The May 25 death of George Floyd in Minneapolis while he was in police custody and the associated protests prompted a renewed national discussion over race. Hundreds of thousands took to the streets in American cities and around the world to demonstrate their frustration, outrage, fatigue and solidarity, and to demand change. Accordingly, many organizations have taken an inward look at the practices and norms that contribute to their lack of diversity, equity and inclusion. The Army is one such organization.
In June, Secretary of the Army Ryan McCarthy directed the removal of Department of the Army photos from selection boards in part to address the disparity of Black officers’ promotions relative to their white counterparts. In fairness, the Army was not unaware of its shortcomings when it comes to racial diversity and has attempted to address them before. But previous discussions on the topic have often focused on the “shortcomings” of the officer rather than the institution.
The Army has attributed the disparity in Black officer promotions to low accession numbers and some combination of the Black officer’s branch, education, performance or access to mentors. Rarely, if ever, has the Army considered external, systemic factors.
Although not without problems, McCarthy’s directive is noteworthy because it recognizes the presence and impact of implicit racial biases against Black officers.
The Army must go further to remedy the negative impact of implicit racial bias.
Blacks are underrepresented in the officer ranks when compared with their share of enlisted personnel and the civilian labor force. Blacks comprised 11% of the active-duty officer corps in 2019, compared with 23% of enlisted soldiers, according to the Army Demographics Fiscal Year 2019 Army Profile. Blacks made up 13% of the civilian labor force in 2018, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported in late 2019.
In 2011, the Military Leadership Diversity Commission found that Black officers are promoted at a lesser rate than their white counterparts, especially to the general officer grades. The study also found that across all services, “Black officers’ promotion rates were substantially lower than the pay grade-specific average promotion rates for their respective services.” The commission’s findings align with earlier studies of the Army’s promotion record. More recent studies are not publicly available.
A 1996 study by University of Alabama political science professor J. Norman Baldwin in Public Administration Review found that minority officers are underrepresented in the Army’s middle officer ranks (captain, major and lieutenant colonel).
A 2009 study by G.L.A. Harris in the International Journal of Public Administration reinforced the observation, noting that Black officers’ challenge appears to be at the critical juncture for promotion from senior company grade to the first field grade level. Harris is a professor of public administration at Portland State University, Oregon.
While there are a number of studies that address the evident disparity in Black officers’ promotions, rarely do the findings discuss causality, or the relationship between cause and effect. When causality is explored, several themes emerge. While a student at the U.S. Army War College, Brig. Gen. Remo Butler identified four principal determinants of Black officers’ success or failure: education, developmental assignments, mentoring and the clash of cultures. His 1999 thesis, “Why Black Officers Fail,” is one of the most oft-cited pieces on the topic of Black officer successes and failures, and it speaks directly to these themes.
Concerning education, Butler was critical of historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and the ROTC programs hosted there. Butler found that HBCUs and their hosted ROTC programs lacked the academic rigor and professional training quality as large racially integrated, predominately white institutions.
Col. Irving Smith III, an assistant professor at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York, wrote in support of Butler’s findings. In 2010, in a U.S. Army War College Parameters article headlined “Why Black Officers Still Fail,” Smith was critical of the ROTC experience at HBCUs relative to predominantly white institutions because of the large role contractors (retired military and reserve component officers) played in military training.
Others have also explored education as a factor in the disparity. In a 2016 dissertation by student researcher Robert Smith that examined the success of Black male officers in the Coast Guard, Black officers not selected for promotion to lieutenant commander (O-4) were often missing postgraduate education. Despite that shortcoming, the research did not find that Blacks suffered from a lesser undergraduate education.
None of the studies and reports cited here addressed whether implicit racial bias during performance evaluations and promotion boards by senior officials was a contributing factor or the cause for a Black officer’s promotion failure.
Although the Army prohibits explicit racial bias in performance evaluations and selections, raters and board members’ behaviors influenced by implicit racial bias can manifest indirectly. There is minimal information concerning implicit bias and military promotions.
Research Supports Theory
A 2017 Florida Law Review article provides that “the theory of implicit bias occupies a rapidly growing field of scientific, legal research. With the advent of tools measuring individuals’ subconscious preferences toward people of other races, genders, ages, national origins, religions, and sexual orientations, scholars have rushed to explore how these biases might affect decision-making and produce broad societal consequences.” A majority of social scientists and legal commentators in the field agree that implicit bias exists and has behavioral effects that adversely affect minority and less-favored groups in American society.
