Racism in the U.S. Military

Racism in the United States Military: A Historical Survey of Racism Found in the Armed Forces

Samuel Meehan, Fall 2020

The use of military propaganda has been used to entice young Americans into enlisting in the armed forces since the Revolutionary War. The propaganda often portrays the ideal soldier dressed in their crisp military uniforms, or maybe a computer-generated video demonstrating the striking power of the newest tanks in the field. Regardless of how the US Military distributes their propaganda to the public they all share a common message: join and fight to protect the freedoms for those who can’t. Keeping this in mind, many minorities join the Armed Services thinking that they will get a chance to fight for democracy and share the freedoms that America has to offer. Unfortunately, this has been a false reality of our Military’s history. US Army General Milley made this statement on racism in the Armed Forces, “the U.S. military is a cohesive team consisting of people of different races and genders and religious and sexual orientations working to accomplish their mission and peace in the war, all over the globe. Equality and opportunity are matters of military readiness, not just political correctness” (Milley).

Time and time again systematic racism has been ignored in the US Military, which is quite perturbing considering the pedestal that America places troops on. This paper will survey racism throughout US history and outline how men and women who belonged to American minority groups were discriminated against while fighting for the beliefs of freedom and equality.

It was not until World War One did the United States implemented their first mandatory military draft, requiring men to enlist in the service if prompted to. Naturally, the only requirements needed to enlist are to be over the age of eighteen and to be a male. However, immediately upon arrival at Bootcamp, the soon to be American soldiers were broken up by race. Whether they were white, black, Hispanic, Asian, native, etc, they were grouped with a similar race and spent the rest of the training with them. It does not come as a shock that white trainees received better bunks, food, and received fewer punishments on average considering the period. The Delaware Division of Historical and Cultural Affairs claims that “Many African Americans grew discontent when the government made no provision for military training of black officers and soon created segregated training camps for that purpose. Disheartened, blacks protested against this discriminatory practice. Despite the outcry, Fort Des Moines in Iowa became one of the segregated camps, and in October 1917 over 600 blacks were commissioned at the camp as captains and lieutenants” [1]. It is important to keep in mind that most training took place in the deep south, thus, many African Americans had to deal with Jim Crow Laws while training to fight in a war for a country that was mistreating them simultaneously. The Delaware Division of Historical and Cultural Affairs found that “once training was completed many of the minority groups served as laborers, stevedores and in engineer service battalions were the first to arrive in France in 1917, and in early 1918, the 369th United States Infantry, a regiment of African-American combat troops, arrived to help the French Army” [1]. Note, African Americans were not allowed to take part in combat roles at this time because of stereotypes that suggested they were not fit to fight on the battlefield. Once the First World War was over, African Americans and minorities hoped they would come home to open arms and acceptance from their white brothers and sisters but there was little to no progress made socially. To make matters worse, World War Two yielded the same results.

As mentioned earlier, African Americans received the same amount of hate and discrimination as they did in World War 1 during World War 2 despite almost 30 years in between. Alexis Clark, a reporter for History.com claims that “regardless of the region, at all the bases there were separate blood banks, hospitals or wards, medical staff, barracks and recreational facilities for Black soldiers. And white soldiers and local white residents routinely slurred and harassed them” [2]. It is truly disheartening to learn that these brave young African American men were leaving the comforts of their homes to learn how to fight for their country in hopes to prove that they deserve equality but instead received hate and death threats from their fellow brothers in arms. Matthew Delmont, a History Professor from Dartmouth College, went on the record saying: “The kind of treatment they received by white officers in army bases in the United States was horrendous. They described being in slave-like conditions and being treated like animals. They were called racial epithets quite regularly and just not afforded respect either as soldiers or human beings”’ [2].

This was nothing new to the African American community after the treatment received in World War One and once again as they returned home from the War many were denied veteran benefits. One benefit specific that was almost entirely denied to African Americans, was the G.I Bill, which allowed veterans to go to college close to free. According to a 2016 study by the Equal Justice Initiative which was covered by Time Magazine’s Andrew Chow, “between 1877 and 1950, “no one was more at risk of experiencing violence and targeted racial terror than Black veterans. After World War II, the G.I. Bill was constructed in a way that denied benefits to many Black soldiers—and only increased the gaps in wealth and education between white and Black Americans” [3]. This is an example of the systematic oppression found in our society that oppresses blacks from receiving a higher education regardless of whether or not they fought overseas and risked their life for their country.

