Ron Harris / St. Louis Post-Dispatch – 2005-03-16 08:51:05
MISSOURI (March 14 2005) — As he made his way to the cafeteria, Malcolm Cotton spotted the Army recruiters passing out video games and making their pitches from a long table they had set up in a hallway at his school.
The recruiters made joining sound oh so terribly good — a $20,000 bonus for enlisting, $9,000 more if enlistees shipped out in the next 30 days and even better, $70,000 for college. Cotton, 18, a senior at Gateway High School, just walked on by without pausing, almost with disdain.
“I love this country and I will defend this country if someone is really attacking us,” he said. “But I don’t agree with this war. I believe it’s really nonsense. It’s about power and taking oil. I really don’t think we need to be over there fighting.”
Increasingly, young African-Americans have been turning away from the Army, many for the same reasons as Cotton, the military says. They don’t agree with the war. They dislike President George W. Bush’s handling of the military and foreign policies, and they are not willing to fight and possibly die for a cause they don’t believe in. The number of African-American recruits, a cornerstone of the Army in recent years, has plummeted, the military says. And the Army is struggling to maintain a force large enough to wage a war on two fronts, Afghanistan and Iraq.
For years, African-Americans have made up nearly 25 percent of the Army, more than twice their representation in the general population. The military, especially the Army, has had a long history of providing opportunities for African-Americans. But since 2000, according to the Department of Defense, African-American representation among Army recruits has fallen sharply. In 2000, 23.5 percent of Army recruits and 26.5 percent of Army Reserve recruits were African-American.
Last year, African-Americans represented just 15.9 percent of Army recruits and 20.2 percent of Army Reserve recruits. As of the end of last month, those numbers had fallen even further – to 13.9 percent of Army recruits and 18.4 percent of Army Reserve recruits. Additionally, the Army has seen a decline among women, often for the same reasons as African-Americans, according to one of two surveys of youth conducted by the military last year.
For the studies, more than 1,000 young people were interviewed, as well as more than 1,000 adults who were likely to influence youth, including parents, guidance counselors, members of the clergy, coaches and teachers. “Female respondents were less likely to support the American presence in Iraq, the war on terrorism, or the Bush administration’s use of military and foreign policies,” the report said. At the root of the decline among blacks is a deep philosophical difference between African-Americans and much of the rest of the nation regarding the war
in Iraq. And that difference has been passed on to African-American adolescents, who, according to the military, are much more inclined than white youth to be influenced by their parents, their clergy and coaches. “Black youth did not believe that important people in their life would support their decision to join the military,” according to the study. “This has important implications … because blacks’ attitudes toward the military are significantly influenced by their social-support systems.
“Whites were less influenced by extended family, teachers and guidance counselors than blacks and-or Hispanics,” the survey found. Women mirrored the sensibilities of African-Americans and Hispanics, the military found.
“In comparison with males, females tended to believe that important people in their life would be less supportive of their decision to join the military, which in turn affected their attitude toward the military,” the study said. The Army does not attribute the fall in the percentage of African-American recruits to a disproportionate number of blacks dying in the war. In fact, according to a study by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation at the University of California, Berkeley, the number of African-American deaths in Iraq is proportionately lower than the number of African-Americans in the military.
African-Americans, who make up about 20 percent of all active-duty personnel, represented 16.7 percent of all deaths during the phase of the war that ended May 1, 2003, according to the study. They have made up 12.2 percent of the deaths during the occupation as of September last year, the study found.
The Racial Gap
Almost from the beginning, many African-Americans have held vastly different opinions than many white Americans about the war in Iraq.
In April 2003, one year after the invasion of Iraq, a Gallup Poll reported that while 78 percent of whites supported the war, only 29 percent of blacks did. And in September of last year, while the rest of America was nearly evenly split on the war, a survey of 850 African-Americans by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a Washington think tank, found that 72 percent of blacks disapproved of the war.
And that attitude is now reflected in African-American youth, the military found. Only 36 percent of black youth felt the war was justified, compared with 61 percent of whites. Meanwhile, 80 percent of blacks and 71 percent of women reported that the war made them less likely to join the military, the study said.
Maj. Gen. Michael D. Rochelle, commander of the Army Recruiting Command at Fort Knox, Ky., and one of the Army’s most senior black officers, has called the trend “alarming.”
Said Doug Smith, a spokesman for the Army Recruiting Command: “Obviously we are concerned anytime we see a decline among anybody. But this may be the most striking example of the environment that we’re in now. I think it just reflects the wartime concerns of the applicants and their families.
