Racial Integration in the US Army -

Any Lessons for South Africa?*

Prof Charles Moskos
Northwestern University, Chicago

This article follows an intensive two week tour of South Africa by Prof. Moskos during August 1993 as a guest of USIS and IDP

Published in African Defence Review Issue No 15, 1994


The American military has attained a level of racial integration and black achievement unequaled in any other institution in the United States. How this came to be is the main subject of this article. l conclude with a tentative assessment of what lessons, if any, might be derived from the American experience that have applicability to the armed forces of a majority-ruled South Africa.

Blacks have served in various capacities and numbers in the American military since colonial times. In most cases they served in rigidly segregated units, usually commanded by white officers (a situation similar to that in South Africa). This pattern continued through World War ll and its aftermath. The racial integration of the American military began formally with a 1948 executive order issued by President Harry Truman. In reality however, racial integration occurred in the early 1950s during the Korean War, owing to the need for a more effective utilisation of military manpower.

The course of racial integration did not run smoothly. Prior to Vietnam, racial integration was mainly a phenomenon in the lower ranks, manned by draftees and draft-motivated volunteers. During the Vietnam War, racial tensions appeared in the military as black-white conflict increased in the wider society. Racial conflict did not disappear with the all-volunteer force instituted in 1973. Fights between the black and white soldiers were common in the 1970s, an era that is now called 'the time of troubles'. But starting in the early 1980's recruitment policies changed and tensions between the races eased.
From the mid 1980s and into the present, racial relations in the military contrasted favourably with deteriorating relations between blacks and whites in civilian society.

Our focus here will be on the American Army, the largest of the services and the one with by far the largest number of black members. The Army is considered the bell-weather of racial relations in the American military. In 1993 blacks made up 13 percent of the lower ranks and Non-Commissioned Officers (NCOs), compared to 12 percent of the total population that is black at the same age levels. Blacks constituted 11 percent of the Army officers corps, compared to 4 percent of the black population that has a university degree.

The American Army is not a racial utopia by any means. An edge of tension often lurks beneath the formal racial integration. Still, give or take a surly remark here, or a bruised sensibility there, the races do get on rather well. Under the grueling conditions of Desert Storm in the Persian Gulf and Operation Restore Hope in Somalia, not one racial incident occurred that was severe enough to come to the attention of the military police
. All this at a time when racial division seems to be growing in American society at large.


So what is it that works in the military? Six factors can be identified.
    1. The Level Playing Field. Basic training is the leveling experience par excellence. The mandatory short haircuts, the common uniform, the rigours of eight weeks of infantry training, all help to reduce pre-existing civilian advantage. For many youths from impoverished backgrounds, successful completion of basic training is the first occasion on which they can outshine those coming from privileged backgrounds.
The Army also can provide an academic boost not often available in civilian employment. The Basic Education Skills Program (BESP), started in 1976, is a bootstrap operation in remedial reading, writing, and mathematics. BESP students are selected by company commanders to attend on-post school for four hours daily in the morning. The remainder of their work day is devoted to normal company duties. BESP enrollees have below-average test scores and are usually high school dropouts. The course varies from two to six weeks and is particularly beneficial for young soldiers who, though lacking in good schooling, have the leadership potential to become sergeants. Although the Army shies away from baldly stating it, BESP students are mainly black. What is important is that doing well in the BESP is considered a realistic investment in one's future career.

Blacks and whites diverge during selection for advanced training because black soldiers tend to score lower than whites on aptitude tests, though they score much higher than black youth in civilian society. Blacks are most likely to be found in general clerical work, supply and food service, fields in which they make up about 60 percent of the Army work force. They are much less likely to be found in highly technical fields: only 9 percent of those in electronic warfare, for example, are black. Still, whatever a soldier's work assignment, rank and promotion in the lower ranks are roughly equivalent between the races, certainly more so than in civilian life.
    2. No Discrimination. The Army's stated goal is absolute commitment to equal opportunity and non-discrimination regardless of race with no qualifications. The principle is no longer debated at any level in the military. By contrast, equal opportunity for women is also a stated principle, but the role of women continues to be a source of contention.
An important symbol of the Army's emphasis on non-discrimination is found in the officer evaluation report. Among the fourteen categories in the evaluation, one states: 'support (for) equal opportunity.' Normally these reports are completed by the immediate supervisor of the subject and reviewed by the next higher person in the chain of command. A similar evaluation system operates for sergeants. Anything less than a favourable rating in this category means the end of one's military career.

