“Red Tails,” George Lukas’s action movie celebrates the path-breaking Tuskegee Airmen, the African-American fighter pilots who earned distinction in the European Theater of World War II. That they served in a segregated unit of a segregated army made their success bittersweet. In that respect, however, the airmen were one group out of many: black soldiers going to the front lines for a country that put them at the back of the job lines.
What is perhaps even less known than the Airmen’s story is how well the military served – and still serves – the nation’s black servicemen. Recent studies show that the army is an unusually open route to success for African Americans; it has been a source of material, social, and psychological liberation. The experience of blacks in the army also helps shed light on the struggles of African Americans in civilian life.
From the earliest days of the nation, African Americans have sought military service as a route to liberation. In the Revolution, that meant slaves escaping to join the British Army. During the Civil war, thousands of slaves fled their masters to Union Army lines and offered their services. Lincoln hesitated to use them for fear of alienating the border states, but eventually acceded. By the end, over 150,000 freed blacks served bravely, often tragically. (Confederate soldiers killed rather than captured black Union soldiers.) African Americans serving in World War I learned about the wider world, which for those who went home made the Jim Crow South an especially embittering and dangerous experience. During World War II, African Americans serving around the world in segregated units fueled the Civil Rights movement’s call for justice at home.
Segregation in the military ended with Harry Truman’s presidential order of 1948. Eventually, America’s armed forces became the nation’s leading institution promoting racial integration. As illustration, the first African American who really might have become president had he run emerged from a career in the army: Colin Powell.
Military life is regimented; rules and obedience to those rules are matters of life and death. And one those rules has been, now for over 60 years, racial equality, buttressed by affirmative efforts to ensure such equality. And it seems to work.
Sociologist Jennifer Lundquist did a series of studies that compared racial differences in the military to racial differences in civilian life. In one study, she found that, whereas in civilian society blacks are less satisfied with their conditions than whites are, in the military blacks are as or more satisfied than whites. This positive reaction to military life partly results from black servicemen feeling that they are better off than civilians, but not only from that. She concluded that it is something about the actual opportunity structures in civilian versus military life that explains why the common black-white differences disappear.
Lundquist has also looked at the touchy issue of family life. In the the civilian world, African Americans marry at much lower rates and divorce at much higher rates than do whites. In the military, however, there is essentially no difference between black and white rates of marriage (and those rates are higher than for civilians; see here). Moreover, the chances of black enlistees getting divorced are as low or even lower than the chances of divorce among similar white enlistees (here). A follow-up study by Teachman and Tedrow confirms the results, but they found that the equalizing effect is specific to the Army rather than the other branches of the military.
It could be that African Americans with the personal qualities that encourage marriage and marital stability are especially drawn to military service, that the findings are therefore merely a “selection effect.” But the researchers go through intensive statistical analysis to estimate how much that selection process affects the results. (Short of randomly assigning people to military or civilian life, there is not much more one can do to pin down the causal explanation.) They conclude that the equalizing effects result from the distinct racial realities of military life. Teachman and Tedrow write, “the history of Black integration into the Army has yielded an environment where Blacks are more fully incorporated into the command structure, yielding positive role models . . . and the prospect of opportunity where merit is rewarded irrespective of race.” The Army environment reduces the heavy burdens of race that continue in civilian life.
As a final piece of evidence, studies of school achievement – another area of persistent racial gaps – also highlight the military’s distinctiveness. A recent news report entitled, “Military Children Stay a Step Ahead of Public School Students,” points out that “even more impressive, the achievement gap between black and white students continues to be much smaller at military base schools and is shrinking faster than at public schools.”
In the years since the Tuskegee Airmen flew, educational and economic differences between blacks and whites narrowed, neighborhood integration increased, and even interracial marriage – the highest barrier – became more common. Still, the black and white experiences in America continue to be, in many ways, distinct. Much public discussion and scholarly research has tried to understand why.
One sort of explanation is cultural, that the worldviews of African Americans are distinct; another sort of explanation is structural, that the circumstances of African Americans – including the discrimination they still face – are distinct. A full answer entails both elements, but the success story of African Americans in the American Army suggests that a major reason for continuing racial gaps in civilian life is the continuing racial gap in the civilian opportunity structure.
Cross-posted from Claude Fischer’s blog, Made in America: Notes on American life from American history.