The Big Idea: Up in Arms

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It was a landmark moment in the history of American liberal politics: As the White House frothed up public support for war, one of black America’s most radical activists dared to challenge the president’s call for national unity, issuing an eloquent call of his own. “We are loyal patriotic Americans, all,” the statement declared. “But if American democracy will not insure equality of opportunity, freedom and justice to its citizens, black and white, it is a hollow mockery and belies the principles for which it stands.”

This savvy evocation of economic and racial injustice, timed to exploit warmongering aims abroad, sounds an awful lot like the rhetoric at this winter’s peace rallies. It actually came on the eve of America’s entry into World War II, as labor organizer A. Philip Randolph threatened the White House with a 10,000-person march on Washington, D.C. But Randolph sought neither to stop the war nor thwart recruitment. To the contrary, he was demanding more opportunities for African-Americans in an expanding military.

Randolph was no hawk; his anti-recruitment activism landed him in jail during the first World War. But he saw one thing above all else in the nation’s latest military ramp-up: “Jobs, thousands of jobs.” And his campaign proved wildly successful, prompting a presidential order banning racial bias in the defense industry and setting the stage for a subsequent order kicking Jim Crow out of the ranks themselves.

But Randolph’s approach would be laughed out of progressive politics today. Where he saw opportunity, today’s liberals see a deceitful effort to use youth from low-income families, particularly blacks and Latinos, as cannon fodder. A breathless Mother Jones feature last winter warned that proliferating Junior ROTC programs have “militarized” urban schools around the country and are “lining up soldiers.” And as the anti-war movement builds steam, one of its central concerns is the military’s “manipulation of poor and working-class kids,” as the Village Voice’s Alisa Solomon put it, into fighting a rich white man’s war.

Certainly there are reasons to be critical of military recruiting tactics. Much of the recent anti-recruitment furor stems from a section of the 2001 education reform law that forces schools to hand over students’ contact information to recruiters. By that winter, high school students all over the country were complaining about phone calls at home and harassment on school grounds.

But lost in all the resulting outrage is an important fact: For years now, African-American students have been the ones running to the recruiters, not the other way around. And once enlisted, they’ve been staying.

University of Maryland researcher David Segal, a military sociologist, studies youth attitudes and demographics inside the Armed Forces. Among 18- to 24-year-old enlistees, he’s found 17 percent of the men and 30 percent of the women are black. For 18- to 40-year-olds–which include those who reenlisted after their initial term ran out–23 percent are African-American, compared with 12 percent of the general population. “They’re voting with their feet and staying in,” says Segal.

At a recent anti-recruitment meeting, facilitators asked the gathered youth to step forward if they could answer yes to a series of questions. Everyone, regardless of race, stepped up when asked if they opposed the schools’ new openness to recruiters. But when asked if they’d ever approached one on their own, almost every black student moved again into the circle’s center. The white kids from north Jersey looked baffled; the black kids from Queens and the Bronx chuckled knowingly.

“I really felt like there was nothing else to do,” says 23-year-old Bilal Karriem in explaining why he went to a recruiter in his Jamaica, Queens, neighborhood at age 17. “You just want to see something different. And I was just like, this is a way out.” He ultimately decided not to join. But while working as a youth organizer, he regularly suggested enlistment to kids he saw sliding into dangerous hustles. “You get killed in the street,” he reasoned, “so you might as well get paid for getting killed.”

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Recruiters would, of course, prefer a different tack. The basic offer of today’s All Volunteer Force is this: In exchange for a four-year commitment, high school graduates who can pass the entrance exam will earn a base pay that tops out at around $1,500 a month, along with health insurance. You either live on a military base or get a tax-free housing allowance that’s meant to pay 85 percent of your cost (for a single person in the lowest rank, stationed in the New York area, that’s currently $1,331 a month). And if you choose to pay $1,200 into an education fund over your first year (taken out of your monthly check), you’ll get around $20,000 for college tuition from the Montgomery GI Bill.

The Reserves, meanwhile, bill themselves essentially as a part-time job, offering scaled-back versions of active duty benefits. “What we offer cannot be matched by any part-time job out there,” gushes Sgt. Jose “Tony” Rivera, an Air Force Reserves recruiter in The Hub section of the Bronx.

The debate raging over recruitment turns on whether or not Sgt. Rivera is full of it. The recruitment push to which activists are now reacting grew out of a dramatic enlistment drop in the late 1990s. As the numbers flatlined, the usual fleet of Washington study panels and Congressional commissions mobilized. Two findings recurred: Lots of service members don’t cash in their education benefits, and many have serious personal financial troubles.

