The United States has the finest military in the world. Americans often think of it as a mirror of the country’s great melting pot and a principal means by which talented people from underprivileged groups can get an edge and move up. In many ways, this comforting image is true. But in one key way, it’s not.
Across the U.S. military, African Americans are overrepresented in proportion to their representation in society.1 However, when the numbers are broken down by rank, African Americans’ representation drops off markedly at the senior level (see figure 1). Black officers just don’t become generals as often as their White counterparts. African Americans make up 9 percent of active-duty officers but only 6.5 percent of generals.2 They are especially underrepresented at the three- and four-star general level, where the most important decisions about the U.S. military are made.
There are many reasons why Americans should want this to change. For example, research shows that racially diverse groups tend to be more innovative and creative, that diversity can strengthen civil-military relations, and that morale among rank-and-file African Americans would probably benefit from more equal representation in the most visible and iconic positions in the U.S. armed forces.
If Americans want the military to live up to its image of being a mirror of a democratic and multicultural society, something should be done.
Change won’t come easy, however. More action is needed, and the sooner the better. Changes introduced now could take many years to bear fruit.
To better understand the roots of the problem and the potential remedies, we interviewed sixteen current and retired Black officers, including eleven generals—largely from the Army but also from the Air Force and Marines—to capture their experiences and challenges.3 These men and women were almost unanimously positive about their time in the military and what it had done for them personally and professionally. Most saw the problem as systemic and structural. Many also talked to us about the non-Black officers who shared their concerns.
But most—including those who had reached very senior levels—were also frank about the challenges they faced coming up through the ranks as Black officers. A few officers and generals described examples of overt racism, but most referred to cultural or structural obstacles to their advancement. Strikingly, even when these obstacles were relatively minor on the surface, they had a lasting and outsized impact due to the highly competitive nature of the advancement process. Many Black officers felt that they had to be even more perfect than their White counterparts.
Preference for Noncombat Positions
One ongoing obstacle is that African Americans tend to be underrepresented in combat roles across the services, especially in the Army. Early in their careers, new officers are placed or “assessed” (also referred to as “branched”) into specific career fields. Their placement is determined by the preferences they express and the needs of the military service they are commissioning into. African Americans historically have been assessed into noncombat career fields and have tended to opt for careers in supporting branches, such as logistics and personnel. In comparison, White Americans have had a higher preference for combat roles (in other words, tactical or operational positions), which make up nearly 80 percent of flag and general officers.
The problem with this underrepresentation is that many central, senior positions in the military are traditionally reserved for combat arms officers. The requirement is informal, but it results in a significant proportion of highly talented Black officers effectively being ineligible for some of the most important positions in the military—on account of decisions made decades earlier.
The first puzzle to solve, then, is what causes this divergence at the outset of military careers. Since the full integration of the military in 1948, African Americans have joined the armed services for patriotic reasons and to help pay for education and compete in the civilian job market after service, among other reasons. Thus, one possibility is that young Black individuals entering the officer corps may prefer noncombat fields because they think these fields will provide skills that are more useful in the civilian sector.
This theory is not to discount the fervent desire that many Black officers have to serve and protect their country. Indeed, many of our interviewees were critical of explanations that focused on career choices and downplayed the importance of the patriotism and service that drive Black officers.
Nevertheless, the relationship between career paths and representation in the general officer corps is clear. There is evidence, for example, that key community influencers—teachers, professionals, and religious leaders—sometimes discourage Black officers from pursuing combat careers. One reason for this is probably the unhappy legacy of the Vietnam War, when African Americans carried an excessive burden of combat. Path dependency may also be at work: a young person at the start of their officer career may have had less exposure to Black combat officers simply because there are fewer of them. For instance, a research study found that more White interviewees, compared to minority participants, were aware of special operations forces, such as Navy SEALs, during their childhood.
One senior Air Force officer we interviewed provided an anecdote to illustrate the problem. At a conference for young Black engineers, he showed the packed conference room a clip of Air Force pilots flying the coolest aircraft in the world to their limit. The students seemed dazzled and gave the demonstration a standing ovation, but when he asked them, “who wants to be a pilot?,” not a single hand went up. Even enthusiasm for the thrills of combat, it seems, wasn’t enough to get these young people to want to do it themselves.
Gaps in Mentorship and Sponsorship
Once in the services, limited mentorship for Black personnel can be another hurdle. Black officers sometimes end up with fewer role models, mentors, and sponsors, especially ones that share their backgrounds. And since seeing is believing, Black officers may end up pursuing career paths with lower chances for senior leadership because they see few people of color at the top, particularly in combat arms branches.