The Vietnam War was the first time the United States used integrated units allowing all types of races to fight next to each other. This was a monumental step forward for the African American community in terms of showing equality in society. Yet it is not uncommon for people to associate the Vietnam War with the mistreatment of African Americans. Some background information on the Vietnam Conflict is that it was a guerilla war against the Vietcong, in which surprise/ booby traps were utilized against Americans. Keeping this in mind, African Americans were told by their white commanding officers to take the lead when units would go out on search and destroy missions, which often ended in multiple casualties. Once home, many African Americans told the papers about the mistreatment of minority soldiers overseas which prompted an anti-war movement throughout the country. Many radical racial groups came out during the Vietnam Conflict the most prominent being the Black Panther Movement. Chow describes it: “Black soldiers grew Afro hairstyles and beards as acts of protest and defiance. Many were radicalized through their experience in Vietnam, swelling the ranks of such groups as the BPP and the Black Liberation Army upon discharge” [3]. It was not until the Vietnam Conflict did African Americans take a powerful stand against the oppression in the Military and claiming self-autonomy. Many African Americans went AWOL (Away WithOut Leave) or just walked away from the base after the hatred they experienced.

Fast forward to the War Against Terrorism taking place in the modern-day Middle East. One would hope that in the 21st-century racism and hate surely would not have a place in American History. But despite some progress the United States of America has made on race relations domestically, it remains an oppressive environment in the Military. Although it is not hard to find minorities in the armed services, it is certainly difficult to find them in commanding positions, and that is exactly the problem at hand. As time has passed since Jim Crow South and the Confederate Nation have faded into history, its systematic roots have prevented minorities from holding high ranking military positions. Helene Cooper, a reporter for the New York Times found that “the reasons there are so few people of color at the top lie deep in the history and culture of the United States military. A 1925 guidance for Army officers stated that black service members were a class ‘from which we cannot expect to draw leadership material.’ The armed forces were not fully integrated until after World War II, a legacy that has left African-Americans without the same history of generations of family service shared by so many white enlistees” [4]. The problem with systemic racism and false connotations like this is that history will repeat itself over and over again, preventing courageous African Americans from attaining positions of military power. There was also a change in motives when it came to enlisting between the War against Terrorism and previous wars, that being minorities freely joined the service rather than being drafted. Thus, many African-Americans saw military service not as a career but as a way to help pay for education or to help compete later in the civilian job market. By contrast, Cooper discovered many white service members with long family histories of service sign up for what is called the “warrior culture, because that is what is expected, and it is what their fathers, grandfathers, and great-grandfathers did” [4]. The problem with Racism in the Military during the 21st century is that it is invisible and intentionally prevents minorities from reaching a high enough rank to call out the racism in the body of government.

It is hard to sit with the fact that a country that is built on the ideas of life, liberty, and equality, withholds these very rights from its soldiers who risk their lives. Some of the bravest men and women throughout history have laid their lives down in hopes of a future filled with freedom and equality for all. However, due to the systemic oppression found in almost all the layers of the armed services, many minorities have been denied equality. If there is any hope for Black and people of color to receive equal treatment to their white peers, the US must lead by example and begin to call out the hidden racism that is experienced in all ranks of the military. Offenders need to be removed and denied veteran benefits and verified whistleblowers need to be compensated for their courage. Although history is often set to repeat itself, with the help of education and activism, racism can be eliminated from the military culture in the US.


[1] DDHCA. “African-American Participation During World War I.” Division of Historical and Cultural Affairs – State of Delaware. Delaware Division of Historical and Cultural Affairs, November 21, 2019. https://history.delaware.gov/african-americans-ww1/.

[2]Clark, Alexis. “Black Americans Who Served in WWII Faced Segregation Abroad and at Home.” History.com. A&E Television Networks, August 5, 2020. https://www.history.com/news/black-soldiers-world-war-ii-discrimination.

[3]Chow, Andrew R., and Josiah Bates. “Black Vietnam Veterans on Injustices They Faced: Da 5 Bloods.” Time. Time, June 12, 2020. https://time.com/5852476/da-5-bloods-black-vietnam-veterans/.

[4]Cooper, Helene. “African-Americans Are Highly Visible in the Military, but Almost Invisible at the Top.” The New York Times, May 25, 2020.

Further Reading


Reflections on the Curse of Racism in the U.S. Military

Worcester State University Fall 2022