“The big surprise is that large numbers of people who sign up for the Montgomery GI Bill don’t use it,” explains Segal. Critics charge that’s because the benefit is too small and too cumbersome to access; recruiters like Sgt. Rivera argue it’s just about the choices people make.

Either way, the Washington studies prompted a handful of lawmakers to try to improve the benefit. In 1999, two House bills sought to do away with the $1,200 up-front pay-in, which is non-refundable, and to boost the payout. Senate versions offered similar but more moderate changes. None of the bills made it out of committee–and activists concerned about kids being duped made hardly a peep.

But ultimately, questions about the economic calculus of enlistment miss something Sgt. Rivera gets. He grew up in the same neighborhood he now recruits from. He enlisted right out of high school and has been either on active duty or in the Reserves for 23 years now. Rivera specifically sought out his post in the Bronx, based on his near-evangelical belief that the Air Force can give today’s young Latinos the sense of self-worth it gave him.

“You see, a lot of these kids out here never had anyone come up to them and say, ‘You are worth something,'” he says in explaining why he wanted the job. “Some of these kids have fantastic educational backgrounds. But because no one ever bothered to mentor them, they let that die, and they settled.”

Words like “teamwork,” “sense of belonging” and “leadership skills” come up a lot in Rivera’s recruitment pitch. And he says the majority of people who approach him are actually more interested in variations on these themes than in college. In fact, college-bound youth aren’t the military’s prime recruiting audience: A recent RAND analysis concluded there is actually a clear inverse relationship between a young person’s desire to attend a four-year college and his or her interest in enlistment.

When they do enlist, young blacks and Latinos find one of the most racially progressive large organizations in the country. Roughly 11 percent of the Army’s officer corps, for instance, is black, compared to 6 percent of the nation’s managers and professionals, according to the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies. Northwestern University military sociology scholar Charles Moskos once put it this way: “It’s the only institution in American society where white people are routinely bossed around by blacks.”

Problems clearly remain, mirroring those in the civilian world: Advancement into the uppermost ranks often depends on personal relationships with the elite command, still largely white males, and on graduation from the still largely white military academies. But while the Bush administration has filed a brief supporting the Supreme Court challenge to the University of Michigan’s affirmative action program, the military academies have filed a brief backing both Michigan’s policy specifically and the concept of affirmative action broadly.

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The military’s advances in race thus far have come precisely because activists like Randolph rejected the age-old debate of progressive politics–do we tear down the system or work within it?–in order to advocate for change, even though it meant engaging an institution they didn’t support. They took advantage of unique political openings, when the nation could ill afford discord surrounding its armed forces, to extract civil rights victories.

But from radical to mainstream, today’s rabble-rousers are now unwilling to do the same. Nor has the anti-war movement, which stormed through the winter invoking economic justice themes, managed to get better pay and benefits for the military’s roughly two million employees onto its agenda. Why aren’t more of today’s activists willing to engage the military on its internal policies?

“If we want to create a society where people have job training options and education options, then that’s what you work for,” says Amy Wagner, who coordinates the youth activists’ group Ya-Ya Network and is a longtime anti-recruitment organizer. “Young people should be having access to quality career training, quality education, quality job opportunities–and it not be connected in any way to the military.”

Fair enough. But when’s the last time a bill proposing such universal access came before Congress? Bills broadening the GI Bill, raising enlistees’ salaries and shortening enlistment periods have all been up in the last four years–and all have been met with a giant shrug by the left.

All of this leaves folks like Richmond Hill High School senior Yanique Jodieann Karlesa Lingo a little confused. After fending off recruiters all school year, she decided to hear them out as graduation got closer. The talk about college aid sold her, and she signed up for the deferred enlistment program. But then she started hearing about the GI Bill’s inadequacy from friends already in the Army. Karriem–who’s stopped pushing enlistment and joined Ya Ya’s campaign to make sure people know all their options before signing up–took Lingo to a meeting to hear more. They’ve made a deal: With his help, if she can get into college with a scholarship, she’ll pull out. If not, she’s staying in.

At the Ya-Ya meeting, when Yanique mentioned her deferred enlistment, one organizer began eagerly explaining that she’s not yet committed. “You can still get out, you know? They lie and say you’re in but…” Yanique, grinning, cut her off: “I know, I know.” She’s too smart to close any doors. “I’m still contemplating,” she later explained. “I don’t know all my options yet.”