NDIA PERSPECTIVE DEFENSE DEPARTMENT
We Can Do Better Making Military More Diverse
National Archives photo
Throughout U.S. history, the United States military demonstrated reluctance to integrate minorities, arguing their “inferiority” or their presence would negatively impact morale and should prevent them from serving, especially in combat.
However, when given the opportunity, Black Americans consistently demonstrated their fitness on and above the battlefield. As the Defense Department examines current policies and processes, it’s long past time to demand rapid action to deliver a truly diverse, inclusive, equitable force to represent and defend the nation.
Black Americans selflessly served our nation without recognition or gratitude beginning at the country’s inception, but only manpower shortages coupled with significant pressure from abolitionists forced the creation of the first Black Union Army regiments in 1863.
After the Civil War, Congress established six all-Black cavalry and infantry regiments protecting America’s frontier. In the Spanish-American War, the troops of the 9th and 10th Cavalry, and the 24th and 25th Infantry served with distinction. After initially being prevented from entering combat during World War I, the Black 369th Infantry Regiment — the “Harlem Hellfighters”— fought alongside the French, earning many combat honors including a Regimental Croix de Guerre. During World War II, of the 909,000 Black Americans who served in the Army, only the 92nd Infantry Division saw combat in Europe, and it took the intervention of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt to ensure the Tuskegee Airmen had the opportunity to protect American bombers.
With Executive Order 9981, President Harry Truman finally desegregated the armed forces in 1948, a process completed by President Dwight D. Eisenhower when he abolished the last Black unit in 1954.
However, statistics show the military services still fail to include Black Americans fully and equitably.
While the U.S. military boasts racial demographics that generally match the population, Black officers disproportionately fill combat support roles compared to officers of other races and ethnicities. This limits promotion opportunities because military senior leaders overwhelmingly come from combat specialties. Additionally, those in combat roles are not promoted at the same rate as their peers beyond O-6.
In July 2020, the secretary of defense established and tasked the Department of Defense Board on Diversity and Inclusion with researching and identifying diversity challenges and opportunities and providing recommendations for building a more diverse, equitable fighting force.
On Dec. 18, the board released its report, detailing 15 recommendations. Accompanying the release, then-Acting Secretary of Defense Christopher Miller issued a memo directing the department to act on those recommendations.
The report highlights decreasing minority representation as rank increases. Minorities comprise 32 percent of the O-1 Pay Grade. That percentage drops to 14 percent at O-7 and 8 percent at O-10. On the enlisted side, minority representation drops from 51 percent at E-1 to 39 percent at E-9; this varies among the services with some having even more disparate numbers.
Young women and men from minority backgrounds may hesitate to pursue military careers if they don’t perceive viable paths to senior leadership. Additionally, adding diversity to senior ranks should drive cognitive diversity into important operational and strategic decision-making when the United States faces potential conflict.
The National Defense Industrial Association supports all 15 recommendations, but specifically encourages the department to rapidly implement the recommendation calling for the removal of aptitude test barriers that harm the diversity of incoming enlisted and officer candidates. Eliminating biased aptitude tests could provide the most immediate, most significant impact by opening all military positions to all Americans.
Currently, the services use aptitude tests to assess and select prospective volunteers. While research supports the general use of aptitude tests to predict the future performance of individuals, they are imperfect. Studies show, on average, racial minorities tend to score lower because standardized aptitude tests reward preparation over natural aptitude, skewing results toward candidates who can afford test preparation.
A more equitable process would focus on the candidates, their abilities, personalities and character. The report suggests including structured interviews, personality tests, or non-cognitive-based standardized assessments alongside current aptitude tests to more accurately predict the potential of Americans of all backgrounds to serve in the most demanding military specialties.
By implementing the recommendations, the Pentagon can take the first crucial step toward expanding diversity in senior military leadership. Ensuring services equitably consider all enlistees and officer applicants will deliver a broad foundation of high-potential, diverse officers and enlisted personnel, critical to developing a broad bench from which to choose senior leaders.
Further, we need to work to eliminate all barriers to diversity and inclusion. Bringing in a diverse cadre expands the pool of candidates for later promotion. Enhancing continuing education, training, and promotion processes will also help eliminate factors contributing to the precipitous decline in minority representation in senior leadership.
We must work together to effectively implement the board’s recommendations, establishing the foundation to build a truly representative military.
James Boozer is executive vice president and Chris Sax membership coordinator at NDIA.
Topics: Defense Department