America’s Counting on the Army: Revisiting Why Black Officers Fail

By: Kate Campbell
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The United States Army has long stood at the center of racial justice in America. However, the Army continues to alternate between the positions of a pioneer and a late bloomer. In the moments when it stood at the forefront of change, the Army did so at an impressive speed, accomplishing the feat of desegregation in the ranks within five years of Truman’s 1948 executive order (Moskos, 1957, pp. 27). At the time, leading military scholar Charles Moskos declared that the Army had “defeated Jim Crow ” and become the “microsociety” that could be used to predict the effects of forced integration in America (pp. 28). Thirty years later, Moskos revisited his claim, declaring the first generation of Black service members a success, particularly because Black officers occupied more management positions than in any other sector of American society (1986).

It came as no small surprise, then, when less than a decade later now-retired Brigadier General Remo Butler argued against Moskos’ popular claim of Black success within the Army with “Why Black Officers Fail” in 1995. Attributing a lack of cultural understanding to Black officers falling behind their white counterparts in lieutenant colonel (LTC) and above promotions, Butler left his reader with an important point: “We must acknowledge that we have these biases (and then) we can start to work through them” (pp.23).

Yet over two decades passed before the Army admitted it had a race issue, much less adopted substantive steps towards change. No longer a trailblazer in social reform, by the early 2000’s the Army saw racial justice as a secondary issue, and instead, stood as an advocate of the post-racial narrative. By 2002, the Defense Equal Opportunity Management Institute (DEOMI) published a report that asserted that although there was evidence of racism in the Armed Services, “most would agree that overt racism and racial discrimination do not exist given the current regulations, instructions, guidelines, and zero tolerance policies” (16). 

By the time Barack Obama became the first Black Commander-in-Chief, this narrative had only solidified. The 44th President gave Americans of all backgrounds a sense of hope, one that began to feel powerful enough to reconcile the United States’ disturbing and ongoing challenges with racism. Even President Obama’s campaign poster was symbolic of the changing times; he opted out of his natural skin tone to instead be painted red, white, and blue to send a clear message: the values of this country have united us enough to surmount issues of race. Conveniently, this narrative nearly mirrors the common Army saying “we’re all green”, fitting in neatly with the armed forces’ false narrative of color-blind ranks at that time.

 If this had been true, then certainly Colonel (retired) Irving Smith III would not have needed to follow-up Butler’s article with a startling update in 2010: little had changed since 1995 and the Army still needed a new approach to tackling racism. Smith’s article, “Why Black Officers Still Fail” made it clear that progress was dependent on Black officers rising to the strategic decision-making levels within the ranks. Smith published his article in 2010, during the last two years of President Obama’s first term, and at a time when the nation was in a state of racial bliss, or at least superficially. Americans from all backgrounds were stunned and elated to have a Black president, and this new reality encouraged talk of a post-racial world led by America. Instances of police brutality were still widespread, Black Americans were still arrested at rates far higher than their counterparts, and military bases still held the names of Confederate generals, but the larger consensus in America (and by default, the Armed Forces) was that race was not an urgent issue.

Perhaps quarantining allowed millions of isolated Americans to pay more attention, or perhaps Breonna Taylor’ and George Floyd’s deaths were the breaking point to long-building tension, but in 2020 the Army’s willingness to address race changed again. Senior leaders from all branches began to publish letters against racism, holding Soldiers and leaders of all ranks accountable for positive change in the organization. Already, we are witnessing the Army transforming its stance on its dominant ideologies, policies, and practices surrounding race, signifying that it has again decided to position itself as a pioneer. But a stance is only the first step. In order to continue to make our Army a better and more inclusive space for all service members, we must continue to not only address but integrate policies, programs, and initiatives that are relevant to inclusion and anti-racism. COL (R) Irving Smith III provides the following recommendations outlined in his 2010 article “Why Black Officers Still Fail”, all of which will direct us as we implement programs, initiatives, and policies to permanently address the Army’s issue with racial injustice:

  1. The institution needs to move beyond the concept of managing diversity to actually developing a diversity execution strategy.
  2. Senior leaders have to communicate precisely why diversity is important.
  3. The Army needs to develop quantitative and qualitative criteria that will permit it to measure the impact of diversity efforts.
  4. the Army needs to select the right individuals to lead its diversity office. The right people are those with the appropriate education, experience level, organizational knowledge, and passion to accomplish the mission.
  5. The Army needs to undertake the development of a talent management enterprise.
  6. The Army needs to inspire its senior black officers to have a stake in the development of junior black officers.

