(November 2005) Since virtually the beginning of the all-volunteer U.S. military in 1973, African Americans have enlisted for service in the armed forces at much higher levels than their percentage of the total U.S. population. After reaching a high of 28 percent in 1979, black enlistment levels hovered around 20 percent until 2000.

But the past five years have seen a drop in overall African American enlistment levels that has reduced black participation in the armed forces to percentages not seen since 1973. Black enlistment rates in the Army (see Figure 1) and the Marines have declined precipitously since 2000. These trends may spell trouble for the Army, which has depended on blacks to meet its recruiting goals and reenlistment targets.

Blacks Enlisted in Surprisingly High Numbers at Beginning of All-Volunteer Era

Figure 1
Percent of African American NPS Army Recruitment, 2000-2005

Source: Army Recruiting Command.

When the United States debated the end of selective military conscription in the late 1960s, President Nixon's Commission on an All-Volunteer Armed Force (otherwise known as the Gates Commission) assumed that African Americans would be represented in the force in proportion to their representation in the U.S. population during that decade: roughly 14 percent to 15 percent.1

But while blacks made up 10 percent of enlisted personnel in 1970, that percentage climbed to 14 percent in 1973, the first year of the all-volunteer force. By April 1974, 21 percent of enlisted volunteers who had no prior military service (NPS) were black. There was a decline in 1975-1976, but a subsequent recovery during the rest of the decade.

The 1974 overrepresentation was particularly high in the services that had the greatest participation in ground combat: the Army and the Marines. That year, 27 percent of new volunteers in the Army and 21 percent in the Marine Corps were black. By contrast, 16 percent of Air Force enlistees and 10 percent of Navy enlistees were black.

Although there was a decline in African American recruitment in the early 1980s to about 20 percent of total NPS enlistments, African Americans reenlisted in the U.S. military in larger proportions than whites. Black representation in the enlisted ranks also continued to increase during the first full decade of the all-volunteer force, hovering from between 21 percent to 23 percent throughout the 1980s.2 Indeed, both the overrepresentation of blacks in the military and the differences in black enlistment among branches of the armed services have persisted for the first 32 years of the volunteer force.

Less Likely to Be in the Reserves Than in Active-Duty Forces

Three additional points regarding African American enlistment are worthy of note. First, even in the Army, African Americans in the volunteer force are more likely to enlist in administrative, medical, and support specialties rather than in combat specialties.3 In the context of current combat operations in Iraq, these differences are not as important as they would be in a conventional war: In Iraq, there is no front line, and all military personnel are potential combatants.

Second, the concentration of African Americans in support specialties is in part because African Americans are more heavily represented among female than among male enlistees. For example, blacks make up about one-third of enlisted women and about one-fifth of men. Women are excluded from most Army offensive combat specialties.

Third, the historical overrepresentation of African Americans has been limited to the active-duty force. The reserve components—on which the military has been extremely dependent during operations in Iraq—have a much smaller proportion of African Americans.4 In part, this smaller proportion is a consequence of a historical pattern of racial discrimination in the National Guard. The reserves also often recruit prior service personnel who leave the active duty forces, while African Americans are more likely than whites to continue their active-duty service.

Black Enlistment Rates Drop Sharply in the 1990s

The level of overrepresentation of African American military enlisted accessions began to decrease in the early 1980s, even as the percentage of African Americans in the civilian labor force was increasing slightly.5 And the black enlistment rate dropped steeply between 1990 and 1991, a decline that reflected a sharp drop in 1991 in the enlistment propensity (their desires to serve and expectations of serving—the strongest predictor of actual enlistment) of young black men and women.6 While the propensity of blacks to serve since then has remained higher than that of whites, it has never returned to the level it achieved during the first 17 years of the volunteer force.7

In addition, the degree to which young American adults perceived the military to be a racially discriminatory workplace had increased during the 1990s.8 The percentage of black high school seniors who perceived that the military discriminates against African Americans "to a great extent" or "to a very great extent" had hovered around 10 percent during the late 1970s and 1980s. But that percentage doubled in the early 1990s and was still at 15 percent in 2003.