Here again, path dependency plays a role. Even Black officers who do choose a career in combat might go thirty years without serving under someone who looks like them. To be sure, the situation is complex, and it’s important to stress that several of our interviewees recounted how White officers they knew went out of their way to mentor rising African Americans. But as one interviewee put it, to be a combat officer means not only fewer mentors but also a certain sense of “loneliness at the top.”
In the military, as in other organizations, understanding the unwritten rules can make or break a career. Interviewees told lots of stories about the importance of mentorship and the critical role that it had played in their careers. But finding mentors was not always easy, even for these highly successful officers. The phrase “ducks pick ducks” was used during the interviews to describe how mentors pick people who share similar cultural experiences or look like them. Research has shown that effective mentorship for minorities requires a mentor to intimately understand the challenges that race can play in his or her protégé’s career progression. With fewer Black generals, there are fewer chances of being mentored by someone who is likely to have experienced and understood similar hurdles as a rising Black officer. While it is possible, and indeed not uncommon, for White officers to be successful mentors of Black officers, it’s just inherently more difficult.
Likewise, sponsorship—building support for a mentee through advocacy, visibility, and connections—plays a pivotal role in someone’s progression to the senior ranks. Having well-placed sponsors is particularly important when it comes to getting promoted to general. “You need people to carry your water to be promoted from O-6 to O-7,” said one Army General. “Black officers cannot just have other minority officers looking out for them, but also need a lot of majority officers [in other words, White officers] who can vouch for their performance.” With nearly every candidate having impeccable military resumes at this level, sponsorship is often that additional bump that sets officers apart, and yet sponsorship is just a little harder for Black officers to find than it is for their White counterparts.
This is by no means to say that only Black officers should mentor or sponsor Black officers. In fact, every interviewee noted that mentorship from White officers had played a critical role in their careers and that they were grateful for it. One Army Lieutenant General, for example, told us how a White mentor had played a critical role in getting him promoted to general. No doubt there are many other such cases. The issue, however, remains that for largely structural and historical reasons, there are fewer opportunities for Black officers to benefit from the mentorship of more successful Black officers.
Cultural Bias and Overt Racism
Further complicating the career paths of Black officers as they move up the ranks—especially officers who hail from Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs)—are cultural differences, even minor ones. According to a 2022 report, more than 75 percent of Black officers hail from HBCUs.
Other interviewees discussed the added stress they sometimes faced in assimilating to white cultural norms—related to music, clothes, and recreational activities—while also maintaining their own authenticity. “There were assumptions that there were officers that just fit into the military culture and others who don’t. At most functions, they played golf and country music. There was an underlying assumption that we were expected to conform to this culture,” said one officer. “The tension of not losing my own background was something I had to wrestle with.”
Others expressed similar sentiments. “They watched what you wore and to fit in as an officer, you had to dress a certain way—boat shoes, khakis, and a collared shirt. I did not grow up dressing like that,” said another officer. “We constantly find every way to fit in and next thing you know you stop being yourself.”
According to one officer, “You have to prove yourself a lot more than others . . . I always felt in a bit more of a glass bowl and that my actions were under constant scrutiny. If you step two inches to the right or two inches to the left, then you can easily be viewed as incompetent.”
“You do feel like you have to work much harder to achieve the same outcome,” he added. “But we strive forward because we have to carry the weight of the hopes and aspirations of our ancestors.”
More concerning than cultural differences are the overt acts of racism that sadly remain, even in the twenty-first century. One interviewee characterized his experience this way: “I went from an HBCU to an all-White combat [unit]. That was a major adjustment. I did not feel accepted one bit. On my first duty assignment, I was one of two Black officers out of a 4,000-person brigade and a few hundred officers and would face racially taunted acts every week.”
It might be easy to imagine that this was an isolated incident from a bygone era, but it is not. Military Times surveys, for example, found that instances of white nationalism and racism actually grew, from 23.1 percent in 2017 to 36.3 percent in 2019. A 2020 Air Force study showed that “young enlisted Black airmen were twice as likely to be involuntarily discharged as their white counterparts,” and an Inspector General survey found that “2 out of every 5 black enlisted, civilians, and officers do not trust their chain of command to address racism, bias, and unequal opportunities.”
Such challenges are, unsurprisingly, even more pronounced for Black women. “Experiences of prejudice were routine,” said one officer. “I was the only female, and my battalion commander was very sexist, chauvinistic, and made crude jokes.” She mustered up the strength to confront him on his inappropriate comments, and she believed she faced retribution from it. “I missed out on having the commander’s ear,” she said. “I wasn’t part of the good ole boys’ system.” Others also reported similar experiences of feeling that they were risking their careers for speaking up against racism and sexism.
Nearly all the officers interviewed told stories of bias or overt racism, but they still indicated a natural tendency to see the best in their White counterparts. Moreover, not all the racism they encountered came from White officers; sometimes Black officers themselves had subconscious biases.