We have yet to move forward to the point where race is no longer a negative factor in a service member’s career, nor should we conclude that simplistic, glossed-over discussions will solve racial disparities in the Army. Because we have progressed so little since “Why Black Officers Still Fail”, COL Smith’s recommendations continue to be a useful framework with which we must move forward in order to be at the forefront of social change.

The first point in COL Smith’s guidance to senior leaders was to develop a meaningful diversity execution strategy. This entails moving past superficial slogans, rhetoric, and initiatives (Smith, 2010, pp.14) that may appear to be effective, but only confront discrimination at the surface level. Like many organizations in and outside of the Armed Forces, the Army has been guilty of this. This is not to diminish the importance of visual representation, but rather, to encourage leaders within our organization to push past the assumption that the mere presentation of diversity is enough. Given the choice of any subject– Sexual Harassment/Assault Response Program (SHARP), Equal Opportunity (EO), recruitment, etc.–there is a notable variety of skin tones, body types, and rank amongst the service members featured in these initiatives. Implicitly, each of these posters in our unit hallways are sending a message that promotes diversity, and thus, have a degree of positive impact. There is research to support the positive impact of visuals like those the Army has been using. Offering insights into the Army’s race-related issues, a 2020 study conducted by GLAAD and Proctor and Gamble (P&G) concluded that greater exposure to inclusive media images of LGBTQ characters leads to greater acceptance.

However, a truly inclusive environment must delve deeper than image-based diversity because there is far more to a diverse organization than a variety of skin-tones, hair textures, and body types. This is where GLAAD and P&G began to delve deeper, concluding that acceptance and progress will require them to represent their minority demographics with authenticity and accuracy, ensuring that they are never stereotyping or misappropriating (pp.1). Although P&G teamed with GLAAD in order to better understand how to realistically portray the LGBTQ community, this study also offers an important framework that aligns with COL Smith’s proposals to address race-based discrimination. 

Understanding this, the Army’s color-filled posters are an important starting point, but not close to signifying a truly inclusive message. Thankfully, last year began an important transformation towards meaningful diversity strategies. Mirroring the next three of COL(R) Smith’s proposed solutions, the Army began to tackle race-based performance disparities and discrimination with the following: having senior leaders communicate why diversity is important, developing quantitative and qualitative criteria that will permit it to measure the impact of diversity efforts, and hiring the right people to spearhead diversity efforts. Arguably, the combined decision of our senior leaders to speak on racism within our ranks was the most important step the Army made in tackling racism. As Remo Butler emphasized, it meant someone of high visibility acknowledged that the issue was real. The first response began in late May, just days after George Floyd was killed by former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin. Less than a week later, when Kaleth Wright, the second Black man to hold the position of Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force, addressed the world the pain and frustration in his words were palpable. As he immediately made clear, Wright was not speaking as a high-ranking senior leader who happened to be Black, but rather as a Black man who could have easily been Tamir Rice, George Floyd, Michael Brown, Philando Castile, and Alton Sterling (McLaughlin 2020).  His call for justice was the furthest thing from removed and formal, and rather, Wright posted his words through Twitter, making his message accessible and relatable to any Soldier. Less than two days later, then-Defense Secretary Mark Esper released a statement and held a press conference addressing the national unrest. Other senior leaders followed suit. Across all branches, their response signified the value all service members were raised on: the best leaders lead from the front.

Soon after, the Department of Defense issued a memorandum for senior Pentagon leadership outlining 15 recommendations that would allow “rigorous actions to address diversity and inclusion” (Garamone, 2020). Ranging from removing discriminatory aptitude test barriers to establishing a diversity Center of Excellence, all of the upcoming initiatives have the promise to address the need for measurable criteria and qualified individuals to tackle the issue. Notably, several of the recommendations have a deadline of 31 March 2021. Reinforcing the upcoming recommendations, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin mandated an Army-wide stand down day against extremism to occur in March of 2021 and created a new position to have an advisor on human capital, diversity, equity, and inclusion. As we approach the deadline for these policies’ implementation, we will have to wait to evaluate their long-lasting impact but bringing them into existence is a step towards progress on the part of our senior leadership.