Research has explored employment discrimination and found that implicit racist attitudes interact with a climate for racial bias to predict discrimination. In 2010, Dan-Olof Rooth, a professor of economics at the Institute of Social Research at Stockholm University, explored how implicit bias yields discriminatory behavior in the hiring decisions of employment recruiters.
A 2009 review of 10 studies by New York University psychology and politics professor John Jost and others that appeared in Research in Organizational Behavior revealed that students, nurses, doctors, police officers, employment recruiters and many others exhibit implicit biases for race, ethnicity, nationality, gender, social status and other distinctions. Implicit biases, or implicit associations, predict socially and organizationally significant behaviors, including employment, medical and voting decisions made by working adults.
The Implicit Association Test (IAT) is to measure unconscious racial bias and test whether it would influence decision-making. Using the IAT, a 2007 study by Dr. Alexander Green, of Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital, and others revealed that as physicians’ pro-white implicit bias increased, so did their likelihood of treating white patients and not treating Black patients with thrombolysis, which is associated with blood clots and blood flow.
The results, which appeared in the Journal of General Internal Medicine, suggested that physicians’ unconscious biases may contribute to racial and ethnic disparities in the use of medical procedures. Similarly, research has shown the phenomenon’s applicability in supervisory ratings.
Research challenges the assertion that “there is no evidence that the IAT reliably predicts class-wide discrimination on tangible outcomes in any setting,” according to a 2006 critique of the IAT in the Ohio State Law Journal by professors Philip Tetlock and George Mitchell. Racial bias exists and is significant, both in statistical and practical terms. Considering these data, McCarthy was correct to remove the bias-informing value of Department of the Army photos.
Mitigating the Impact
DoD Directive 1320.12: Commissioned Officer Promotion Program requires service secretaries’ instructions to officers serving on selection boards minimally include guidelines to ensure the boards consider all eligible officers “without prejudice or partiality.” Recognition of the existence and potential impact of racial biases necessitates the directive and instruction.
Before 1999, instructions to a selection board for promotion included language that recognized that past personal and institutional discrimination might have disadvantaged minority and female officers. Such discrimination “may manifest itself in disproportionately lower evaluation reports, assignments of lesser importance or responsibility, etc.,” the guidance said.
The removal of Department of the Army photos, combined with the masking of race data, while a necessary step in mitigating the presence and impact of implicit bias, serves as a significant impediment to selection board members considering earlier discrimination and bias. Accordingly, the Army must focus its efforts earlier in the evaluation-promotion cycle. Additional training and a process change will help.
Change Is Necessary
One of the critiques of the IAT is that it suffers from test-retest reliability. Individuals will exhibit less implicit bias taking the test multiple times. The criticism is valid but suggests that an awareness of one’s own implicit bias can be a catalyst for change, as three university researchers explained in a 2015 Journal of Experimental Social Psychology article, “Modern prejudice: Subtle, but unconscious?”
To this end, the Army should leverage regular bias training. Soldiers currently receive training on numerous topics annually. Bias awareness training would nest well with other equal opportunity and diversity training.
Subjectivity in evaluations is a second area where change is necessary to address the impact of bias. Officer Evaluation Reports are subjective assessments and reflect biases of the rater and senior rater.
In a 2019 study in the International Journal of Selection and Assessment, “Same‐gender and same‐race bias in assessment center ratings: A rating error approach to understanding subgroup differences,” four university researchers reported that they found that these biases benefit employees who share personal relationships with and the same race as their evaluator.
Army Regulation 623-3: Evaluation Reporting System further facilitates the subjectivity in the instruction provided to raters: “Provide an accurate assessment of the rated Soldier’s performance and potential (as applicable), using all reasonable means, including personal contact.”
The pervasiveness of implicit bias is a viable explanatory for the racial disparity experienced by Black officers. Awareness of implicit bias and controlling its role in Army processes are necessary mitigations.
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Maj. Benjamin McClellan is a strategist in the Office of the Deputy Chief of Staff of the Army for Operations, Plans and Training, the Pentagon. He formerly served on the Army Talent Management Task Force. He holds a doctorate in law and policy from Northeastern University, Boston.