks or Hispanics as a significant portion of your service, and you don’t have representation from these groups, then it should be taken into consideration when you are looking at the field of promotion candidates.

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  4. HarvardLaw92 says:

    While I’m open to the question about how, in a normally distributed population, promotion solely on merit alone wouldn’t have eventually produced a leadership cadre that roughly mirrored the population, I adamantly oppose promotion on the basis of anything besides merit alone.

    Unfortunately, we do not have that, I doubt we’ve ever had it, and we likely never will. IMO, the degree of facetime and familiarity with senior leadership one has enjoyed over one’s career continues to be a reliable contributor to promotion once you’ve progressed beyond field grade. As always, to some degree it is who you know (or more aptly stated, who knows you) as much as it is what you know.

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  5. HarvardLaw92 says:

    @MarkedMan:

    I’m assuming, maybe incorrectly, that the Services try to promote people with a variety of specialties

    To an extent, with the caveat that people who have not been oriented in front-line combat command roles will rarely, if ever, assume general leadership over the entire organization. You might have a nurse named as a general, for example, but he/she will continue to lead something medical, as opposed to leading combat forces. There is a decided bias, and not one I’m entirely uncomfortable with, towards overall leadership of combatant organizations being occupied by people whose careers have actually involved combat.

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  6. MarkedMan says:

    @HarvardLaw92:

    with the caveat that people who have not been oriented in front-line combat command roles will rarely, if ever, assume general leadership over the entire organization.

    That makes complete sense. In the army that could include people who came up through the infantry, armored vehicles, air fighters and maybe others. If most of your current generals came up through, say, infantry, it might make sense to give a preference to another area. After all, ultimately you promote people to advance the effectiveness of the organization, not to reward individual merit.

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  7. JKB says:

    Certainly doesn’t seem to be anything like what racist, Democrat, Woodrow Wilson and his Secretary of War, Newton Baker, did to Col. Charles Young, USA, in fear that if he was deployed to France during the war it could result in him being promoted to Brigadier General and possible command of white officers. So, instead, he was maligned and forced into retirement.

    However, Baker realized that if Young were allowed to fight in Europe with black troops under his command, he would be eligible for promotion to brigadier general, and it would be impossible not to have white officers serving under him. The War Department instead removed Young from active duty, claiming it was due to his high blood pressure.

    In 1912 Young published The Military Morale of Nations and Races, a remarkably prescient study of the cultural sources of military power. He argued against the prevailing theories of the fixity of racial character, using history and social science to demonstrate that even supposedly servile or un-military races (such as Negroes and Jews) displayed martial virtues when fighting for democratic societies. Thus the key to raising an effective mass army from among a polyglot American people was to link patriotic service with fulfillment of the democratic promise of equal rights and fair play for all. Young’s book was dedicated to Theodore Roosevelt, and invoked the principles of Roosevelt’s “New Nationalism”.

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  8. Jim Brown 32 says:

    Good essay James,

    The Marine GO Corp is an infantry dominated order just like the Air Force GO Corp is a pilot dominated order. Sorry, but the cultural tendency of AAs is to learn skills in the Military that can lead to some upward mobility on the outside than for pure patriotism. Infantry isn’t one of those specialties so the Marines are going to be hard pressed to get the numbers of AAs into the infantry that are needed to one day make Generals.

    BTW I know the Marine 2-star (or at least, I’ve been in meetings with him). Incredibly impressive both in the way he looks and when he speaks. Hope he gets a 3rd Star–he’s in good stepping stone job now so I’d be shocked if he moved laterally to another 2-star position or retired

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  9. john430 says:

    @HarvardLaw92: Something is wrong here. I actually agree with you.

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  10. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @john430: No, you’re alright; he just in a trolling the progs phase at the moment.

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  11. rondo1342 says:

    CSAF Gen Charles Q. Brown is the first black general to be a service chief of staff. He was Col Brown when he was the 8 FW wing commander at Kunsan AB ’07-‘8….I was there only three months or so after he arrived, then I rotated out….F-16 driver

    https://www.af.mil/About-Us/Biographies/Display/Article/108485/general-charles-q-brown-jr/

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  12. rondo1342 says:

    @rondo1342: Before any Navy folks pipe up, I should have said “GO/FO” as a general won’t ever be CNO……;-)

  13. DrDaveT says:

    most Marine colonels are superstars and only 8% of them get promoted.

    I’d throw in the fact that a Marine colonel has essentially the same command authority and responsibilities as a 1-star in any other Service. It is extremely common for the Marine at a Pentagon briefing to have the lowest rank in the room, but to be treated as a peer by all.

  14. DrDaveT says:

    @HarvardLaw92:

    I adamantly oppose promotion on the basis of anything besides merit alone.

    In the military, or in general?

    (Since you’re a bright guy, I assume you realize that this implies never actually achieving equality of opportunity, and that you’re OK with that. Thus the question — is your willingness to perpetuate discrimination driven by the special role of the military, or is it general?)

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  15. HarvardLaw92 says:

    @DrDaveT:

    My concern with a military force is effectiveness. Whatever set of policies maximize its ability to perform its function to the highest possible degree of effectiveness should be the ones that are applied. That’s my only concern with it. How well it can perform its mission, nothing more. Equality of opportunity follows in that belief – everyone should have the same opportunity to excel based on their individual abilities and merit. Factors which are extraneous to that goal don’t concern me, no. The absolute last thing I want, and the last thing I’d hope that you’d want, is a military leadership which ticks off diversity boxes but gets its ass kicked in the field because its leaders weren’t selected based on their ability to manage and lead in combat.