That being so, the Army is clearly making decisions that are headed toward a stronger, racially aware workforce, but it will be years before Soldiers and officers feel the impact of the upcoming initiatives. In the meantime, our organization must foster the talent that it currently has. COL(R) Smith’s final recommendations to senior leaders: talent management and retention of good officers needs to be emphasized. Before we can even confront the issue of talent management, however, we must first retain the current generation of junior Black officers. Within his article, COL (R) Smith especially emphasizes that junior Black officers need mentorship from senior Black officers, a point that holds merit. In an experiment completed in 2019 at the United States Military Academy, researchers concluded that “Black cadets paired with Black officers are 6.1 percentage points more likely to pick their role model’s branch than if the Black cadet had worked with a white officer.” (Kofoed & McGoveny, 2018, pp. 430) As this study reinforces, representation undoubtedly matters, especially for Black officers who often surmount cultural barriers in addition to having to prove their competence. Not only can a Black senior leader best explain how to navigate the Army, but they also have the potential to better communicate empathetically with their junior counterpart. Still, senior leaders of all backgrounds need to be held accountable for how they mentor Black officers.  A common conclusion amongst today’s Army leadership is that combat arms black officers need to mentor the next generation of black officers to pick the same branch, stay in the Army, and eventually make transformative, anti-racist decisions. Unfortunately, this popular mindset makes too many assumptions. First, it assumes that every black officer is interested in prioritizing diversity, the subject the current generation of senior leaders of all backgrounds were raised as leaders to give little importance. Second, it implies that every black officer is equipped with the right knowledge and resources to address racism, a thinking trap that often leads to minority officers being tasked as the spokesperson for their race during diversity luncheons, commemorative observances, and whenever an equality opportunity issue is presented within a unit. Lastly, a Black officer should not be limited to branching combat arms in order to exact change, and rather, there should be far more opportunities to assist in racial progress.

The better solution, then, is to ensure that ANY officer that will hold a senior leadership position has been trained to promote and prioritize anti-racist ideologies. As COL (R) Smith argues, black officers must be held accountable and asked by their senior leadership what they have done to solve the problem (pp.15). Their white counterparts, however, should be asked the same. If the Army is to move forward, we must do so in unison, holding everyone equally accountable for this problem we have finally agreed to acknowledge.

Service members should feel some relief that the Army is beginning to address the issue of racism, but we must continue to capitalize on the momentum we gained in some of the darkest times in our nation’s recent history. We cannot allow the sacrifices made in 2020 to have no follow-up. No, our only option is to take advantage of the momentum we gained in 2020, confronting racism deliberately and with a genuine conviction to end it. As author Nesrine Malik outlines, diversity has two paths. Its first route is as a means to address structural inequalities that produce the marginalization of those groups in the first place. The second is as an end in itself with no further movement past the appearance of a diverse environment (2020). At its worst, our organization can embrace the latter and implement superficial changes without truly embracing its minority newcomers for their unique talents and contributions. Better yet, continuing to deliberately address these issues gives it the potential to be a trailblazer for the remainder of its society to emulate. The Army has steered the remainder of the country towards radical racial change before, and even in our current divide, it has the potential to do so again. Will it continue to rise to the challenge?

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1LT Kate Campbell currently serves as a Maintenance Platoon Leader in 125th Forward Support Company, 1-94 FAR at Joint-Base Lewis McChord, WA. She is a Center for Junior Officers Leadership Fellow.

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Butler, R. (1995, April 15) Why Black Officers Fail in the United States Army. USAWC Strategy Research Project. 1-30. https://apps.dtic.mil/dtic/tr/fulltext/u2/a309248.pdf.

Kofoed, M.S., McGoveny, E. (2018, November 30) The Effect of Same-Gender or Same-Race Role Models on Occupation Choice. The Journal of Human Resources 50 (2), 430-467.

Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD), Proctor and Gamble (P&G). (2019). LGBTQ Inclusion in Advertising & Media. 1-3. https://www.glaad.org/sites/default/files/P%26G_AdvertisingResearch.pdf

Garamone, J. (2020, December 18). Acting Secretary Accepts Inclusion Board’s 15 Recommendations. Department of Defense (DOD) News. https://www.defense.gov/Explore/News/Article/Article/2452807/acting-secretary-accepts-inclusion-boards-15-recommendations.

Malik, N. (2020, December 7). Joe Biden’s drive for diversity in top political jobs is only an illusion for change. The Guardian. www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/dec/07/biden-diversity-top-political-jobs-illusion-change-america.

McLaughlin, E. (2020, June 3). Air Force leader’s impassioned tweets spark candid conversation about racism in America: “I am George Floyd”. ABC News.  

Moskos, C. C. (1957). Has the Army Killed Jim Crow? Negro History Bulletin, 21 (2), 27–29.

Moskos, C.C. (1986). Success Story: Blacks in the Military. The Atlantic. Retrieved from http://theatlantic.com/magazine/archive.

Smith, I., III. (2010). Why Black Officers Still Fail. U.S. Army War College. 1-16. https://apps.dtic.mil/sti/pdfs/ADA538597.pdf