Few people are given a negative check on their equal opportunity box. But the box is more than pro forma: it serves as an organisational reminder of the importance of race relations. Whatever racist sentiments sergeants or officers may hold, one will hardly ever hear such sentiments openly expressed in mixed-race groups and only rarely even in all-white groups.
It is not so much that military leaders are innocent of racism, but anyone hoping to stay in the army must avoid any suggestion of racism, lest it appear in an evaluation report.
    3. Hierarchy. Ironically, perhaps, the tremendous emphasis on rank helps erode racial feelings by producing cross-race solidarity within ranks. It also breaks down cross-racial solidarity across ranks. A soldier being harassed by a sergeant of the same race soon abandons notions that common racial origin overrides all, especially when his misery is being shared by a person of a different race. The social barriers in the army lie not so much between whites and blacks as between lower-ranking soldiers and sergeants, and between enlisted persons and officers. That hierarchy, a form of inequality, can reduce racism is one of the paradoxes of military life.

    4. Goals; not Quotas. Guidelines for promotion boards state: 'The goal for this board is to achieve a percentage of minority and female selection not less than the selection rate for all offers being considered.' This means that if the goal is not met, the board must defend its decisions. Thus the pressure to meet the goals is strong, and in most cases they are met. But if they are not met and further review indicates they cannot be without violations of standards, then the chips fall where they may.
The process runs like this: the board takes into consideration past assignments, physical standards, evaluation ratings, promotability to the next level (after the one under consideration), education and training credentials. The top candidates are quickly selected and the bottom ones just as quickly eliminated. In reality, goals become operative only in the grey middle.

If this looks like a quota by another name, remember that the number of blacks who are promoted from captain to major, a virtual prerequisite for an officer seeking an Army career, is usually below the goal. One last note on the goals versus quotas distinction. The military has no hint of two promotion lists, whites being compared only with whites, blacks with blacks.
On the sticky issue of racial representation in promotions, the Army has come up with a system that satisfies neither the pro- nor anti-quota viewpoints - but it works.
    5. Social Engineering. The military has at its command means of training and surveillance that are rarely found in civilian society. Of course, social control is not the only mechanism for better race relations; after all, American prisons are notorious for racial conflict. But it clearly plays a part. During the time of racial troubles in the 1970s, the Army developed the most extensive training and staffing programme of equal opportunity anywhere. The ability of military sociologists to monitor racial attitudes over a period of time and to use the data to inform policy was an opportunity afforded only by the military's social control of its members.
The research led to race relations programmes formulated by an entity called the Defence Equal Opportunity Management Institute (DEOMI). Even during a time of budgetary cutbacks, DEOMI's future is secure. It trains equal opportunity instructors for all the services, and in recent years has received requests from civilian organisations for advice on how to set up race relations programmes. Most of the instructions deal with race relations history and military policy.

The sensitivity course that DEOMI students must attend veer close to putting whites on the defensive, though whites are never described as ipso facto racists simply because they occupy a dominant position in American society.
But the important element of DEOMI's sensitivity course involves role playing, whites seeing situations from the standpoint of blacks - or blacks taking the viewpoint of whites.

DEOMI graduates, mainly NCOs, are assigned throughout the Army. They monitor racial incidents, look for patterns of racism in assignments and promotions, conduct ethnic observances, and give equal opportunity training to locally based NCOs. Full time Equal Opportunity (EO) NCOs are assigned to each brigade, and in turn train battalion and company NCOs who are assigned EO responsibilities as an additional duty. Over time, race relations has shifted from a responsibility of a specialised staff toward being regarded as an integral part of a commander's responsibilities.
EO NCOs, at the commander's request, also administer surveys on race relations and general unit morale.

In the late 1970s an extraordinary twelve to fourteen hours were devoted to race relations in basic training, with follow-up throughout the soldier's term in service. NCOs, as well as recruits, were required to take race relations training. Many white soldiers resented these courses, considering them exercises in white guilt. But studies showed the course did make whites more attuned to black feelings once the accusatory tone of the earlier courses was replaced by how do we solve this problem?'