Nevertheless, those we interviewed noted that sometimes racial bias was just too obvious to discount. “Minorities do everything they can to not make racism an easy button . . . But a lot of the times you start seeing ghosts, and it becomes the only explanation for what’s happening to you,” said one general.
The Role of Promotion Boards
In the military, generals select and promote other generals through promotion boards.4 These boards are sometimes not representative of the pool of candidates they are assessing. As with mentorship, the problem is structural. With a smaller pool of Black general officers to draw from, it can be difficult to get enough of them onto the boards.
According to one general interviewed, who had served on several boards, it was not uncommon for there to be only one female and one minority on a board of fourteen to sixteen people. “There were various boards where zero minorities or females were selected for promotion,” he explained. “Every single [board] I left frustrated.”
In the last few years, the services have stopped including pictures of candidates, a move that should help to reduce unconscious bias. But the problem is that promotion at this rarified level inevitably involves a large dose of subjectivity, especially when one of the main qualities being judged is someone’s leadership capacity. It’s possible to judge someone’s leadership skills by looking at past performance, but subjectivity inevitably creeps in. Generals on the boards tend to look for people who share their leadership style, and these are more likely to be officers with similar backgrounds.
Most general officer promotion boards also allow for deliberations, where subjective elements such as leadership ability can be discussed. “While all board members look at candidates’ whole records separately, the peer-to-peer discussions after can significantly alter the conversation,” explained one general with extensive experience in this area. There is extremely stiff competition at this level—only .04 percent of officers become generals.5 “Character defects, such as having a legal or financial problem, are big issues for [Black] candidates,” this officer added, noting that such offenses seem to be weighted more heavily in the case of Black officers.
To be clear, the interviews did not reveal any cases of overt racial bias affecting promotion at the general level. Most of the noted cases of overt racism occurred earlier in the officer’s career. Some officers told stories about racial bias against general officers out of uniform, but these were unrelated to the promotion process.
Those interviewed who served on promotion boards also noted that an officer’s commissioning source plays a role in promotion to general; Black officers that attend service academies like West Point tend to have more extensive networks at the highest levels of the military than their peers from HBCUs do. This means those who went to the service academies had an advantage when it came to promotion. Of course, graduates of service academies have an advantage over all the other officers, White or Black. Academy graduates receive the very highest level of military training and education. Moreover, many HBCU alumni have in fact become generals, so going to an HBCU is not a barrier so much as a potential disadvantage when it comes to the highest levels of military promotion. Nevertheless, some officers discussed what they felt was a stigma that came with attending an HBCU rather than a high-status academy.
Opportunities to Improve
Across the military, there seems to be an interest in resolving these problems. But there is also a sense that change will continue to be elusive.
First, data over the past few decades consistently show that Black officers are not represented among generals in numbers commensurate with their representation in the officer corps. Remo Butler’s 1999 article titled “Why Black Officers Fail” and Irving Smith III’s 2010 follow-up piece, “Why Black Officers Still Fail,” clearly demonstrate that there has been limited change despite awareness of and advocacy on the issue. Second, culture is notoriously difficult to change in large organizations such as the military and must be tackled through sustained efforts over a long period of time. One general’s prediction was that representation is unlikely to improve simply because “people aren’t interested in fixing problems that won’t render change until twenty years down the road.”
Of course, minority underrepresentation in leadership positions is not only a problem in the military. In the private sector, African Americans make up only 7 percent of the managerial level and 6 percent of the executive level. Also, an analysis of the fifty most valuable public companies reveals that Black employees constitute only 8 percent of C-suite executives.
Unlike the military, however, private sector companies can pull senior leadership from outside of the organization, so the chances of improvement may be greater. Also, military institutions are by nature culturally conservative and more resistant to change than most private sector organizations, further complicating the process of adjustment.
Nevertheless, the following measures could help improve the situation.
- Build the pipeline of Black combat officers. To increase the pipeline of African Americans in combat arms (in other words, operational roles), the military should redouble its efforts to educate and inform incoming Black officers, their families, and communities about the long-term implications of their career choices. This will not solve the problem—the services play a significant role in what branches commissioning officers are assigned to—but it will help. Ultimately, incoming cadets need to make their own decisions, but programs or exhibitions to expose more Black youths to combat career fields and to dispel negative perceptions might be helpful.
Increasing the number of combat arms officers teaching at HBCUs might also help to increase exposure during college before branch choices are selected. The officers interviewed believed that if there were a diverse array of combat arms officers—Black, White, and other races—in staff positions at HBCUs, then it would not only increase combat preference among Black officers but also raise the quality of their reserve officer training corps (ROTC) experience—which is a building block for success in the officer corps.
