By LaKeshia N. Myers
“The army doesn’t have a quota for niggers” is what Pearle Mack was told when he went to his local post office to voluntarily enlist in the US army. The day before, December 7, 1941, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, ensuring America’s participation in World War II. Unbeknownst to the recruiter, the army did have a quota—because of the Selective Service Act of 1940, the policy at the time dictated that no more than nine percent of the nation’s armed services could be African American. The nine percent threshold was never achieved and meant the vast majority of Black soldiers were never sent overseas, due to exclusionary requests and discriminatory treatment from foreign governments.
But Pearle Mack tried again, and was accepted. What he experienced was an army divided along the color line. Segregated barracks, mess halls, and officer’s clubs. A highlight of his early army career occurred at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, where he was assigned as the orderly to General Benjamin O. Davis, Sr., the first African American to reach the rank of General in the army. Mack’s job was to prepare the General’s makeshift quarters and ensure Davis’s needs were taken care of, as he was not allowed to stay in the traditional officers’ housing due to his race.
Fast forward to 2023 and we are on the cusp of returning to a majority white, majority male, de facto segregated military once again. Students for Fair Admissions, the plaintiffs who challenged affirmative action in higher education, filed suit this week against the U.S. Naval Academy. With this case, they are seeking to prevent the Naval Academy from taking race into account in the selection of an entering class of midshipmen.
This is problematic for many reasons, but glaringly apparent is the fact that the military remains overwhelmingly white, in both enlisted and officer’s ranks. According to the Washington Post, the share of cadets at the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, N.Y., who identify with a racial or ethnic minority group ramped up from twenty percent in 2000, according to federal education data, to thirty-six percent in 2021. That minority share of midshipmen at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., rose in that time from nineteen percent to thirty-seven percent. Similar trends held at the Air Force and Coast Guard academies.
I am a firm believer that the military’s makeup should be reflective of the country. I also believe that we should strive to ensure equity in opportunities for individuals to serve. The process to earn a place at a military academy is already difficult and taking race into consideration ensures that our nation’s military officers will be diverse.
We have come a long way since 1948, but if we’re not careful, I fear we’ll be in a far worse predicament.