More important, the mandatory race relations course sent a strong signal to black soldiers that the Army was serious about equal opportunity. In the more benign era of today, equal opportunity courses have been cut back to just one hour in basic training, but race relations remain an integral part of the senior NCO education.
As a sign of the times, the emphasis has shifted toward sexual harassment issues.
    6. Blacks in Leadership Roles. If there is a black centre to the Army, it is among the black NCOs. Blacks are one-and-a half times more likely than whites to re-enlist. Blacks make up about one third of all first sergeants and sergeant majors. Many see themselves as the main 'transmission belt' of the discipline and self-improvement of the old black bourgeoisie. As a black sergeant told me, 'We are the only good role models continuously in contact with young blacks. We have the responsibility of talking good values to a captive audience.'
Black sergeants take umbrage at any whisper that they are partial to blacks. Indeed, an analysis of evaluation reports by Charles Hines, a now retired black major general who holds a Ph.D. in sociology, shows that black sergeants grade 'average' black soldiers more severely than white sergeants do. If there is any racial favoritism in superior-subordinate relations, it is certainly not blacks favouring blacks. African-American sergeants have gone a long way to assuage white feelings of reverse discriminations. This cannot be overemphasised as the military is the only place in America where whites are routinely bossed around by blacks.

Above the ranks of non-commissioned officers in the Army is the officer corps, within which 7 000 blacks serve. In 1992, 26 blacks held flag rank, representing 7 percent of all Army generals. And, of course, Colin L. Powell, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was the first black to head the military. In terms of black participation and achievement, the American Army still has a way to go, but few civilian institutions approach it.

A distinguishing point of black leadership in the Army is that senior officers and NCOs eschew any social agenda that premises black advancement on racial politics and supplication to benevolent whites. In their bootstrap conservatism and rejection of the ideology of victimhood, senior black sergeants and officers differ from an important segment of the black civilian leadership.


The military places emphasis on the service performed, rather than on those who perform it. We do not have a military to help young people mature or to give them jobs, though these are certainly important and desirable consequences. The Army is attractive to many blacks because there are enough blacks in it to promise a certain degree of social comfort and professional support. But even more important, there are enough non-blacks and non-poor people to prevent the Army from being thought of as a 'black' institution or haven for society's underclass.

The Army, in short, delivers the uplift but not the stigma of a government social programme. Whatever successes the military has had in turning dead-end youth into responsible citizens have been largely due to the discipline of the armed forces being legitimated on other than over welfare grounds, for example, on national defense, patriotism, and citizenship obligation. Those very conditions peculiar to the armed forces that serve to re-socialise poor youth toward productive ends depend directly and ultimately upon the military not being defined as an employer of last resort or as a welfare agency.

So what can be transferred to civilian society? Maybe a broad lesson: race relations can best be transformed by an unambiguous commitment to non-discrimination coupled with uncompromising standards of performance. At the same time, educational and training programmes must be set up to raise performance standards of soldiers. Against this background any effort to derive lessons from the American to the South African case is fraught with ambiguity. Still, certain observations may be made.


Two obvious and significant differences exist
between the racial situation in the American military and those that exist in South Africa. The first and most obvious is that in the American case a racial minority was integrated into a majority institution. In South Africa a majority race will be integrated into what is essentially a white armed force. A second crucial difference is that the armed forces of the United States enjoy a wide legitimacy throughout the society, including within the minority black community. In South Africa, the existing South African Defence Force is viewed as illegitimate by the majority of South Africans. It is important to stress that had the American military not been racially integrated in the United States when it was, it would not be viewed as legitimate today by the American black population.

While the differences between the two societies are undeniably paramount, these should not obscure some interesting parallels in military social organisation. In some cases, blacks make up a majority or near majority of certain military units in the American Army, especially in combat support roles. Also, the SADF has been partially integrated for a number of years. For historical reasons, the incorporation of so-called 'coloureds' and Indians has, for all practical purposes, already been accomplished in the SADF. Indeed, it might be argued that the SADFs record in race relations in South Africa compares favorably to that of mainstream civilian institutions.

