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Plenty of service members are likely to sympathize with #TakeAKnee

- October 6, 2017

Is kneeling during the national anthem disrespectful to the American flag, and by extension, to the U.S. military? That’s the charge President Trump recently leveled at NFL players who began “taking a knee,” to use the athletes’ language, to protest police brutality against people of color.

But underneath that charge is an unexamined assumption that veterans and service members would not share the athletes’ views — and are white.

But the military is actually more racially diverse than the U.S. population. The United States Census Bureau estimates that the population of the United States is 77 percent white and 13 percent black or African American. The Department of Defense’s records for its more than 1 million active-duty service members show that 69 percent are white and 17 percent black. African Americans, in other words, are overrepresented in the U.S. military.

Black service members appear to have concerns about harassment and discrimination that are similar to those of their civilian counterparts. That’s what we find when we examine data from the Department of Defense’s Defense Research, Surveys and Statistics Center’s annual equal opportunity survey of active duty service members. Its most recently published data includes aggregated data by rank and race/ethnicity. All responses are anonymous; individuals self-identify their racial/ethnic group. As the debate is focused on black NFL players, we will here limit our analysis to just white and black service members, even though the Department of Defense also tracks data for those who identify as “Hispanic,” “Asian” and “Other Race/Ethnicity.”

Here’s what service members reported:

Racial or ethnic experiences over the past 12 months. Black service members were more likely than whites to say that they had had the experiences below, usually by relatively slim margins. We will highlight those points where the gap widened notably. The possible answers were that this had happened “never,” “once or twice,” “sometimes” or “often.”

  • Have you been told a story or joke by a service member that was racist or depicted your race negatively? By one or two percentage points more blacks than whites answered “never” (74/73); “once or twice” (15/13); “sometimes” (7/5) and “often” (4/2). But for that last answer, twice as many blacks as whites had this experience.
  • Have you been condescended to because of your race/ethnicity? Here the differences look a bit more significant. “Never” brought in 79 percent of blacks and 90 percent of whites; “once or twice” for 12 percent of blacks and 7 percent of whites; “sometimes” for 5 percent of blacks and 1 percent of whites; and it happened “often” for 3 percent of blacks and 1 percent of whites.
  • Have you ever experienced offensive remarks about your accent or language skills? Here again, the gap between black and white is a bit wider than for the first question. Only 86 percent of blacks and fully 94 percent of whites answered “never”; 8 percent of blacks and 4 percent of whites said “once or twice”; 4 percent of blacks and 1 percent of whites said “sometimes”; and 3 percent of blacks and 1 percent of whites reported that it happened “often.”
  • Have you been made to feel threatened with retaliation if you did not go along with things that were racially/ethnically offensive to you? With this more extreme situation, the gap narrows again. Fully 94 percent of blacks and 97 percent of whites said “never”; only 3 percent of blacks and 2 percent of whites felt this occurred “once or twice,” and only 2 percent/1 percent “sometimes”; and just 1 percent/0 percent said that they experienced this “often.” But even here, blacks reported threats more than whites.

Harassment in general. Service members were also asked whether  they’d ever been harassed — and if so, if it had been racial or ethnic harassment. Black service members reported they’d been harassed at more than twice the rate of whites: 36 percent to 16 percent of whites. Of those who said they had been harassed, blacks were much more likely than whites to say it had been racial/ethnic harassment.

Career advancement. Black service members were more likely to say that their race/ethnicity affected their career. That included saying that they were rated lower than service members of another race (5 percent/1 percent); that they did not receive an award or decoration that was given to others in a similar circumstance (5 percent/1 percent); and that they could not get straight answers regarding promotion possibilities (4 percent/1 percent).

If those numbers are aggregated, we find that black service members were far more likely than white service members to report that at least some of those behaviors have been racial/ethnic discrimination (24 percent to 9 percent).

Reporting harassment to leadership. Of those black service members who reported their harassment, most were generally satisfied with the results: 51 percent answered that they were either satisfied or very satisfied. The report gives no comparable information about white service members’ responses to this question.

But a significant minority of blacks were unhappy. Of all black service member respondents who said they reported some racial/ethnic discrimination, only 30 percent believed that the person who had bothered them faced official action and 17 percent believed that official action was taken against them. Perhaps it’s no wonder that more blacks than whites were disinclined to report racial/ethnic harassment or discrimination at all. Asked whether such a report would make their chances of getting promoted the same, better or worse, more than a quarter of black service members and only 15 percent of whites thought it would hurt.

Do they believe that senior leaders of their branch of the military and of their particular base or outpost made honest and reasonable efforts to stop racial/ethnic discrimination? Black service members were less likely than whites to say yes, by 57 or 58 percent to 70 percent.

What does all this tell us?

In some cases, blacks and whites had relatively similar perceptions. But overall, even the slim differences add up. More black service members feel they’re harassed or discriminated against based on race; that those who harass them would face few consequences; and that reporting it would hurt their careers. And black service members believe that they are less likely to get “good paper” — positive evaluations, awards, recommendations — than whites, making them more apt to be passed over for promotion or retention.

Meanwhile, a disproportionate percentage of the military’s senior leadership is white. White officers make up 77 percent of  officers, while black officers comprise 9 percent — a significant difference from the demographics of the overall military population.

What does this say about the NFL protests?

This survey reports on how black and white service members feel race influences their own experience of military service; it doesn’t say what they think about athletes’ kneeling or protesting during the national anthem. While we know that there were approximately 10,000 complaints filed with the EEOC in 2016 that alleged race-based harassment discrimination, there is no way to know from this whether black service members face more or less racist behavior than do black civilians at large.

But here’s what we do know. First, the military is more racially diverse than society. And second, black service members are more likely than whites to feel they’re harassed and to distrust those in authority. Perhaps at least some service members and veterans are siding with, rather than against, the NFL protesters.

Allen Linken is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Alabama. 

Gracie Smith is an undergraduate student at the University of Alabama.