PBS NewsHour

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Austin becomes first African American to lead the Pentagon

The confirmation of Retired Gen. Lloyd Austin as the first Black secretary of defense is a milestone. Nick Schifrin reports on how it also spotlights the racial disparities at the highest level of the military ranks.

AIRED: January 22, 2021 | 0:06:35
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JUDY WOODRUFF: The confirmation of Lloyd Austin as the first black U.S. secretary is a milestone.

Nick Schifrin reports on how it also spotlights racial disparities

at the highest level of the military ranks.

GEN. LLOYD AUSTIN (RET)., U.S. Secretary of Defense: Hello, everybody.

NICK SCHIFRIN: When Lloyd Austin arrived at the Pentagon today,

he broke through what's been called the brass ceiling.

In a 40-year career, he was the first Black officer to command a division in combat, the first

Black officer to command an entire theater of war, and now the first Black secretary of defense.

COL. IRVING SMITH (RET.), Author, "Why Black Officers Still Fail": To hit

every single one of those gates is incredible. So, to me, that is much like hitting the lottery.

NICK SCHIFRIN: Irving Smith is a retired Army colonel and former West Point professor.

He says the military provides opportunity for Black enlisted troops to rise to

positions like sergeant, but to rise through the officer ranks,

like four-star General Austin did, the barriers are systemic.

He read a 1995 U.S. Army War College research project,

"Why Black Officers Fail," and, in 2010, wrote a follow-up, "Why Black Officers Still Fail."

COL. IRVING SMITH: There's this thing called the good old boy network. There's a system

in the Army that is very -- it's like nepotism that exists there. And as long as that persists,

Black officers will have a very hard time making it to the senior ranks.

NICK SCHIFRIN: In 1994, Black soldiers were 27 percent of the Army, but only 11 percent of the

officers. In 2007, Black soldiers were 20 percent of the Army, but only 12 percent of the officers.

Today, the problem persists. The Pentagon provided "PBS NewsHour" data we analyzed for the entire

military. Black service members are 16 percent of the military, but only 8 percent of its officers.

White service members are 55 percent of the military, but 72 percent of the officers.

A major problem? The lack of Black mentorship.

COL. IRVING SMITH: Most of the African American officers were coming out of historically Black

colleges, and those historically Black colleges weren't providing the mentorship up front,

whereas the West Point cadets were getting the very best officers to teach them from day one.

And so they weren't necessarily being given the right guidance on the right assignments to take.

NICK SCHIFRIN: That's a reference to the military's combat units,

where Black service members are 11 percent of the enlisted, but only 5 percent of the officers.

White combat service members are 64 percent of the enlisted and 78 percent of the officers.

In fact, in combat units, as the percentage of white officers rises with seniority,

the percentage of Black officers drops from 8 percent of 2nd lieutenants down to 4 percent,

for colonels. In combat support units, such as logistics, the disparity remains, but the numbers

get better. Black service members are 20 percent of the enlisted, and 10 percent of the officers.

Smith says that's indicative of Black soldiers self-selecting.

COL. IRVING SMITH: I came into the Army because I was going to do five years,

get out and make a lot of money,

right? I fell in love with the Army when I was in the Army, and I found my calling when I was there.

But my parents were like, why did you go into the infantry?

That was the dumbest thing you could do. Why didn't you go in the Signal Corps,

where you could learn to work satellites and get a job at some big satellite company afterwards?

NICK SCHIFRIN: Smith says young Black soldiers who choose support roles, like Signal Corps,

limits the number of Black officers who become generals.

COL. IRVING SMITH: It's well known that the combat units, those combat arms professions

produce the senior leaders of the future.

HARRY TRUMAN, Former President of the United States: There is no justifiable reason

for discrimination.

NICK SCHIFRIN: The military is proud of its past efforts to fight racism. Thanks to a President

Truman executive order, the military was one of the first American institutions to integrate.

Black men have risen to its most senior ranks, Colin Powell, the first Black chairman of the

Joint Chiefs, and, just last summer, Air Force General C.Q. Brown, the first Black service chief.

But, before he was confirmed, he posted a video about the racism that he experienced.

GEN. CHARLES Q. BROWN, Air Force Chief of Staff: I'm thinking about the pressure I felt to perform

error-free, especially for supervisors I perceive had expected less from me as an African American.

ADM. MICHAEL MULLEN (RET.), Former Joints Chiefs Chairman: We can't just lay this

on a Black leader to say, go fix this. The Caucasian leaders of the services

have to fix this issue, have to really go after it.

NICK SCHIFRIN: Admiral Mike Mullen was the chairman of the Joint Chiefs

of Staff from 2007 to 2011. Today, he voiced rare criticism of his successors.

Do you believe that the current leadership across the military has taken this as a priority?

ADM. MICHAEL MULLEN: The current leadership of the military has not taken it as a priority,

and I think the evidence is just in the numbers. Look at the lack of senior

four-stars in particular who are Black or Hispanic.

NICK SCHIFRIN: Mullen hired Austin to be the Joint Staff director. One day,

Austin told his boss, come downstairs to take a photo

Never before had so many senior Black officers helped lead the Joint Staff.

ADM. MICHAEL MULLEN: And I said: "What's all this about?"

And one of them said, "This is history."

And every one of them had -- was doing an exceptional job for me.

NICK SCHIFRIN: To increase the percentage of Black officers,

Mullen says that old boys network has to change from the lowest ranks.

ADM. MICHAEL MULLEN: I have had this theory forever. On these promotion boards, there's

a phrase I use, ducks pick ducks. And these are dominated -- these boards are dominated by

Caucasian senior officers, typically. It's hard to break that.

And this is a long-term issue where you have to enlarge the pool there

in order to expect to be able to promote people to admiral and general.

NICK SCHIFRIN: Smith says commanders should be judged by the diversity of their staff

and the climates they create, and that ROTC programs must be improved.

He's confident that Secretary Austin can do that.

COL. IRVING SMITH: This is -- it is a great occasion not for Black America, but for America.

NICK SCHIFRIN: If the saying is, I cannot be what I cannot see,

today, every young service member can see him.

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Nick Schifrin.