Another parallel might be noted. Despite the generally high regard in which black Americans hold the military, the fact remains that black political leadership has been less supportive of the American military than white leadership. Black leaders in America have been in the forefront of those calling for reduced defense spending and in favour of more social spending at home. Even more to the point, black political leadership in America has generally been critical of America's military interventions abroad, from Vietnam through Grenada, Panama, and the Persian Gulf. In a noteworthy turnaround, however, the black leadership was much more supportive of the initial deployment of US forces to Somalia than was the population as a whole. Likewise, black leadership in America has been in the forefront of using American military force to restore Jean-Bertrand Aristide to the presidency of Haiti. This is all to say, that racial considerations affect American military policy as they do South African foreign policy.

Whatever the parallels, civil-military relations in South Africa have some distinguishing paradoxes. The military professionalism of the SADF is of world class quality, yet the SADF does not enjoy legitimacy among the majority of South Africans. The professionalism of Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) is debatable, yet the legitimacy of the military wing of the African National Congress among the majority of South Africans far exceeds that of the SADF. The goal must be to maintain the professionalism of the present SADF while establishing armed forces that enjoy high legitimacy in the society they serve. Accordingly, I use as the integration model that of incorporating members of the MK into the existing structure of the SADF.

The integration of these two military forces is complicated because it involves organisational integration as well as racial integration. On this point, the integration of officers of the TBVC armed forces will present the fewest problems as selected officers from these forces can be folded into the existing rank structure. (I exclude from the present discussion any member of guerrilla members coming from extremist black or white organisations.) Admittedly, the proposals outlined below entail costs. However, such costs are insignificant compared to the costs of internecine warfare.


Racial integration will not be easy at any level, but the difficulties can at least be clarified by discussion of each rank level in terms of particular problems and challenges. At the risk of tremendous oversimplification, I treat the black population as homogeneous. This is not to deny South Africa realities, but to help conceptualise how integration might occur. From bottom to top, the scenario might go something like as follows:

At the lowest levels of the other ranks, one can expect the end of white conscription will mean a rapid colour transformation of the forces; from predominately white to predominantly black.
The lure of a steady job alone will be sufficient to witness a rapid racial turnover in the rank and file. Completion of secondary school could well be a requirement in what will probably be a 'buyer' (i.e. recruiter's) market. In time, a black NCO corps will replace the current white one. The exceptions will be in certain technical specialties, predominantly, though not exclusively, in the Air Force and Navy. Manning these technical specialties will most likely require added pay incentives, beyond those normally given recruits.

At the junior officer levels, blacks will be incorporated into standard commissioning programmes
and, eventually, like their white peers, be advanced through the system. What should be especially emphasised here, and as is true for the commissioning programme at the historically black universities in the United States, are 'academic enrichment' courses with emphasis on English and mathematics. (Approximately half of all black officers in the American army receive their commissions from training programs conducted at historically black universities, almost all in the American South.) It should be noted that half of the black entrants into the US military academies have taken an extra year of secondary school education - at military expense - to improve their basic educational skills.

The middle-grade officer and NCO levels present the most severe problems.
Black officers, NCOs and warrant officers will necessarily be directly horizontally integrated rather than through cohort progression. Mid-level officers still have much of their careers ahead of them. Those presently in the SADF will be most sceptical of the professional qualifications of incoming MK officers. Let us be candid: the primary issue for incoming black officers entering the middle grades will be possession of the requisite technical, command, and communication skills to meet professional standards. The most practical solution here is for designated MK officers to acquire advanced military training and education in English-speaking countries abroad.
The staff courses and war colleges of the United Kingdom, United States and India would be proper venues for such education.

At the very top levels, a certain number of senior MK leaders will simply have to be appointed as general officers.
Most of these will serve short terms and their retirements should be accompanied with appropriate pensions benefits and ceremony. These political appointees, for that is what they will be, are needed to give the new SADF credibility in the larger South African society.
What generals of all colour must represent is a clear commitment and loyalty not to any political grouping or pigmentation, but to the Constitution.

One lesson of the American precedent must be stressed. Any effort to integrate racially the armed forces must be accompanied by accurate statistics on race
, clear markers of progress, and time-tables by which such goals are to be met.

In conclusion, a final lesson from the American experience should also be mentioned. The American military did not racially integrate for moral reasons. Rather, the initial integration phase of the early 1950s occurred because of the need to make the armed forces more militarily effective. The second integration phase of the late 1970s, largely affecting the officer corps, occurred because the military recognised that its race problem was so critical that it was on the verge of self-destruction. That realisation set in motion the steps that have led to today's relatively positive state of affairs. The same realisation must come about in South Africa.