Vice Adm. Michelle Howard is recognized Feb. 7 during the 9th Annual Black Engineer of the Year Stars and Stripes Dinner for her many trailblazing accomplishments in the Navy. While the percentage of blacks in the military has grown significantly since President Truman signed an order in 1948 ending segregation in the ranks, percentages of black soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines have edged lower in recent years. (MCC(SW/EXW) Peter D. Lawlor / Navy)
Michelle Howard, soon to be second-in-command of the Navy, still recalls her days fresh out of the Naval Academy, when she was the only woman and only black in a crowd of officers.
“You look around the room, and there’s nobody who looks or sounds like you,” says the vice admiral, who has been approved for a fourth star and promotion to vice chief of naval operations, the Navy’s No. 2-ranking officer. “It can make you take your breath in.”
Howard, 53, makes history as the first black woman to hold a four-star rank in America’s military. She joins five other African-American four-star commanders — the highest possible rank — already serving in the Army, Air Force and Navy.
“It is very, very, to me, heartwarming to see the numbers of African-American senior ranking ... minorities who have progressed in each of the services,” says retired Air Force general Lester Lyles, who is black and chaired the Military Leadership Diversity Commission, established by Congress in 2009.
Eighty-one African Americans hold a general officer rank in the U.S. military.
But while the percentage of blacks in the military has grown significantly since President Truman signed an order in 1948 ending segregation in the ranks, Lyles and others who have studied the issue concede that work to diversify the force is far from over.
Despite achievements by Howard and her contemporaries to reach the highest ranks, raw percentages of black soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines have actually edged lower in recent years.
Today, about one in five soldiers are black, compared with nearly 27 percent in 1985 and 1995, according to Army figures. The share of black soldiers is still larger than the 17 percent of the U.S. population who are African Americans of military enlistment age and education.
Representation in the Navy also has slipped slightly: 21 percent of its ranks were black enlisted sailors in 2005, compared with 17 percent today. The Air Force has remained fairly steady for nearly 30 years with about 17 percent of its enlisted personnel being African American.
The smallest representation of blacks is in the Marine Corps, which has seen its rate of enlisted African Americans decline from more than 20 percent in 1985 to about one in 10 today, Pentagon numbers show.
In a statement, the Marine Corps said the commandant, Gen. James Amos, created four diversity task forces last year, each led by a general officer. The goal is developing ways to “remove potential barriers for Marines to compete on merit for leadership positions.”
The percentage of black officers in the services has remained fairly steady since 1995 — about 5 percent to 7 percent in the Navy, Air Force and Marines, and 10 percent to 15 percent in the Army. About 8 percent of the American population of similar age and education to a military officer are black.
The Army analyzed its thinning ranks of black soldiers in a 2010 study and found that while the military traditionally was a place for advancement for African Americans after Truman desegregated the force in 1948, the same has not been true in recent decades.
Surveys show that the percentage of black youth interested in serving had fallen sharply, from 26 percent in 1985 to 10 percent in 2009. Research indicated that a key factor was a decrease in support for military service among black “influencers” — political leaders, teachers and parents — during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, the Army found.
The Army issued a statement saying it now devotes a third of its recruitment marketing campaign to attracting minorities and winning over parents, educators, clergy and coaches.
About half of African-American soldiers in 2009 were choosing, or being chosen for, service support jobs, such as cooks or maintenance workers. Only 24 percent served in combat arms, which is traditionally associated with greater advancement through the ranks.
Although blacks in 2013 were still working in largely the same Army jobs — 22 percent in combat arms and 46 percent in support positions — there are signs that attitudes about the service may be changing.
A survey of young African Americans found that 17 percent in 2013 showed interest in choosing the Army, up from 10 percent in 2009.
Lyles says another important factor limiting the number of minorities in the military is the improved career and educational choices in the private sector.
“Far more so,” he says, “than 20, 30 years ago, when in some respects the military was looked at as the place for minorities to go to have an opportunity to succeed and improve themselves, to get a better education.”
The result, Lyles says, is that the military must work harder to attract minorities in a more competitive career and educational environment.
“Everybody needs to be able to contribute,” he says. “We need to be able to look toward anybody to fulfill our needs and not just one segment.”
One of his panel members, Frank Wu, chancellor and dean of the University of California Hastings College of the Law, says another factor hindering diversity efforts is one that still exists in many areas of society: subtle biases.
“The military reflects society, and that’s part of our society,” Wu says.
The commission in 2011 recommended that blacks and other minorities in uniform be educated about military career choices and maximizing avenues toward advancement.
The commission also urged the creation of a Pentagon diversity chief who would report directly to the secretary of Defense. That post was established in 2012, although the current director, Clarence Johnson, reports to the undersecretary for personnel and readiness.
Johnson has held the position for nearly a year and says the military is achieving diversity, but much work remains to be done. He says a key concern is cultivating minority leaders for the future — noting, for example, that only 6 percent of cadets in the military academies are black.
Howard, who will receive her fourth star in the spring, says minorities will fill more command positions in the future only if sufficient numbers are brought into the ranks today.
“We have to grow people with the experience,” she says. “That group of people that you start with in that year — 20, 25 years later, are going to be the group from which you select a commanding officer.”