In the almost fifty years since President Harry S. Truman ordered
the desegregation of the military, the United States armed forces have
fostered equal opportunity on a scale that few other institutions have
Affirmative action programs, particularly those practiced by the
U.S. Army, have been touted as models for civilian society. Black
military leaders, such as retired Army General Colin Powell, the first
African American Chief of Staff, have been hailed as American heroes.
In fact, the integration of the army officer corps far surpasses that
of the management ranks throughout corporate America as well as that of
the faculty and administration at most traditionally White institutions.
Commentators noting differences in the racial climate in the
military and higher education routinely say social interaction between
Blacks and Whites is much higher on military bases than on college
Before the 1948 desegregation order, Black soldiers had valiantly
fought for the American cause in wars and military conflicts dating
back to Colonial times, but were accorded little of the opportunity and
recognition that they received in the post-World War II era. In the
American Revolution, Blacks and Whites fought side-by-side in
integrated militia units. In subsequent wars, however, the military
contributions of African Americans would come largely while they were
confined to segregated units.
Desegregation of the U.S. military changed all of that. The early
years of desegregation, though marked by racial tension, would help the
military become, in the eyes of many African Americans, a favored
option for improving one’s educational anti economic prospects. Dr.
Reginald Wilson, a senior scholar at the American Council on Education
(ACE), says President Truman’s decision to desegregate the military led
to a sea change in the African American community’s perception of
“When Truman integrated the military, it made a world of
difference,” says Wilson. “The armed forces became more attractive to
those who would volunteer because of economic reasons.”
In the post-Vietnam War period, the move to the all-volunteer force
and the aggressive use of affirmative action would allow the military
to transform itself into a more racially progressive institution.
Though integrating the ranks of enlisted soldiers was readily achieved
in all branches of the military following the Truman desegregation
order, integrating the officer corps would require the more aggressive
effort that the army embraced in the years following the Vietnam War.
Dr. John Sibley Butler, co-author of All That We Can Be: Black
Leadership and Racial Integration the Army Way, says the army emerged
as a leader in creating equal opportunity for its Black soldiers out of
necessity. The professor of sociology and management at the University
of Texas says that army leaders recognized that the effectiveness of
the army as a military organization depended upon successful
integration and fostering non-discrimination.
“The army didn’t set out to solve its race problem because it was a
nice thing to do,” Butler says. “They had to do it to preserve the
During the Vietnam War, racial conflict within America’s armed
forces had grown commonplace, which was a marked contrast to the racial
climate during the peacetime years following the Korean War. In the
army, the lack of Black officers, perceived discrimination against
Blacks, and open racial hostility were cited as reasons for the
negative racial climate that plagued that branch during that time.
Army leaders subsequently took aggressive measures to foster racial
tolerance and to have full integration throughout its ranks. Part of
the initiative to increase the numbers of Black officers in the army
resulted with the expansion of ROTC programs at historically Black cob
leges anti universities.
In All That We Can Be, Butler and co-author Charles C. Moskos,
write, “the number of Black senior [non-commissioned officers] grew
from 14 percent in the 1970s to 26 percent in 1980 to 31 percent in
1990….[Among] commissioned officers, the proportion of Blacks grew
from 3 percent in 1970 to 7 percent in percent in 1980 to 11 percent in
Blacks currently comprise 11 percent of the army officer corps; 6
percent of air force officers; 5.9 percent of navy officers and 6.2
percent of marine officers. “Most officers, however, [W]hite or
[B]lack, come not from West Point but from the campus-based detachments
of ROTC,” according to Moskos and Butler.
The authors explain that the army has relied upon a “supply side”
model of affirmative action, which concentrates initially on building
up a pool of qualified minority candidates before promoting them into
positions. Butler says most affirmative action programs follow a
“demand” model where goals are set “before attempting to enlarge the
pool of qualified people.”
In recruiting potential Black officers, the army has devoted
resources to helping students at its ROTC programs at HBCUs meet proper
standards with academic skills training courses, according to the
Butler says he believes that the army’s success with affirmative
action and racial tolerance can be transferred to other institutions,
such as higher education anti business. One of the difficulties he
faces as a management consultant advising companies on creating “equal
opportunity” is that few people are aware of how military organizations
function. That is because military experience was once common to a
larger proportion of society than it is now, the scholar says.
However, Butler is optimistic about the lessons the army experience holds for the rest of society.
“It has shown us how an organization can create equal opportunity when it’s vital to its survival,” he says.
COPYRIGHT 1997 Cox, Matthews & Associates
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