NPR’s Guy Raz examines the history of the military’s recruiting efforts targeting blacks as he explores the reasons for a recent dropoff in black military recruits.
Listen to the NPR story, from Monday’s Morning Edition, here. Transcript:
All four service branches of the military are reporting dramatically lower rates of enlistment by African-Americans.
Traditionally, a quarter of all new recruits have been black. But since the start of the war in Iraq four years ago, the number of new black recruits has dropped by almost half. Despite an aggressive push by the Pentagon to recruit among black youths, the campaign has faltered.
Why such a drop? It has to do in large part with opposition to the war, said Curtis Gilroy, the Pentagon’s director of accession policy. “It began about four years ago,” he said.
In 1973, the military ended the draft and the services had to rethink their marketing efforts to get volunteers to join.
The Navy turned to rhythm and blues star Lou Rawls: “If you have what it takes,” stated the advertisement by Rawls, “the Navy can be your open door to a great future.”
You could say that the campaign worked. In the years after Vietnam, African-Americans became what you might call a backbone of the services — about a quarter of the military population.
But since 2003, black enlistment has plummeted, marking the steepest decline since the draft ended in 1973.
The Pentagon’s marketers may not turn to popular musicians this time to attract young African-Americans, as many hip-hop artists, such as superstar Ludacris, have lyrics that are critical of the war.
“And everybody in the hood is mad ’cause President Bush could give a damn,” starts the refrain of “Slap,” the new single by Ludacris. “Troops gone and we still at war; nobody even really knows what for.”
Retired Navy Commander Gregory Black, who runs the Web site BlackMilitaryWorld.com, said, “A lot of us really don’t understand what this war is about. All we know is we’re fighting halfway around the world – people of color.”
Black was an ROTC recruiter who focused on getting young African-Americans to join. His selling point was simple: The post-Vietnam military has been a beacon of fairness when it comes to advancement.
“Knowing that, African-Americans have always chosen the military as a second option to going on to college,” he added.
But recently that “second option” has been ignored by a lot of young African-Americans.
Gilroy has his theories about why that is.
“One explanation for that might be the influencers within the black community. African-American leaders have been not sympathetic to the administration’s policy and also national foreign policy.”
On a recent Sunday at Plymouth Congregational Church in Washington, the Rev. Graylon Hagler described Jesus Christ as radical.
“Remember that the military is really the police force for corporate interests,” he said.
The plummeting black enlistment rates don’t surprise Hagler. He doesn’t encourage his young congregants to enlist, and he’s not surprised that those dropping numbers track closely with the start of the Iraq war, he said.
“There was a doubt in the black community to begin with. If you talked to people in the black community, people were talking about, ‘We’ve gone to war for oil; we went to war for Halliburton; we went to war for all those kinds of things,” he said. “Who’s going to go fight for something like that?”
In the church basement is 16-year-old Garret Sumlar. He’s tall, fit, smart – everything the military is looking for in a new recruit. But, despite the high cost of tuition, his post-graduation plans do not include the military.
“Not worth it,” Sumlar said. “I just wouldn’t do it, because killing is not an answer.”
When the downward trend started, the Pentagon conducted a poll of high school students, and only 9 percent of black youths said they’d consider enlisting.
It’s too early to tell whether there has been an overall drop in the military’s black population, but as black servicemen and women retire, and fewer, younger African-Americans join, the percentage of blacks in the U.S. military since Vietnam could, in just a couple of years, hit an all-time low.