    Likewise we do not hire attorneys, nor do we pay attorneys the handsome salaries we’re paying them, in order to achieve some sort of perfectly diverse reflection of society. We hire them and handsomely pay them solely based on demonstrated excellence and ability. For one simple reason – we expect to win, every time, and we’re hiring them to help us get there. We’re hiring them to be killers, not to be a diversity poster. Our starting point is the graduation rank listing at Tier I law schools, not a rack of paint chips. Diversity doesn’t win legal matters and it doesn’t make money, ergo it is at best a distant concern. Interestingly though, we’re a fairly diverse firm despite not actively considering it in hiring. I’d think that about says all that needs to be said on the matter.

    I’d think a system based solely on merit alone would be the purest definition of equality of opportunity. If you can fight your way to the top, you’ll get the job. We don’t care if you’re white, black, green, or plaid. We care that, as an attorney, you’re worth what we’re paying you. Are you asserting that some groups aren’t equally capable of excellence & competing on an equal playing field, therefore they must be given a booster seat?

  16. DrDaveT says:

    @HarvardLaw92:

    My concern with a military force is effectiveness. Whatever set of policies maximize its ability to perform its function to the highest possible degree of effectiveness should be the ones that are applied. That’s my only concern with it.

    Today, or in the future? I can understand an argument that says the demands of today require that we not compromise in the short term, even if it would improve the long term. I just can’t tell whether that’s the argument you’re making.

    Likewise we do not hire attorneys, nor do we pay attorneys the handsome salaries we’re paying them, in order to achieve some sort of perfectly diverse reflection of society. We hire them and handsomely pay them solely based on demonstrated excellence and ability. For one simple reason – we expect to win, every time, and we’re hiring them to help us get there.

    Same question — today, or forever? You do understand the tradeoff, right? Should we condemn hockey players born in the second half of future years to never have a chance to compete, in order to get the very best available hockey players today? That’s what you’re advocating for.

    I’d think a system based solely on merit alone would be the purest definition of equality of opportunity.

    Of course. The problem is, to get there you need a period of reverse discrimination and criteria that are NOT solely based on merit, to break the cycle of discrimination. It’s not that “some groups aren’t equally capable of excellence & competing on an equal playing field” — it’s that those groups aren’t ever going to get that equal playing field until we first undo the effects of systemic discrimination in the past. The past 50 years have proven that.

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  17. mattbernius says:

    @Jim Brown 32:

    Sorry, but the cultural tendency of AAs is to learn skills in the Military that can lead to some upward mobility on the outside than for pure patriotism.

    I was just thinking about your answer when I asked a similar question a week or two ago. This makes so much sense. It also matches what I have been told about Native Americans and the armed services.

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  18. HarvardLaw92 says:

    @DrDaveT:

    Every new year brings a new crop of potential candidates. The pool constantly renews itself, so this this today versus tomorrow argument you’re making seems to me to be rhetorical. We’re consistently selecting the best candidates from a constantly refreshed pool of candidates.

    As for the rest, we will have to disagree. I’m a firm believer that the truly talented – the excellent -if challenged will rise to the top regardless of where they begin the journey. Experience has borne that belief out. At present, just as an example, we have our eye on a rising 3L at HLS whose background (less than stellar public schools, what you’d term low paid parents, low rent side of town) seemingly didn’t prevent him from achieving full rides to a laundry list of universities, becoming a Rhodes candidate, and graduating as the valedictorian at Morehouse. Barring some sort of unforeseen developments, we intend to extend an offer and hopefully bring him on board directly after graduation. We’ll count ourselves lucky to get him – not because he makes for a good diversity poster, but because he’s going to be one hell of an attorney.

    I believe that people perform best when encouraged and, more importantly, challenged. I’ve never bought into this paternalistic theme of “you are oppressed, therefore you need our benevolent finger on the scales helping you if you are to excel” crap that constitutes the liberal attitude towards minorities. From my chair, aside from being incredibly condescending, that is more about liberals making themselves feel better / mitigating internalized guilt than it is about helping people succeed. Paternalism begets dependence and squashes personal drive & ambition. Challenge begets excellence, so don’t tell these kids that they’re behind the curve. Tell them they can do anything, regardless of where they’re starting from, and challenge them to prove it. They’ll do so.

  19. Rick DeMent says:

    I’m reading all these comments and still trying to wrap my head around the fact that a major General is 2 stars and a lieutenant general is 3. Shouldn’t be the other way around 🙂 If they ever expanded the ranks of generals would that mean a 4 start general would be a corporal general 🙂

  20. DrDaveT says:

    @HarvardLaw92:

    As for the rest, we will have to disagree.

    Apparently.

    I’m a firm believer that the truly talented – the excellent -if challenged will rise to the top regardless of where they begin the journey.

    Even if they begin the journey eating lead paint?

    I see that my comment about hockey went right over your head. Today, in this world, the overwhelming majority of the top hockey players in North America were born in the first half of the calendar year. Your argument is apparently that the other half of all kids who play hockey simply weren’t motivated enough, or challenged enough. Or something. It’s their own fault; they had enough equality of opportunity that they could have overcome it if they wanted it bad enough. The calendar thing is just a coincidence. Or maybe November babies really are physically and mentally inferior? It can’t possibly be that the system is consistently rigged against them, right?

    Of course, hockey is less important than other aspects of life, but the mechanisms of systematic discrimination are the same. I’m not the one “making myself feel better” here.

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  21. HarvardLaw92 says:

    @DrDaveT:

    I said “we will have to disagree” because I think your theory of systemic discrimination is bullshit and I just wasn’t interested in pages of defense of it. If you set out with the presumption that something exists, you’ll keep looking until you find something that can be twisted enough to validate it. You can believe whatever you like. I’m fine with what I believe.