Critiquing two new diversity initiatives in the US military

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Secretary of Defense Mark Esper is creating two advisory groups to study and make recommendations on diversity and inclusion in the military. He says that though the military has often been a leader on these issues, it is “not immune to the forces of bias and prejudice — whether visible or invisible, conscious or unconscious.”

Similarly, the Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Michael Gilday, has announced a task force to “look for ways to remove racial barriers and improve inclusion.”

Both are on the right track. But there’s plenty of room for improvement. 

In 1968, when I was at Navy Officer Candidate School, there were no Black classmates in my company and few, if any, in the entire cohort of would-be officers. When I went to sea, there was only one Black officer in our ever-changing wardroom of 20-plus officers. There were plenty of Black enlisted sailors, however. I was a supply officer, and most of them worked for me in the lower decks — in the ship’s laundry, galley, barbershops and ship’s store. 

Fast forward to 1990 when I reported to the Pentagon as an assistant secretary in the Department of the Army. Our under-secretary and my three-star military deputy were Black. Virtually none of the rest of the Army’s top leadership, military or civilian, was Black. Jump ahead again to 2007, and I’m back in the Pentagon first as an assistant secretary of the Navy and later as an acting undersecretary of defense. Again, I observed a near-total absence of Blacks in the senior military or civilian positions in either the Navy or the office of the secretary of defense.

How can this be?  Has nothing changed over five decades? That’s wrong; of course, there has been a lot of effort. But success has been elusive. 

Take, for instance, the recruiting of minorities into the service academies. A 2010 study by RAND found that Blacks had significantly lower graduation rates than Whites and also tended to have lower initial service obligation completion rates. At 15 years after graduation, only 23 percent of Black (and Hispanic) graduates remained in the service, compared with one-third of White (and Asian) graduates.  

Losing Black officers at higher rates is a problem because the military grows its leaders, developing and promoting officers through structured career tracks, training, experience, education, performance, and mentoring. There’s virtually no opportunity to replace a lost Black officer in mid-career.

Esper wants to create “an enterprise-wide, organizational and cultural shift.” What might that mean if we’re not to end up with more of the same?

A student of mine, Danelle Gamble, wrote her Master’s thesis on inequalities inside the military. She argues that despite efforts to promote diversity and inclusion through policy change and programs aimed at solutions for specific problems, there has been little awareness or acknowledgment of powerful historical and social forces. These forces have cultivated a persistent, highly resistant culture and mindset that influence race relations today. Esper’s groups and Gilday’s task force should begin by considering two essential factors.

First, both groups should acknowledge that the preferences and norms of the White majority in American society permeate the military culture. People are expected to look and act in ways the majority preferences. As a result, minority cultures and attributes are often viewed to be outside the norm. Just think of hairstyles.

Second, the military must acknowledge that systemic social inequalities exist within its ranks and that these have centuries-long historical inertia. My Black laundrymen were there because historically, that was where society had placed them. 

The projection of majority norms and historical frames of references are learned behaviors that cannot be overcome through mandatory EEO training. They must be re-learned through conscious practice and self-reflection.

Which brings us to Ms. Gamble’s final argument. Military leaders must become personally invested in challenging the system from which inequalities arise due to majority preferences, social biases, and historical influences.

The actions taken by Esper and Gilday could change how the military addresses the issues of race, diversity, and inclusion. But only if the discussion embraces these essential elements before beginning to prescribe more of the same specific solutions.

Douglas A. Brook is a visiting professor at the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University.

Tags Diversity Mark Esper U.S. Military

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