U.S. Air Force basic military graduation Apr. 16, 2020, at the 320th Training Squadron’s Airman Training Complex on Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, Texas.

U.S. Air Force basic military graduation Apr. 16, 2020, at the 320th Training Squadron’s Airman Training Complex on Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, Texas. U.S. Air Force / Johnny Saldivar

Racial Division, Troops’ Role in Protests Has Hurt Minority Recruiting, Air Force Says

Black interest in military service plummeted after the George Floyd protests. Can the Pentagon undo the damage?

Years of racial tension, and the use of National Guard troops last June after the death of George Floyd, have hurt the military’s ability to recruit minorities, the head of Air Force recruiting said Wednesday. 

That drop is part of a worrisome long-term trend that the military is fighting against: that fewer recruitment-age youth show an interest to serve. 

According to the Defense Department’s latest twice-a-year Futures Survey, released in August, the share of eligible youth who reported they have an interest in military service has dropped about two percent overall in the last couple of years, said Maj. Gen. Ed Thomas, commander of the Air Force Recruiting Service. 

Most concerning, Thomas said, was that “the biggest drop in propensity to serve is from Black males, Hispanic males, and females.” 

The percentage of Black respondents who reported an interest in military service dropped from 20 percent in summer 2019 to 11 percent in summer 2020, according to the data. By fall 2020, the percentage of Black respondents interested in military service had dropped to 8 percent. 

The percentage of Hispanics reporting an interest in military service dropped from 18 percent to 14 percent over the same time. Interest from recruitment-eligible whites remained steady, from 8 percent in summer 2019 to 9 percent in summer 2020. 

“The last couple of years has done damage, there’s no doubt,” Thomas said. “The data shows us that the racial division in our nation has done damage to our recruiting efforts.”

Last June, after Floyd was killed by a Minneapolis police officer, then-president Donald Trump pitted the military against those protesting his death. He urged governors across the nation to bring out the National Guard and “dominate the streets”; he warned if those governors didn’t deploy Guardsmen, he’d do it himself and “quickly solve the problem for them.” 

Some Guardsmen, as well as police forces dressed in military fashion, subsequently used force to disperse peaceful protestors and subdue rioters and looters. 

Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. CQ Brown said he wasn’t sure why the numbers had dropped, but that it showed the military needed to reach out not only to recruitment-age youth but also that “we do need to engage with their influencers, whether it’s their aunt or uncle, mom, dad, cousins, grandparents…to show there’s is great opportunity in our Air Force.” 

“One of the things I’ve always believed is that young people only aspire to be what they can see,” Brown said. 

In the nationwide focus on racial inequality that has followed Floyd’s death, the Air Force and Space Force, which still relies on the Air Force’s recruiting structure, have re-doubled their efforts to not only recruit minorities but also pay increased attention to the career field opportunities that those new service members are exposed to. 

Within the Air Force, relatively few women or minorities have operational jobs of the sort that increase the chance of promotion. Of the more than 48,000 service members in pilot roles, only about 3,300 were women, and fewer than 100 were Black women, according to 2020 data. 

To counter that, the Air Force has been working with groups such as Women in Aviation and Black Pilots of America to get in touch with interested youth, Thomas said. The still-new Space Force has increased its outreach to university JROTC programs to increase diversity, Space Force Brig. Gen. Shawn Bratton told reporters at the Air Force Association’s Air, Space, and Cyber conference. 

The issue has the Pentagon’s attention as well. Last year, then-Defense Secretary Mark Esper directed all the services to make changes to their promotion boards, such as removing photographs to reduce unconscious bias as both enlisted and officers are considered for advancement. 

“The tragedy of George Floyd has brought emphasis to our efforts to reach out and do a better job in diversity recruiting than probably ever before,” Thomas said. “So while it has done damage  in the short term, I'm optimistic that in the long term, we will end up being better for it. But it's going to only be with a lot of hard work.”