Fewer Blacks Enlisting in the Army

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The number of black Army recruits has dropped since 2001, according to reports. The proportion of black Americans in the Army is now roughly equal to the proportion of blacks in the general U.S. population. Michele Norris talks with Richard Whittle of the Dallas Morning News.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

Since the draft was abolished in 1973, African-Americans have volunteered to join the Army in numbers that far exceed their percentage of the population. But the African-American community is no longer the fertile recruiting ground it once was. Richard Whittle has been following this story for the Dallas Morning News, and he joins us now.

Rick, what do the numbers show? How steep is this decline?

Mr. RICHARD WHITTLE (Pentagon Correspondent, Dallas Morning News): Well, if you go back before 9/11, every year, the percentage of black recruits joining the Army was about 23 percent. So far this year, in fiscal 2005, which is now 10 months old, the percentage has been about 13 percent. That's roughly a 40 percent decline in the proportion.

NORRIS: The trend began before the war, but what's happened since the fighting began in Iraq?

Mr. WHITTLE: Well, the trend has just continued steadily down to the point where it used to be that black Americans were providing roughly 25 percent of the Army's troops. They're now providing 13, 14 percent. The interesting thing about that is that that's roughly their percentage of the general population. So what it means is that rather than overcontributing to the Army, they're now contributing roughly the same level other ethnic groups are.

NORRIS: Now I don't want to get into the weeds here with the numbers, but does that mean that there are fewer black recruits, or is it that they're a smaller percentage because there happen to be more Hispanics or more Latinos, for instance?

Mr. WHITTLE: No, the numbers are actually down. The number of Hispanic recruits actually is up. So there probably is some element of the decline in the proportion that you could attribute to the shift in the number of Hispanic recruits, but the absolute numbers are down.

NORRIS: Well, what's behind this? You've actually gone out. You've hit the streets. You've talked to young men and some young women. What do they say?

Mr. WHITTLE: You know, everyone's reasons are going to vary somewhat. There are some people who are finding that there are more opportunities for African-Americans in today's society. But a couple of the kids that I talked to really were very strongly against the Iraq War. One in particular, who I quote in my story, said, you know, `It was a stupid war. Army people are getting killed. I don't want to fight for a country that's picking on other countries.' The sociologists say that young black kids are also getting a lot of pressure from what the Army calls influencers--parents, preachers, teachers, coaches--not to join the Army.

NORRIS: Rick, we've noted that the Army has always had a rock-solid reliance on the black community for recruits, a really kind of special relationship. Could you help us understand that?

Mr. WHITTLE: Since 1947 at least, when President Truman ordered the Army to integrate, African-Americans have found a lot of opportunity in the Army. The Army has been actually well-known within the black community as a place where a kid could get a break, could get an opportunity and could be treated equally. Ten percent of the Army's generals are black. It's been well-known as a place where disadvantaged African-Americans could get a break in life by getting training, getting money for education and so on. But now there's strong sentiment in the black community against the war, and that's being translated into these influencers dissuading kids from joining.

NORRIS: Overall, what's happening in terms of the Army's recruiting goals?

Mr. WHITTLE: Well, they've been down. They made their goals in June, but they missed them the previous four months, and that's the first time in years that the Army has missed its goals. I think that in the coming months, if these figures continue, they're going to have to try to come up with new ways of recruiting. But what they are trying to do now is focus on the influencers. They've created new ads that are designed to persuade parents, coaches, teachers, `The Army can be a great thing for your kid. Let them go.'

NORRIS: Rick Whittle, thanks so much for coming in to talk to us.

Mr. WHITTLE: Thanks for having me.

NORRIS: Richard Whittle is the Pentagon correspondent for the Dallas Morning News.

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