Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Race and Military Service

I often rely on my partner for analysis of race and color: he grew up the only white boy in a village in West Africa, and majored in post-colonial studies in college. So I am bad at catching my own foibles, unfortunately. I realized after I posted here and at feministing that I hadn't touched on race issues in the military. So here's a few tidbits:

African Americans in particular are seriously overrepresented in the military; African American women make up almost half of servicewomen, while they make up only 13% of the country. Black men are also overrepresented, though not as much as women: 30% of military men are black. There are a variety of reasons for this.

The South is also overrepresented in the US military; African Americans may be 13% or so in the nation overall, but most (56%, according to wikipedia) live in the South--perhaps this accounts for some of the disparity. Another argument is that the military recruits/exploits the most economically vulnerable; African American women as a demographic group certainly are economically vulnerable.

It is often noted that lower socioeconomic classes make up most of the military, and therefore is an exploitative institution. Certainly there is merit in this argument, but remember that sometimes one person's exploitation is another's opportunity. Think of it as the difference between active and passive voices: the poor are frequently recruited by the military vs. the poor often enlist in the military. Who is the actor in each sentence? Who has the volition, the choice? Even exploitation by the military does not preclude choice of the military by the individual. Given few choices, I would pick the best one, even if it came with caveats and gotchas. While it's important to recognize the coercive contexts in which people make choices, it's unfair and inappropriate to claim they didn't make a choice at all. Women frequently choose to enlist because of the benefits they will get (which she needs, and can't get anywhere else--thus the coercive aspect).

While researching my thesis, I came upon an interesting study. While enlisted African American Navy women had many complaints about sexism and racism in the service, when asked why they stayed they replied that it was much better in the military than out. This was one of the few explicit acknowledgements by an academic that the military, though flawed, might be better than civilian life in some way. Military women come to this conclusion far more often.

The US military is also regarded as the first large institution to effectively desegregate, and probably the least racist large institution in America.While problems obviously remain, the women in the above study are not the only African Americans to find the service less racist than the outside world.

1 comment:

  1. Hi, I'm a firstie at USMA--saw your response at feministing and agreed whole-heartedly. I'm currently taking a military sociology class, and there's a lot of info about the race and population issue there. Have you looked at Segal & Segal's population bulletin for the military? It addresses race and class representation, geographic representation, and digs a little into BRAC issues that affect geographic representation (large bases in economically depressed areas in the south). My P, Dr. Morten Ender, has written some great stuff in this field, and has a forthcoming book about McSoldiers vs. Professionals that should be good.

    I totally agree on race. As a white woman, I dated a black man (fellow cadet) with no racial issues from anyone (except slightly antsy neo-con parents). There's no way I would have had a similar experience in the crazily stratified rural area of Maryland I grew up in.

    Looking forward to following this!