Over the past two decades, the armed forces have served as a de facto jobs program for black Americans. Although blacks are only 12% of the U.S. population, they hold 21% of all military positions, a fact amply demonstrated by the visible role they played in last year's gulf war. Indeed, blacks have 2 1/2 times the share of military jobs that all other minorities have. Now, however, the sharp cuts that are planned in U.S. defense spending over the next few years are raising a disturbing prospect: One of the greatest opportunities blacks have for employment and training will be scaled back as policymakers look for ways to lessen urban despair in the wake of the Los Angeles riots.
The Pentagon will cushion the impact as much as it can. Even as the services use lower recruitment, early retirements, and voluntary and involuntary departures to cut U.S. active-duty military forces 18% by 1995, to 1.6 million, they say they'll try to maintain their percentages of blacks at current levels. Still, the number of black troops will fall by about 80,000 from 1992 to 1995, projects Charles Moskos, a military sociologist at Northwestern University. Cutbacks will also cause 1.6 million private-sector defense jobs to disappear between 1990 and 1997, estimates forecaster DRI/McGraw-Hill. Such layoffs will hurt black employment, too, although experts say much of the damage has already been done as defense companies have shifted to the higher-skilled work forces needed to produce electronic weapons.
There's one overriding reason why the pain of the troop cuts will be more severe. The services, with their decent entry-level pay, job training, and financial assistance for college, are the closest thing many poor blacks can find to an economic ladder. At 13.6%, the jobless rate among blacks is double that for whites. And for black teens, who will be most affected by the troop cuts, the rate is a harrowing 33%. "All of us would like to see more money spent on butter rather than guns, but black Americans to a large extent look to the military for jobs and training," says John J. Johnson, military affairs director at the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. He adds: "There's nothing there now to fill that void."
Why is the percentage of black soldiers so high? Lynn C. Burbridge of Wellesley College's Center for Research on Women has an answer. In a new study, she found that 18.6% of poor black high school students surveyed--more than twice the level among poor white students--view military service as their most desirable job option. The rate is even more skewed among relatively well-off students: 6.5% for blacks, vs. just 1.6% for whites.
MERIT, NOT RACE. A major reason is that since the 1960s, the military has become the largest U.S. employer--and one of the best at promoting people strictly on merit, without regard to race or sex. It's also one of the few places where blacks routinely manage large numbers of whites. Only one of the large companies in the BUSINESS WEEK 1000 has a black CEO: He's Erroll B. Davis Jr., head of WPL Holdings Inc., the former Wisconsin Power & Light Co. By contrast, the military has 34 black generals and admirals--including top dog Colin Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. "There's a perception that you can achieve more based on merit in the military," says Jeffrie Grady, a former Marine captain who is black.
As budgets are slashed, however, it's getting harder for blacks to make it into the services. With downsizing, the services have continually raised admissions standards, so today's recruits usually need a high school diploma and at least average scores on a battery of tests to be accepted. Blacks fail more often than whites to meet oneof the requirements, partly because more blacks come fromdisadvantaged backgrounds. Today, only 25% of all black males could qualify to join the military, vs. 50% of all white males, according to Moskos. That's a dramatic drop from the late 1970s, when 50% of blacks and 80% of whites qualified.
Once in the services, more black soldiers now only qualify for administrative and support jobs rather than for skilled technology-based tasks that require more training. That's because blacks generally score lower on the skills tests that determine which training programs recruits can enter. For instance, in the Army, which is 30% black, the highest of any service, only an estimated 10% of high-tech positions such as electronic-warfare specialist are held by blacks--while blacks hold 40% of the lower-skilled logistics jobs such as quartermaster. "The jobs that black soldiers have aren't the technology jobs that are in demand in the civilian workplace, so the average black soldier may have a harder time adjusting to the civilian economy," says Brookings Institution researcher Edwin Dorn.
Blacks have already lost ground in the private-sector defense industry. That's because more than a third of all Pentagon procurement now goes toward electronic weaponry. As that shift has occurred, says Ann R. Markusen, a Rutgers University economist and author of the recent book Dismantling the Cold War Economy, "a smaller and smaller share of defense work has gone to minorities." The reason is that few blacks work in the technical professions that do most of such work: Less than 3% of the industry's engineers are black, forinstance.
UGLY ALTERNATIVES. Of course, blacks will still be hurt by defense layoffs. Under federal equal opportunity hiring rules, defense companies have been pressed to increase their percentage of minority employees so that it approaches the makeup of local work forces. For instance, at Gencorp Inc.'s Aerojet defense unit in Southern California, which has a large population of minorities, 23% of the 6,137 employees are nonwhite. That means that layoffs in such regions will hit minorities hard. Less defense spending also means less work for black subcontractors, many of whom have benefited from a Pentagon push to ensure that 5% of defense subcontracts go to minority-owned companies.
Whether they're laid-off or mustered out, blacks' alternatives to defense jobs haven't improved much over the years. Black unemployment has been double the white rate for decades. And blacks still earn only about two-thirds as much as whites, on average. "Since, statistically, we haven't lowered discrimination in the private sector and haven't given blacks good alternatives for training or going to college, downsizing the military is really going to hurt," says William Spriggs II, an economist at the liberal Economic Policy Institute. For the blacks who have invested so much in defense, that's a bitter peace dividend.