A segment of the controversial Michael Moore documentary “Fahrenheit 9/11” shed light on military recruiting practices in low-income inner-city neighborhoods. Moore’s depiction showed military recruiters in the destitute looking town of Flint, Mich., enticing African-American youth from struggling families to enlist with the promise of a brighter future.
This segment from “Fahrenheit 9/11” has long been used as an example of misleading recruiting by the military in poor Black areas. These practices and military recruiting advertisements portraying the lack of opportunities for African-Americans have long been a sore subject in the Black community.
“I’ve never seen the documentary but I can agree with that. I don’t feel like its because of a lack of opportunities; I think they feed off the vulnerability,” said Keith Clark, a Pittsburgh native in the U.S. Air Force. “There are great opportunities that were out there that I didn’t know about or were hidden from me from school counselors, recruiters, etc., but the key is to take the benefits and use them to the best of your ability so your enlistment wasn’t wasted. That’s what I took from my parents who were opposed to me joining but respected my decision and supported me. They told me to learn everything I can and to maximize my benefits because there will be life after the military and they wont prepare you for that, you have to prepare yourself.”
Despite Clark’s admission that his recruitment experience was somewhat misleading, he has no complaints about his four years with the Air Force and is currently finishing his bachelor’s degree. Like several other African-American servicemen, Clark has never been deployed to a war zone, but he has been able to take advantage of military benefits.
“I always had a fascination and respect for soldiers, and joining became a reality for me in high school when I was approached by a marine recruiter,” Clark said about his reasons for first enlisting and what attracted him to the military. “First it was a cash bonus, money always gets my attention, but I guess it was the experience, and the respect that comes with being in the military, along with educational benefits. The educational benefits are the most important factor for me at this point in my career.”
The numbers of African-American enlisting in the Army has declined sharply over the last decade, from 23 percent of all enlistees in 2000 to 13 percent in 2006. The decline continued according to more recent data reporting that in 2000, one out of every four soldiers was African-American, compared to less than one in five in 2010. The Marine Corps alone saw the proportion of Blacks drop from nearly 16 percent to 10 percent over the last decade.
According to data released by the Defense Manpower Data Center, there are more than 241,000 African-American active-duty troops combined in the Army, Marines, Air Force and Navy, and nearly 130,000 more in the Guard and Reserve. Despite this decrease, the key reason given by several African-Americans who have enlisted in the past five years is the appeal of benefits.
“At first I wanted to join for the benefits and paying for school...and also it would help with me get a good job with my degree, but now I feel that I am doing something productive with my life and serving my country,” said Timothy Smith, a hospital corpsman 3rd class in the U.S. Navy, who is currently deployed in Kuwait. “There is really nothing hard about it...really I mean being away from your family sucks, but that’s about the only thing.”
Despite the rosy picture this most recent generation of enlistees presents, many African-American veterans still struggle when they return home. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics the unemployment rate among African-American veterans returning from the second Gulf War is 14.7 percent. This amounts to over 40,000 officially unemployed in 2010 of the 347,000 who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan.
These numbers are a combination of both the high unemployment rate among African-Americans and the unemployment rate for veterans, which are 14 percent and 8.3 respectively. However, the unemployment rate for all veterans who served on active duty in the U.S. Armed Forces at any time since September 2001 was 12.1 percent in 2011.
Other data shows that Black veterans, who make up only 11.9 percent of the entire veteran labor force, accounted for 17.5 percent of overall veteran unemployment in 2010. The data also showed that unemployment among all Black veterans has steadily increased from 2007 to 2010 to reach 12.7 percent, the highest overall rate of unemployment among veterans.
Although Black service men and women might face challenges when they return home from deployment, recent data suggests fewer African-Americans are fighting on the front lines. In 1994, Blacks comprised nearly 25 percent of all Army infantry units, but by 2009 that number was only 10 percent. According to this data, there are four times more African-Americans serving in administrative or supply positions in the Army than in infantry posts.
In addition, only about nine percent of the troops killed in Iraq and Afghanistan have been Black, despite the fact they make up more than 17 percent of the total active-duty force. These numbers might offer some kind of condolence to the parents of service members like Smith who are in no hurry to leave the military
“No this won’t be my last deployment. I’m sure there will be plenty more as long as I’m in the military, but I’m looking forward to seeing all my friends and family,” said Smith reflecting on the end of his deployment set for October. “My first contract was for six years and I have done four already, but after that you can pick how many years you want to do at a time.”