Profiles for People of Color in the U.S. Military 2020-2021

At the end of 2020, the Defense Department’s Diversity and Inclusion Board released a report aimed at identifying ways to improve racial and ethnic diversity in the U.S. military.

Among the report’s findings: The enlisted ranks of the active and reserve military were “slightly more racially and ethnically diverse than its U.S. civilian counterparts.” But not the officer corps. Furthermore, it found that the civilian population eligible to become commissioned officers was “less racially and ethnically diverse than the civilian population eligible for enlisted service.”

The breakdown of all active commissioned officers: 73% white; 8% each Black and Hispanic; 6% Asian; 4% multiracial; and less than 1% Native Hawaiian, Pacific Islander, American Indian or Alaska Native. And the diversity gap widened the higher individuals moved up in the ranks.

The report emphasized the increasing importance of the representation of minorities reflecting the nation’s morphing demographics, saying the Defense Department “must ensure that all service members have access to opportunities to succeed and advance into leadership positions.”

African Americans

Black Americans are much more likely to serve the nation, in military and civilian roles. Compared to the civilian labor force, Black men are significantly over-represented in military service, while Black women are similarly over-represented in civilian service. Among whites, women are significantly under-represented in military service, while men are significantly under-represented in civilian service. The overrepresentation of black men and women in the military can be seen as a double-edged sword. On the one hand, the military has served as an important means of economic mobility for many black men. On the other hand, the dominance of Black Americans in military service– and therefore among these most likely to be put in harm’s way on behalf of the nation – is striking, especially in light of broader current conversations about race, justice and equity.


In 2004, 36% of active duty military were black, Hispanic, Asian or some other racial or ethnic group. Black service members made up about half of all racial and ethnic minorities at that time
By 2017, the share of active duty military who were non-Hispanic white had fallen, while racial and ethnic minorities made up 43% – and within that group, blacks dropped from 51% in 2004 to 39% in 2017 just as the share of Hispanics rose from 25% to 36%.

The president of a Latino civil rights group is calling for young Latina women to refuse to join the military until the armed forces guarantee their safety from rape and sexual assault.
The announcement from League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) President Domingo Garcia comes after investigators found the body of Spc. Vanessa Guillen, who vanished after reporting she had been sexually harassed by a fellow soldier.

“I think there’s a good ole boy network in the military,” Garcia said. “They cover up when someone allegedly gets raped.” Guillen’s family said she told them she was being sexually harassed at Fort Hood in Texas. After she disappeared, her dismembered body was found in a shallow grave. The man Guillen accused in the case killed himself after police came to talk to him.

LULAC said it had been fighting for answers from Fort Hood for weeks after Guillen disappeared. Military leaders have said they found no evidence of sexual harassment or abuse against Guillen.

“Look, the military code book is deny and lie,” Garcia said.

NBC Bay Area spoke to the Pentagon on Saturday and requested a comment. While the Pentagon promised to respond, that response had not arrived as of Monday afternoon.

LULAC was founded by veterans, so Garcia said it pains him to call for a military enlistment boycott, but he said it’s necessary.

“If you have a young daughter who is thinking of enlisting in the Army, warning, they may not be protected even though they enlisted to protest and serve our country,” Garcia said. “The Army may not be protecting them from predators within the Army.”

Stephanie Thomas served in the Army in the late 1980s. She said there was sort of a fratboy mentality then, especially since women are so outnumbered in the military.

But as a Latina, Thomas disagrees with LULAC.

"It’s not a good thing to just say, ‘Don’t join,’ and not focus on the problem that does occur in the military, especially of young women,” she said.

LULAC said it is meeting with the secretary of the Army on Friday. The agency said it will not back down from its call for a Latina military boycott until they get answers and people are held accountable.

Asians/Pacific Islanders

Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders are one of the most culturally and linguistically diverse groups in the country (their heritage traces to over 30 different countries and ethnic groups and includes over 100 languages and dialects).
53% of Asian and Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander veteran respondents characterized their employment transition as difficult or very difficult, compared with 49% of White/Non-Hispanic veteran respondents.

Spike in Violence Against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders

Over the past year of 2020-2021, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders have been increasingly targeted for discrimination and violence in the United States – which we have seen intensify over the past several weeks. The pain, fear and uncertainty that accompany this horrific trend are being felt across the country and around the world. As families cope with this new reality, we urge Americans to look out for one another, to be thoughtful about the language they use, and to embrace inclusivity as a core principle of this nation.

