Black, Hispanic, and Asian officers stay in the military longer than their white counterparts, a new report found, but have less success rising through the ranks.
The study was conducted by the RAND Corporation and looked at the Army’s retention of racial-ethnic minorities and made recommendations for the service to improve the career prospects of diverse talent.
“Although minority officers might retain at higher rates than white officers, they don’t promote at the same rate to those upper ranks,” said Maria Lytell, one of the authors of the report. “Therefore, you don’t have as large of a pool of people to select from when you start getting into the senior military officer ranks.”
Enlisted soldiers tend to be more racially diverse compared to officers. That tracks with a similar pattern across the U.S. population where racial minorities are less likely than their white peers to obtain college degrees, which is a requirement to commission in any branch of the military.
“On the enlisted side, however, you do see that racial, ethnic diversity in the senior enlisted ranks,” Lytell said. “You don’t have the same kind of promotion barrier in the way you do on the officer side.”
The report comes as the Army faces one of its hardest recruiting environments in a generation. The Army has acknowledged several key factors including the Army’s reputation for handling sexual assault and suicide, inability to meet health and fitness requirements, and the U.S. population’s decline in trust for public institutions. The service has begun offering bonuses and other incentives to recruits and establishing a new recruiter MOS in hopes of mitigating some of the challenges.
The report also weighs the importance of policy changes implemented in the wake of national shifts in opinions and policies around race after the murder of George Floyd in May 2020. A year later, the Army made changes to hair and grooming standards and removed photos and indicators of race from promotion packets.
“It is suggestive that maybe the policy is doing something,” Lytell said. “But we caution that the Army would have to continue to monitor the trends because promotion trends can become more or less competitive over time.”
The impact of removing personal photos and racially identifying data from officer promotion packets is just beginning to have an impact, Lytell said. The most telling example so far is among promotions from captain to major, which can equate to a pay bump of as much as $7,000 per year. Before the 2020 policy change, white officers were promoted to major about 3% more often than their non-white peers. After the change, the gap “pretty much went to zero,” she said.
The military has long struggled in addressing racism in its ranks but efforts post-2020 have also included a push for more diversity among military leadership.
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One participant told RAND: “Not seeing minorities [African Americans were mentioned] in positions of leadership in the Army impacts their decision to leave because they feel there is no point in trying to advance to a higher echelon.”
In fact, diverse representation is strongest in the junior ranks. In the Army, the report found that the service has “almost eliminated what was once a shortfall in racial-ethnic minority representation in its junior enlisted ranks.” In fiscal year 2005, the white junior enlisted population was 7% larger than the comparable civilian population. By fiscal year 2020, that difference declined to 1%. RAND attributed that progress to the increase in Black soldiers.
Essentially, as the U.S. has become more ethnically diverse, so has the Army. The challenge that the Army is still seeing, according to the report, is getting its officers of racial and ethnic minorities to move up through the ranks at the same rates as their white counterparts.
The report found that racial and ethnic minority soldiers tend to have similar or slightly greater retention rates than white officers. This is consistent over time with white and other soldiers (Native American and unknown racial-ethnic groups) having the lowest retention rates after 10 years at nearly 31%, while Black, Hispanic, and Asian soldiers’ retention rates are roughly 40%.
Black soldiers also have “substantially” higher reenlistment rates at 79.6% compared to all other racial-ethnic groups, including white soldiers with the lowest rates of 67.8%.
The report chalked the differences up, in part, to earning inequalities between racial groups in the civilian economy, but also said that the bulk of racial-ethnic retention differences “are not associated with local labor market conditions.”
While the report acknowledged that there are likely other factors about military service that appeal to racial-ethnic minorities, the fact that the Army provides “relatively strong economic opportunities” for those minorities should be considered, the report’s authors said.
Army leaders interviewed did not see many race-related reasons for soldiers’ decisions to separate. Many cited better job opportunities outside of the Army or being forced to leave because of military justice activities.
However, administrative data indicates that racial-ethnic minority groups were more likely than white soldiers to have negative outcomes with performance or conduct in their records “but do not indicate why this is so.” As a result, the report recommended that the Army investigate and assess the causes of these differences.
For those who do choose to separate, reasons can include perceived bias among leaders which could limit further opportunities, a lack of racial-ethnic minority role models in leadership positions, and career-field related reasons (struggling to fit in majority-white career fields and more opportunities for support MOSs that have more racial-ethnic minority soldiers).
A few participants hypothesized that racial-ethnic minority soldiers who voluntarily separate might do so to support their home communities, leading them to choose Army career fields that will give them experience they can use in their communities.
Most soldiers interviewed by RAND did not believe there were systematic constraints on officer promotions. Some pointed to restrictions on the number of officers per block or rating category, challenges of differentiating among different levels of officer performance, limited evaluation time, and the dominance of a specific career field or branch in a unit.
A majority of the soldiers didn’t list discrimination for lagging promotion rates but a few noted that “unconscious bias could exist,” which “might manifest as racial-ethnic minority officers receiving fewer career-enhancing opportunities.”
Although some participants cited the potential leadership bias regarding career advancement of minority soldiers, “many could not point to examples of blatant displays of bias and discrimination.” Some interviewees acknowledged that the tendency for Army leadership to be white and their officers to be minorities could be a factor.
“I think to really get at it, you would have to have actual like records of people’s evaluations and do that kind of comparison and see if there’s systematic patterns,” Lytell said.
Two participants pointed to officers’ perceptions that as a minority, they have to work harder than others and might not have access to as many opportunities. The authors called out the “Pygmalion effect, which refers to people internalizing beliefs others have about them and behaving in ways consistent with those beliefs.”
Another important note from interviewers was that combat arms branches, which are disproportionately white, might provide more career advancement opportunities than support branches – which could account for the differences.
A main takeaway from the report Lytel highlighted is the importance of leadership. “It’s at that lowest immediate supervisor level where those dynamics can start playing out,” she said.
Army unit leaders told RAND about the difficulties that junior-level leaders face in counseling and evaluating soldiers. Some suggested more education on this in the Captains Career Course or Basic Leader Course with workshops or hands-on activities to help them teach their soldiers how to set goals and progress in their careers.
Essentially, the Army needs to “continue to invest in these junior leaders to make sure that these problems don’t propagate,” Lytell said.
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