Does a Black man have a place in any White man’s army? On a fair July afternoon five years ago, I briefly pondered this question in between deep, apprehensive breaths, while slowly inching towards one of numerous armed forces recruiting centers throughout Los Angeles County and surrounding areas.
For those of you who care to know, I say “White man’s army” in reference to this country’s military force, which has always been, and will, no doubt, continue to be exclusively controlled by White, high-ranking officials. Additionally, Caucasians make up 74 percent of all personnel, a number that has remained steady over time.
Unlike many other enlistment buildings, which normally house one specific military agency, the site I chose in 2006, at 3321 W. Century Blvd., comprises four separate offices, each representing a major branch of service–the Army, Navy, Marines and Air Force. From 8:30 a.m.-5 p.m., Monday-Friday, qualified representatives provide detailed counsel to walk-ins, scheduled applicants and returning prospects, but quickly discourage those who fail to demonstrate serious interest in available options, like I did.
In the days following my visit, I couldn’t help but weigh the pros and cons of military service, while also trying to define a Black man’s role in it.
In one respect, the opportunity to serve my country seemed like an honorable pursuit. Conversely, it all but required that I ignore centuries of African enslavement, and the near-genocide of Native American forbears, two episodes that played a momentous part in how this nation was essentially built and temporarily sustained.
Since the dawn of the Civil Rights Movement, Black academics have challenged the notion that racism doesn’t significantly factor into how the political and social constructs of America are shaped.
Even presently, despite the election of a Black man to the nation’s highest office, accusations of racial inequity and hatred continue to flow freely from the mouths of minority leaders from one coast to the next, and with good reason–many of their indictments are factual.
For starters, racial profiling continues to be a thorn in the side of brown-skinned persons far and wide. Police claim their tactics for weeding out society’s bad seeds are in no way influenced by skin color, place of residence, personal bias, and/or a combination of all three.
But the truth is never difficult to spot, when it’s in a sea of lies. And so the cycle of racial oppression continues unchecked, particularly within urban communities, or so-called high-crime neighborhoods, versus affluent sections of the United States.
In only 22 years of living, I’ve personally, and often, experienced the raw end of calculated discrimination, and can attest to its demoralizing effects. The same can probably be said about a number of other ethnics, who have, at some point in time, been ill-treated by police, the salesclerk at a department store, airport security, and/or the judge in a court of law.
“It sucks,” says a former engineer with the Air Force, who wishes to remain anonymous. “I sacrificed a lot when I joined up–family, friends, my daughter, all of that. But nothing has really changed now that I’m back [home]. I’ve probably been pulled over by police more now than I was before I left.”
Unemployment numbers for Black men are even less encouraging, perhaps, than those for biased policing. According to figures from the U.S. Department of Labor, only 12 percent of all Americans are Black, but those of working age comprise nearly 21 percent of the nation’s unemployed. Young Black males represent a growing chunk of this number, and aren’t expected to gain ground anytime soon, the department believes.
At the same time, however, there are a number of college-educated Black men who have also struggled to secure gainful employment, despite their credentials.
In fact, over the course of the recession, the unemployment disparity between college-educated Blacks and Whites actually widened, says economist Algernon Austin, director of the Race, Ethnicity and Economy program at the Economic Policy Institute in Washington.
“If Black workers who are the most prepared to compete and work in the new economy can’t find jobs–that’s something that we as a country have to take seriously,” he added.
Assuming Austin’s concern is a valid one, and even credentialed Black men will struggle with job security while the economy tries to reinvent itself, then what alternative do those without college pedigrees have in terms of finding employment? Might joining the service be the answer? Or is it backward thinking to fight for a country in which opportunity comes in small, infrequent doses?
Apparently, the former takes the cake–and then some.
Traditionally, in fact, the armed forces have been a saving grace for African Americans, affording a steady paycheck and a chance to explore the world.
According to data released by the Defense Manpower Data Center (DMDC) in 2010, minorities comprised more than one-fourth (25 percent) of active military personnel. Blacks, specifically, account for nearly one-fifth (18 percent) of those on active duty, and that number is projected to grow exponentially in future months due to ongoing job scarcity, inside sources say.
In fact, a dramatic turnaround in military recruiting has been confirmed in several recent reports and studies, with new statistics showing that the Army is experiencing the highest rate of new enlistment in six years.
The Army exceeded its goals each month from October through January–the first quarter of the new fiscal year–for both the active-duty Army and the Army Reserve, according to figures compiled by the U.S. Army Recruiting Command. Officials said it is the first time since the first quarter of 2003’s fiscal year–before the start of the Iraq War–that the Army has started out its recruiting year on such a strong note.
“The military can be more selective–and that’s not just the Army, but across all the branches,” said Fernando Sanjurjo, public affairs specialist for the Army and a 26- year military veteran. “We have people with college degrees coming in quite often now. Five years ago, that wasn’t quite the case.”
As the number of well-educated servicemen and women continues to swell, the demand for newcomers to follow suit is at an all-time high.
“In most cases, you aren’t qualified [for a job] without at least a high school degree,” says Sanjurjo. “You won’t be able to serve for too long without having to gain any college credits either. And you certainly won’t move up in the ranks without them.”
As for GED recipients: “We take very few,” Sanjurjo conceded. “Actually, there’s a 5 percent cap on how many we can move forward with.”
Eligibility for the U.S. Navy isn’t what it used to be either. As a result of the equally substantial increase in its enlistment numbers, GED recipients no longer qualify for entry, and a mandatory 15 transferable college credits has been added to the list of admission requirements, which already includes a high school diploma.
“The competition is fierce, because there are only so many jobs in the military, says Chief Petty Officer Anthony Briggs, a mass communication specialist for the Navy’s media relations division.
He added that waivers for body piercings, prior convictions and tattoos are now especially hard to come by, rather than easily attainable like in years past.
“The economy has made it to where folks are staying in longer. Before, people would just serve the minimum term and go back into the real world,” said Briggs.
“Right now,” he continued, “our focus is finding the right fits for the right jobs versus fill [positions]. “We used to take almost anybody, but that’s no longer case.”
As the terms of enlistment will likely continue to stiffen over time, the question that should be pondered is not what place Black men have in the military of tomorrow, but will there be enough space for them to find out?