Racial Discrimination: An Army Survey

Jan 6, 2009 2:32pm

I’ve been focused on military issues lately – first the veteran vote, then a polling misfire by the Military Times – and now a fascinating new report soon to be published in the journal “Armed Forces & Society,” tackling the issue of racial discrimination in the Army.

As Barack Obama prepares to take office as the first African-American president, the study underscores the work yet to be done beyond his individual accomplishment. It finds significant experiences of discrimination – including reverse discrimination – in the enlisted ranks and among minority officers, but much less so among white officers, whom it describes as “comfortably colorblind.”

The study is based on a rare, representative, random-sample survey of active-duty U.S. Army service members conducted in 2004. Results on partisanship and ideology have been released previously (see my coverage last July). The new report, again by Army Maj. Jason Dempsey and Columbia University Prof. Robert Shapiro, is focused chiefly on Hispanics but includes data across races.

Among the findings:

- Among officers, just 3 percent of whites report experiencing discrimination within their current unit, compared with 27 percent of black and Hispanic officers alike.

- In the enlisted ranks, significant numbers of whites, Hispanics and blacks alike report experiencing racial discrimination within their current unit (22, 19 and 24 percent, respectively). Enlisted whites are in fact somewhat more apt than others to think that their race has hurt them in terms of promotions – 17 percent of enlisted whites think so, vs. 10 percent of Hispanics and 7 percent of blacks.

The study notes that whites make up less than half of senior enlisted ranks; “Ironically,” it says, “the success of minorities in this area has not led to a decrease in discrimination so much as whites now have an equal opportunity to experience racial and ethnic discrimination.”

- Among white officers, 84 percent believe there’s less discrimination in the military than in civilian life. But that drops to 52 percent of enlisted whites and 35 or 36 percent of enlisted blacks and Hispanics.

“The discrepancy between the opinions of white officers and the opinions of minorities on this issue is particularly important given that whites make up over 80 percent of the senior officer ranks and therefore set policy for the Army,” the authors report. Referring to senior Army leaders, they add: “Having had little experience or exposure to discrimination themselves, and believing the Army to have achieved success in the area of racial and ethnic relations, they may not recognize the frequency with which minorities encounter discrimination. In sum, they are comfortably colorblind – unaware of the true prevalence of discrimination.”

To be sure, there also are positive results; for instance, the report says, "In terms of faith in Army leaders and perception of opportunity in the Army, there are no significant differences in attitudes between members of the three groups." And it says blacks, whites and Hispanics report the same level of mentoring opportunities from more senior colleagues.

Moreover, the level of discrimination service members report in their own unit is far lower than the level they report having experienced in civilian life (though the two are not strictly comparable – the former being a two- or three-year-gauge, the latter, a lifetime assessment).

Overall, the authors say, "This absence of differences in outlook about the Army experience should be taken as a sign that racial and ethnic integration is proceeding fairly well. However, the Army still faces challenges in the area of racial and ethnic discrimination."

That conclusion is a reminder of the realities of race relations the country still faces, even at the dawn of the Obama presidency.

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Disclosure and a hat-tip: The second author of this study, Bob Shapiro, works as an election-night consultant for ABC News. The first author, Maj. Jason Dempsey, ships out next week to serve as the operations officer for an infantry battalion in Afghanistan.

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