Native American

American Indians and Alaska Natives serve in the Armed Forces at five times the national average and have served with distinction in every major conflict for over 200 years. Considering the population of the U.S. is approximately 1.4 percent Native and the military is 1.7 percent Native (not including those that did not disclose their identity), Native people have the highest per-capita involvement of any population to serve in the U.S. military.

Sadly, American Indian and Alaska Native veterans have lower incomes, lower educational attainment and higher unemployment than veterans of other races. They are also more likely to lack health insurance and have a disability, service-connected or otherwise, than veterans of other races. About 19 percent of American Indian and Alaska Native veterans had a service-connected disability rating in 2010, compared with 16 percent of veterans of all other races, according to the Department of Defense.

How to become an officer in the military

Castro began his military career as an infantryman in 1981. He got the news of his promotion to colonel about a month after returning from his second tour in Iraq, where he did research on soldiers' mental health for the U.S. Army as a lieutenant colonel. After peacekeeping missions in Saudi Arabia, Bosnia and Kosovo, and 33 years in the U.S. Army, he retired in 2014 and became a professor at the University of Southern California teaching social work and psychology.

His background is unusual for many Latinos in the military.

There are four ways to become an officer: attend a military academy, enroll in a Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) program, attend Officer Candidate School (OCS) and receive a direct commission. The Defense Department said that because it takes up to two decades to develop a general or flag officer, it's focused on not just recruiting, but also retaining diverse talent.

All officers must ultimately have a bachelor’s degree from a four-year institution and a good score on the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery test, which everyone takes before they are enlisted. The test is only administered in English. Castro says prospective soldiers who are first-generation Hispanic American or who aren’t proficient native English speakers most likely won't get a high score on the test. Those with the lowest scores on the test tend to get funneled into enlistment as infantrymen, which could discourage Latinos from pursuing a career as a commissioned officer later in their careers, Castro said.

The majority of officers in the military come from ROTC programs. Officer Candidate School generally lasts about nine to 17 weeks. Direct commissions are given to people who are already practicing a trade in their civilian life and can pick up a specialty as an officer in the military, such as doctors or nurses.

Many Latinos simply don’t have enough education to become an officer. Hispanic students are the second largest ethnic group in U.S. public schools after white students, but only about 8% of Latinos receive a post-secondary degree, according to the Congressional Research Service. Language and economic barriers, as well as discrimination, have historically contributed to the Latino achievement gap in U.S. education. And that affects who gets promoted in the military, Castro said.

“If you don’t have a large pool of male Hispanics who have college degrees then you don’t have many commissioned officers,” Castro said.

One bright spot is the growing education levels of Hispanic women in the U.S. The number of Latinas who graduated from a higher education grew about 70% from 2000 to 2017, largely outpacing Millennials Latinos, a demographic that saw a 56% growth in college graduations, according to a report on U.S. Latinas by NBCUniversal Telemundo Enterprises and Comcast NBCUniversal published in November.

However, women are less likely to enlist and stay in the military to further pursue their careers as commissioned officers. According to a 2017 report by the CNA, a research organization in Arlington, Virginia, women of all ethnic backgrounds only make up about 18% of the officer corps and account for less than 7% of the highest leadership positions. The military only opened all combat jobs to women in 2015.

Jacqueline Krulic, a U.S. Navy veteran who is half-Mexican, says the hurdles to get into military leadership are worse for women of color. She said there were times when male service members made fun of her and her female colleagues, joking that their butts were too big for their uniforms. When they tried to stick up for themselves, they were told they had a bad attitude.

"I think there's a difference on how Latino men get treated and the Latina women," she said. "Definitely as a woman of color you got treated a lot different."

Military culture discouraged Krulic and her friends from speaking up about any form of harassment or insults, she said.

"You can report it but nothing will happen and then people will know," she said. "You become that person, the snitch."

Krulic said the majority of Latinos that she knew served their four years and then pursued an education or other careers as civilians. In her case, she left because of family. But she thinks that another reason people leave is because they don't feel appreciated as enlisted service members and see no point in climbing the ranks.

Wooten said this could be a common sentiment among minority veterans.

“You gain some financial stability and you gain your education, but you don’t feel valued,” Wooten said.


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