WASHINGTON - Fewer African-Americans are joining the Army, a trend likely to make it harder to keep the all-volunteer military at full strength.
The percentage of African-Americans among all those who signed up for active-duty Army service fell from 24 percent in 2000 to 14 percent in 2005, according to Army statistics. That's the lowest percentage since 1973, when the draft ended and the all-volunteer military began, say David R. Segal and Mady Wechsler Segal, sociologists with the University of Maryland's Center for Research on Military Organization.
In the past, African-Americans have enlisted at higher rates than their overall percentage of the U.S. population, which was 12.9 percent in the 2000 census.
"These trends may spell trouble for the Army, which has depended on blacks to meet its recruiting goals and re-enlistment targets," the Segals wrote in a November study.
In 1974, blacks made up 27 percent of new Army recruits and 21 percent of new Marine recruits, 16 percent of Air Force enlistees and 10 percent of Navy enlistees, according to the study.
"Basically, what has happened over time with the all-volunteer force is that the Army has become sort of dependent on the overrepresentation of African-American recruits, who have been more inclined to stay," David Segal said in an interview.
Blacks have tended to enlist in administrative, medical and support specialties, the Segal study said.
S. Douglas Smith, a spokesman for Army Recruiting Command at Fort Knox, Ky., pointed out that recruiting is down, not just for African-Americans, but for all groups. This year, the Army missed its recruiting goal by more than 6,600 new enlistees, the first time it has missed an annual recruiting target since 1999.
Smith said the improving economy is mostly to blame for the recruiting slump, but the war also has been a factor, he said, "and the public perception that this is a risky time to be a soldier."
Smith said the Army has been focusing recruiting efforts more on Hispanics and Asian-Americans and other minorities in recent years. In fiscal year 2001, Hispanics made up 10.5 percent of active-duty Army recruits. In fiscal year 2005, they comprised 13.2 percent of active-duty recruits, according to Army statistics, slightly higher than their overall percentage in the U.S. population of 12.5 percent. The percentage of Asian recruits rose from 2.6 percent in fiscal year 2001 to 4.1 percent in fiscal year 2005, about on par with their percentage of the U.S. population.
"We want the Army to be reflective of the nation," Smith said.
The Army appealed to blacks for decades because they saw it as one of the most integrated institutions in America, said Charles Moskos, a sociologist at Northwestern University who specializes in military affairs.
Eventually, blacks made up one-third of all enlisted women and one-fifth of men, including many senior noncommissioned officers.
"It's been the only institution in America where whites have been routinely bossed around by blacks because many of your (non-commissioned officers) are black," Moskos said.
According to the Segal study, black enlistments peaked at 28 percent in 1979 and later hovered at around 20 percent until they began to drop in 2000.
Experts looking for reasons for the decline cite these factors:
-Better economic and educational opportunities.
-The high rate of incarceration among young black males. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, about 8.4 percent of all black males in the United States between 25 and 29 were in a state or federal prison last year, compared with 2.5 percent of Hispanics and 1.2 percent of whites in the same age group.
-An erroneous belief, dating back to the Vietnam War, that blacks and other minorities suffer a disproportionate share of combat casualties.
Statistics don't bear out those perceptions. According to independent researchers with Iraq Coalition Casualty Count, a Web site that tracks casualty statistics based on Defense Department press releases and media reports, whites have suffered 74 percent of deaths in Iraq, while blacks have suffered 10.4 percent and Hispanics 11 percent.
-Blacks have been much less supportive of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan than whites and other ethnic groups, according to U.S. military surveys.
According to a report titled "U.S. Military Image Study" commissioned last year by the Army, African-Americans who viewed the military favorably decreased from 22 percent in November 2003 to 11 percent in November 2004.
Compared with other ethnic groups, African-American youths are also the least supportive of the war in Iraq, the least likely to believe that the war was justified and the most disapproving of the U.S. government's handling of foreign affairs, researchers found.
The study also found that black adults are less likely than adults in other ethnic groups to recommend military service to youths, in part because of the war.
Copyright © 2005 Knight Ridder