The Declines Continue in the 21st Century

Despite these qualifications, however, the decline in African American military enlistments during the first five years of the 21st century has been striking. Their enlistments have declined from 20 percent in 2000 to about 15 percent today—the level African Americans were enlisting in the military in the first year of the volunteer force, and a low for the all-volunteer era. This trend has been particularly true for the Army, where NPS African American enlistments have dropped from 23.5 percent in 2000 to 14 percent, exactly the proportion of the American population that is black (see Figure 2).9

Figure 2
African American Representation in the Active-Duty Enlisted Ranks, by Branch, 1994-2004

Source: Defense Manpower Data Center.

In the Marines (the other ground-combat branch of the military), black enlisted representation decreased over the same period from 15.3 percent to 11.9 percent—the smallest percentage of African Americans serving in any branch of the military, and less than proportional representation. By contrast, African American representation in the Navy, which has the second highest percentage of blacks among the services, increased from 16.3 percent in 1994 to 18.9 percent in 2004. And in the Air Force, blacks remained approximately at the point of proportional representation (14.6 percent in 1994 and 15 percent in 2004).

People coming into the service are expected to remain on active duty for at least three years, and retention is higher in general among African Americans than among white soldiers. Continuation rates for African American enlisted personnel are about 2 percent per year higher than for white enlisted personnel.10 Since these differences appear at the lowest enlisted ranks and therefore compound over time, it will be some time before the actual proportion of blacks in the service declines to levels that approximate the proportion black in the population. Furthermore, these trends may be asymptotic. However, as Figure 2 shows, African American representation in the enlisted ranks of the Army decreased during the last decade from 27 percent in 1994 to 23 percent in 2004.

For more on America's military, read the 2004 Population Bulletin written by David Segal and Mary Wechsler Segal: "America's Military Population" (PDF: 627 KB).

David R. Segal is Distinguished Scholar-Teacher, professor of sociology, director of the Center for Research on Military Organization, faculty associate in the Maryland Population Research Center, and faculty affiliate in the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland, College Park. Mady Wechsler Segal is Distinguished Scholar-Teacher, professor of sociology, associate director of the Center for Research on Military Organization, and faculty affiliate in the Women's Studies Program and in the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland, College Park.


  1. The Report of the President's Commission on an All-Volunteer Armed Force (London: Collier/MacMillan, 1970).
  2. Martin Binkin and Mark J. Eitelberg, Blacks and the Military (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution, 1981): 164.
  3. David R. Segal and Mady Wechsler Segal, "America's Military Population," Population Bulletin 59, no. 4 (2004).
  4. David R. Segal and Mady Wechsler Segal, "U.S. Military's Reliance on the Reserves," accessed online at www.prb.org, on Nov. 16, 2005.
  5. David R. Segal and Naomi Verdugo, "Demographic Trends and Personnel Policies as Determinants of the Racial Composition of the Volunteer Army," Armed Forces & Society 20, no. 4 (1994): 619-32.
  6. Enlistment propensity rates are measured by the University of Michigan's Monitoring the Future surveys of high school seniors. See www.monitoringthefuture.org.
  7. David R. Segal et al., "Propensity to Serve in the U.S. Military: Temporal Trends and Subgroup Differences," Armed Forces & Society 25, no. 3 (1999): 407-27.
  8. David R. Segal et al., "High School Youth Perceptions of Military Equal Opportunity Climate: A Longitudinal Assessment," paper presented at the Fourth Biennial EO/EEO Research Symposium, Defense Equal Opportunity Management Institute, Cocoa Beach, FL, Dec. 5-6, 2001.
  9. Josh White, "Steady Drop in Black Army Recruits," Washington Post, March 9, 2005.
  10. U.S Governmental Accountability Office (GAO), Military Personnel: Reporting Additional Servicemember Demographics Could Enhance Congressional Oversight, Government Accountability Office Report GAO-05-952 (Washington, DC: GAO, 2005): 109.