The reasons for the lack of blacks in the higher ranks are many and complex, ranging from simple career choices to Congress and family recommendations. Most often mentioned is that black recruits are showing less interest in pursuing combat jobs, which are more likely to propel them through the officer ranks.
“Kids I’ve spoken to, who choose to do supply, who choose to do lawyer, who choose to do admin, have the impression that, ‘If I go to Army and become an infantry person, that is not a skill that I can carry to the civilian workforce,’” said Clarence Johnson, director of the Pentagon’s Office of Diversity Management.
Wilson — who specialized in logistics and did not take the combat route — said he does not believe ROTC programs or the military steer black recruits to the non-combat jobs, although that may have been a problem many years ago.
Instead, he said young black officers choose other fields because “they want to prepare for a future outside of the military, and they believe that being in communications, being in logistics will provide them a better opportunity to succeed.”
In 1998, nearly a quarter of all active duty black officers were in various combat fields. As of this month, that had fallen to 20 percent, compared with nearly 40 percent for non-blacks, according to Pentagon data.
This year, roughly half of all black active duty officers gravitated toward supply, maintenance, engineering and administrative jobs — almost double the rate of non-black officers.
“That tells me, honestly, over the years the pipeline for those blacks going to general officer is not going to be markedly improved above what it is now,” Johnson said.
He said he hears recruits say, “I’m joining this ROTC thing, so that when I get out in four years or eight years, whatever time frame it is, I want a skill I can use.”
Army Lt. Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III, the No. 2 U.S. commander in Iraq, echoes those pipeline concerns.
“It’s all about how many people you put in the front end of the pipe,” Austin said in an interview from Baghdad. “It’s very difficult for anybody to get to be a colonel or general in any branch of the service if you don’t have enough young officers coming in.”
Austin took the combat path to his three-star rank, starting as an infantryman and tactical officer. Later — as a general officer — he commanded troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The forces he sees now, he said, are far more diverse than when he graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in 1975. Then, he said, blacks made up only about 2.5 percent of the Army’s general officer corps.
“We treasure diversity because it brings in a lot of different viewpoints and blends in a lot of cultures,” he said. “It makes us better.”
Another stumbling block is getting more members of minority groups into the military academies.
While white cadets often come from families steeped in military history, black students may not have that long line of ancestral officers.
A review of congressional nominations to the military academies shows that black and Hispanic lawmakers often recommend fewer students.
The fewest appointments to the academies came from U.S. Rep. Nydia Velázquez, D-N.Y., who forwarded just three names for the classes of 2009-2012. Two other members of Congress — Massachusetts Democrat Michael Capuano and New York Democrat José Serrano— sent up five names.
According to Pentagon data, the number of lawmakers who failed to nominate at least one candidate to each academy increased from 24 in 2005 to 38 this year. Of the 75 lawmakers overall who did not nominate someone to each academy in all four years, 40 were either black or Hispanic.
Senior black officers say they work hard to mentor younger troops, and they can all recall the people who helped shape their careers. And not all of them were black.
Navy Rear Adm. Sinclair Harris vividly remembers his white commander on the frigate USS Jarrett — a tough Pittsburgh Steelers fan from western Pennsylvania.
“Tough love,” said Harris, who was a lieutenant at the time. “He insisted I take my command qualifications test, and when I didn’t do good, he had me take it again.”
Harris, deputy director for expeditionary warfare for the Navy chief, said networking and relationships are critical. But he cautions that mentoring is a two-way street that hinges on what the recruits do with the help they get.
“You can’t get lazy in this man and this woman’s Navy,” he said. “You have to keep learning to stay ahead.”