A Brief History of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in the U.S.
Military: From the American Revolution to Present Day
Post #1, October 26th, 2020
While the U.S. Military is often heralded as one of the most-trusted organizations in our country, there remain many questions with regard to equity within its ranks. While a full explanation for the inequity and underrepresentation, for example that within the highest ranks of our armed forces, is more complex than can be addressed in this essay, it is safe to say that with all of the praise I and many of my veteran peers have to bestow upon our armed forces in describing it as mostly a meritocracy, where we are today is a function of where we came from and is worth diving into.
Even before the American Revolution began, it was not uncommon to see freed (or enslaved) Africans enroll in a colonial militia to assist in fighting off French or Native American forces. Yet as soon as concerns began to mount of slave uprisings, our country’s earliest residents began passing laws prohibiting African Americans from possessing firearms and thus joining militias. This action was but one of many examples wherein a minority group’s constituents offered to defend a freedom that they were unable to claim as their own.
This pattern of accepting contributions from minorities only when it benefitted those in power became a theme in the U.S. Armed Forces, with segregation of military units by race continuing for nearly two hundred years. The Continental Army initially forbade Blacks from serving, only to reverse this policy when sufficient numbers of troops couldn’t be assembled. In the War of 1812, General Andrew Jackson offered freedom and land to any slave who volunteered to fight for him at the Battle of New Orleans, only to renege upon victory over the British. While small steps towards equality were made into the early 1900s, more and more minorities volunteered their service and were met with assignments to specific tasks based on race. Filipino enlistees were exclusively placed into steward roles (such as dishwashers and cooks), as were many Black volunteers, and the few minorities who did serve in combat roles (such as Marcelino Serna) were sometimes denied the awards and recognition of their white counterparts.
Not until 1948, when President Truman signed Executive Order 9981, did Black, Hispanic, Native American, and other minorities have our nation’s support to serve to their greatest extent possible. The Order, mandating “equality of treatment and opportunity for all persons in the armed services without regard to race, color, religion, or national origin,” would take another six years to fully change policy and desegregate all military units, and was signed a full 16 years before the country adopted a similar law in 1964 for its citizens outside the military.
Progress continues to be made on the topic of equal opportunity, and our mistakes aren’t limited to prejudice on the basis of race alone. One month ago (September 20, 2020) marks the nine-year anniversary of the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” the former policy forbidding openly gay, lesbian, and bisexual individuals serving in the armed forces. This policy lasted for nearly two decades, and not until even later, as a result of United States v. Windsor, were same-sex spouses of service members afforded the same rights and benefits as other spouses.
As we share our stories over the course of this school year, our hope is that they can serve as an example of how progress can be made. The U.S. Military offers a unique perspective on this: On one hand, I firmly believe that our ability to recruit the best warfighters and most intensely promote our national values depends upon our willingness to construct a military force that is as diverse as the country it is born from. Simultaneously, it is precisely this absolute application of pragmatism, that our ultimate mission to support and defend the constitution has and likely will depend on our ability to defeat the enemy, that necessitates excluding certain individuals based on, for example, fitness level, intellect, and ability to remain calm under pressure. The key to navigating this challenge lies in our ability to disregard those attributes that do not in any way lend themselves to judgement, such as race, nationality, and sexual orientation.
The stories that follow will serve to highlight exactly how valuable contributions from such marginalized groups can be.
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