Analysis: Are soldiers black and poor?

STEVE SAILER, UPI National Correspondent

LOS ANGELES, Jan. 15 (UPI) -- Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., a Korean War veteran, has introduced a bill to reinstate the military draft, arguing, "A disproportionate number of the poor and members of minority groups make up the enlisted ranks of the [volunteer] military..."

Indeed, in a little noticed development, the percentage of military personnel who were minorities shot upward during the years from 1995 to 2000, with enlisted ranks rising from 28 percent to 38 percent minority (compared to 30 percent of the national population), and the officer corps growing from 11 percent to 19 percent.


The booming economy of the late 1990s may have made it harder for the Pentagon to recruit whites, who tend to enjoy more lucrative opportunities in the civilian economy than do blacks or Hispanics.

Blacks are found disproportionately in the military, while Hispanic residents, many of whom are not citizens, are slightly underrepresented. Blacks are found most heavily in the Army and are least common in the Air Force.

Contrary to popular belief, blacks have not died in combat in disproportionate numbers, even in Vietnam. Two leading military sociologists, Charles Moskos of Northwestern and John Sibley Butler of the University of Texas, researched this carefully for their 1996 book "All We Can Be: Black Leadership and Racial Integration the Army Way."


They reported, "Black fatalities amounted to 12.1 percent of all Americans killed in Southeast Asia -- a figure proportional to the number of blacks in the U.S. population at the time and slightly lower than the proportion of blacks in the Army at the close of the war."

(Moskos favors reinstituting the draft. He says Rangel's argument "persuasive" but that the most important reason is that the military is undermanned and relies too heavily on reserves.)

In recent decades, blacks have tended to gravitate away from combat jobs. In arguing against Rangel's bill, the Department of Defense noted, "Blacks today account for 21 percent of the enlisted force, but make up only 15 percent of combat arms (e.g., infantry, armor, artillery)."

African-Americans make up about 13 percent of young adults, so they are still somewhat over-represented in combat positions.

"In contrast, blacks account for 36 percent of Functional Support and Administration and 27 percent of Medical and Dental career fields. "

Interestingly, the military today seems to attract pugnacious whites and pragmatic blacks. Analysts have suggested that more young white men see the infantry as a way, in the words of one, to "play Rambo" from age 18 to 22, then go to college using military tuition benefits. In contrast, blacks often view the military as either a long-term career in itself, or as a way to get practical training for a civilian white-collar career.


Are soldiers the products of particularly poor families? In general, the enlisted ranks come from neither the top nor the bottom of society, but from working and middle class backgrounds. Very few enlistees appear to be the scions of the wealthy. (Some officers are from rich families, however; but a larger proportion of officers are the sons and daughters of officers.)

White enlistees tend to come from households somewhat lower in income than the general white population: $33,500 per year versus $44,400 for the average white, according to 1999 Defense Department statistics. Strikingly, black enlistees come from households above the black national average: $32,000 vs. $27,900.

In fact, on a number of measures, African-American enlistees tend to stand well above the black average and very close to, or above, the mean for white enlistees. The celebrated high degree of racial equality and amity found in the military, especially in the Army, would appear to benefit from the similar backgrounds that black and white soldiers bring to the Army.

Not only do black and white soldiers come from households of almost equal income, but their educational attainments are virtually identical. In 1994, 99 percent of black and 97 percent of white Army enlisted personnel were high school graduates, figures above the national average.


When the Volunteer Army began three decades ago, black recruits had much higher graduation rates that whites. In the late 1970s, according to Moskos and Sibley, 90 percent of black Army enlistees had their degrees, versus only about 40 percent of whites. After the large pay raises of the early 1980s, the Army was able to recruit a better-educated group of youth, so the black advantage narrowed as both groups' graduations rates approached 100 percent.

The racial gap in test scores that bedevils American civilian society is a much smaller problem in the Army.

Moskos and Sibley found that in 1994: "83 percent of white recruits scored in the upper half of the mental aptitude test (compared with 61 percent of white youths in the national population), while 59 percent of black recruits scored in the upper half (compared with 14 percent of the black youths nationwide)."

African-American enlistees are also more likely to come from two-parent families than is the norm among blacks, the Defense Department says.

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