- Consider creating a watchdog for officer promotion and review processes. The services could build on the recent creation of chief diversity officers by establishing a dispute path for candidates who believe they have received unfair reviews during the performance evaluation process.6 While a similar promotion policy was federally overturned back in 2002 because the Army failed to show lower levels of promotion for Black officers, more recent data from the past two decades showing that Black officers are promoted at rates lower than their White counterparts suggests the issue should be revisited.
If requested by a candidate, this entity could investigate negative reviews, similar to how Inspector General officers conduct inquiries. Then, the entity might convene face-to-face counseling between both parties to discuss the findings. Although this process would risk some backlash—potentially against candidates who chose to use it or against military officials who implemented it—if managed correctly, it would help improve the perception and reality of fairness and equity in promotion at the highest levels.
- Diversify selection boards. All the officers we spoke with believe that, at minimum, the promotion boards should be more diverse in terms of race and gender. Current laws already mandate some degree of diversity on the boards, but these laws may not be enough. Although increasing representation might place more burden on the already limited number of minorities and women in the general officer ranks, it would likely help support the advancement of diverse officers to general officers—especially if it strengthens the peer-to-peer conversations that play a key role in the boards.
- Clarify which top general officer positions really require combat experience. Some of the most important top positions in the military do require combat experience. For example, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff is the president’s top military adviser and is someone who, especially in wartime, ought to have a combat background. But not all senior positions in the military have the same requirement, and this might be increasingly the case in the years to come. The distinctions between combat and noncombat roles are becoming somewhat blurred as new domains such as cyber and space—which involve many noncombat positions—play more of a role in warfare. The services could more clearly designate which positions require combat backgrounds. For example, service chiefs and vice chiefs do not necessarily need combat backgrounds.
We heard plenty of stories about the vital roles that White officers played in championing African American officers who deserved more attention than they were getting. In a positive way, this underscores that the issue of underrepresentation in the senior ranks of services ultimately concerns all officers, regardless of race.
All officers in the military—Black or otherwise—face challenges as they move up the career ladder, and many of the officers interviewed were keen not to exaggerate the role of overt racism in their military experience. Nevertheless, it is worth pointing out that our interviewees were extremely successful in their careers; nearly all of them had become generals. This group is living proof that it’s possible for African Americans to succeed in the military, but no doubt there are many others who were deterred, blocked, or otherwise more affected by the pitfalls and challenges we have described herein. Had we spoken with more retired mid- and junior-level officers, the picture would probably have been more negative.
Regardless, even when overt racism is absent, small additional challenges can have a big impact on a system where promotion is already so difficult and only a tiny fraction of officers actually reach the highest ranks. With just a fraction of a percent of officers making the senior ranks of the military, it doesn’t take much to derail someone’s prospects of becoming a general, let alone the honor of wearing three or four stars.
The U.S. military is unquestionably the finest in the world and as such should be held to the highest standards in the world. Limited representation of African Americans at the level of senior military leadership is an issue that, while difficult, deserves attention for the sake of the military itself and the people and nation it serves.
1 For example, African Americans make up 16.8 percent of the military but only 12.4 percent of the U.S. population.
2 The officer ranks of the military range from the pay grades of O-1 to O-6, and the general officer levels range from O-7 to O-10.
3 This paper is based on a series of sixteen interviews conducted with Black officers and general officers between March and May 2022 and on other secondary work as noted. The interview sample included five officers (one captain, two lieutenant colonels, one colonel, and one chief warrant officer) and eleven general officers (four major generals, seven lieutenant generals, and one general). Fourteen of the interviewees served in the Army, one in the Air Force, and one in the Marines. Six officers identified as female and ten identified as male.
4 Earlier promotion boards and retention rates of Black officers matter as well. The promotion boards for the ranks of second lieutenant through captain (O-1 to O-3) and major through colonel major (O-4 to O-6) considerably trim the eligible officer population. A 2012 RAND report, for example, found that Black officers had a lower proportion of O-1 to O-3 officers than they had of accessions and a lower proportion of O-4 through O-6 officers than they had of O-1 to O-3. In comparison, another 2012 study found that White officers were 29 percent more likely to be promoted than Black officers. Additionally, the associated retention effects that occur before general promotion boards play a role. A 2021 RAND report highlighted that Black officers have a lower level of retention rate across the military’s services, which further narrows down the pool eligible for the general officer corps. Overall, these compounding effects of the military life cycle make the pool of Black officers eligible for promotion to the general officer corps very small.
5 This percentage was calculated by dividing the general officer corps (ranked between 0-7 and O-10) by the total number of Defense Department workers ranked from O-1 to O-10 to get the percentage of officers that are generals.
6 A dispute path exists in the Army if there are starkly different ratings given by each rater—a negative review from one rater and a positive review from another.