“This is not like the old days of the front line and the back of the line in a wartime environment. Everywhere in Iraq is the front line. So everybody is weighing the risks.”
The Army expects to fall short of its recruiting goals this year of 80,000 recruits for the Army and 22,175 for the Army Reserve. If so, it will be the first time since 1999. The Army already has fallen short of its recruitment goals for the Reserve for January and February.
The military’s recruiting difficulties are expected to persist as long as many parents, clergy and other influential people in the lives of black youth are against the war. Among them is the Rev. Donald Hunter, pastor of New Sunnymount Missionary Baptist Church in St. Louis.
“I have always been against it,” Hunter said. “I am really pushing my youngsters to go and get an education.” Hunter said he believes that if he took a poll, about 95 percent of his 1,100-family congregation would say they are opposed to the war.
“I’ve got a brother-in-law and others in my congregation who are still mentally messed up from the Vietnam War,” he said. “And this war, we went in under false pretenses. Even if there were weapons of mass destruction, they were not a threat to the United States, and yet all these lives are being lost.” Rep. William Lacy Clay, D-St. Louis, said the vast majority of his black constituents do not support the war or Bush and his policies.
“These would-be recruits are saying what a lot of Americans are not saying because of 9/11,” Clay said. “Anytime anyone ever criticizes President Bush, they are considered unpatriotic. I don’t consider these men to be unpatriotic but to be making the best decisions in regards to their lives.
“Over the history of this country, African-Americans have always served proudly, from the Revolutionary War to the Civil War to the Buffalo Soldiers and both world wars,” Clay said. “Those causes meant more to the African-American community. They meant freedom, to seek justice in other places and to come home and seek justice here. This one doesn’t mean anything.”
Recruiting in St. Louis
Despite the difficulties recruiters are encountering elsewhere, Capt. Scott Wadyko, who is in charge of Army recruiting here, said he hasn’t seen a change in recruiting numbers for African-Americans locally.
Yes, the military is a tougher sell with the war looming in the background, but recruiting has “pretty much remained steady,” Wadyko said. “But we’ve developed good relationships with schools like Vashon and Beaumont, where there is a large military influence.”
The St. Louis area traditionally has been bad for recruiters, said Wadyko, who has been in command for two years. It annually ranks near the bottom of the more than 200 recruitment centers, he said. In the past seven years, the St. Louis unit has met its monthly goal of between 60 and 70 recruits only twice, he said.
“St. Louis is an odd town for recruiting,” he said. “Normally, we make about 50 percent of our recruiting goal.”
With the war in the background, it’s even tougher, Wadyko said. He and his recruiters must talk to more prospects before they get one to commit. To counter the concern about war, the recruiters bring up the subject even before the parents do.
“We try to allay their concerns,” he said. “It’s a different method. It’s more a family package now.”
Over the past few months, the military also has increased its incentives, doubling the sign-up bonus, adding the new quick-ship bonus, increasing the college scholarship money by $20,000 and pushing the school loan repayment program from $48,000 to $65,000.
But even all that is not enough for many, said Preston Thomas, a guidance counselor at Normandy High School, where most of the students are black. “Every year, we tell kids there is an ROTC scholarship out there that can help pay for their education,” Thomas said. “Lately, the numbers are real low of those who are applying for that ROTC scholarship, because they know that there’s a military commitment, and there’s a high probability that they can end up in Iraq.”
Additionally, he said, counselors have warned students that if the draft ever returns, those who are not in college or pursuing a post-secondary education are the ones most likely to be drafted.
“That has spurred a large amount of students to go to school, either to four-year institutions, to two-year institutions, even trade school. They’re just not saying, ‘I’m going to the work force.’ I’ve even had students come by and say to me, ‘If the military comes by, don’t put me down on the list to take the (entry) test.’ It’s a conscious thing right now.”
Fueling that consciousness are parents such as George Cotton, Malcolm’s father.
It is parents, other relatives and influential peers that recruiters like Wadyko must counter in order to win African-American recruits.
“Yes, we talk about the war and how senseless it is, and how different it is from World War I and World War II,” said Cotton, who teaches political science at St. Louis Community College at Florissant Valley. “They know that the war in Iraq is not about freedom and justice. It’s about power and oil, and I think people understand that.”
Cotton’s wife is so adamant that her son won’t be going to the military that she tears up every piece of recruiting mail that comes to their house without ever opening it.
“I think young people have been sold a bill of goods,” Cotton said. “And there’s no way Malcolm is going off and getting killed for nothing.”
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