Diversity has always been an integral part of the U.S. military. It’s something to take pride in and help educate others on acceptance and tolerance. Yet, the tolerance level for the U.S. Air Force has not always existed. Up until 1948 when Executive Order 9981 was signed, racial segregation was a very real part of the U.S. military. Famous groups, such as the Tuskegee Airmen, fought not only for their country but also for equality in the military. Individual genetic traits, such as skin color and gender are often described as biodata (Wheeler, 2016a). They are uncontrollable traits, designated at conception, that make every human unique. Combined with individual differences, they are the foundation to the diversity that encompasses our country, including our military.
Diversity Back Then
Back in the day, meeting quotas for cadets of certain gender and race were not as important. It was predominantly the white males that ran the show. There were no tests or in-depth interviews to determine whether or not you would make a good leader in the military. You just volunteered and showed up. The country became so desperate for support that they even took African Americans in the aviation career field. No one believed these men could be taught or perform to an adequate standard, but they surpassed all doubt. The Tuskegee Airmen were known as the “leaders in the sky” because they were motivated, intelligent young men of color who used the hate of the world to fuel their drive (Wheeler, 2016b). Ethically, they were shown prejudice from the beginning, but once they proved to other pilots that they were just as capable and intellectual as them, they earned respect from their peers and capitalized on it to help unify a separated Air Force.
Biodata such as race and ethnicity continue to play a very big role in the search for diverse individuals to join the military. In fact, the United States Air Force Academy will begin turning away prospect students each school year because they aren’t “diverse” enough. They have to meet quotas in order to not show favoritism as an official military academy. Air Force ROTC has a similar process. Some months ago, I was at a university, helping recruit potential cadets for the next school year. I was instructed to “filter” out the students that didn’t seem like they were serious about the program or didn’t look physically capable of performing the fitness test each semester. My leadership gave me a mold of a perfect student whom they thought would model the perfect cadet. I felt like I was being forced to use a system such as Costa and McCrae’s (1992) Five Factor Model of Personality to determine which students showed potential to be future leaders. Yes, we wanted agreeable, conscientious, open extraverts, but I also knew of some cadets who were borderline neurotic. That was also part of the ROTC program – to help grow and mold cadets out of their bad habits and mentalities and into team players. Of course, this mentality of filtering out students didn’t sit right with me because, to me, you have to trust the system to do its job. Not to mention, who was I to say that a young Hispanic teenager sitting in front of me in the recruiting office wasn’t qualified enough to be a cadet? For all I know, he/she could’ve been a future General Officer.
We have come a long was as a country in terms of diversity in the military. In the Air Force, 13% of the airmen currently serving are African American, and nearly 30% are female. Both numbers are continuing to rise. If there’s anything that history has taught us, it’s to not judge a book by its cover. So much leadership potential lies amongst the most diverse people in our country. Our job as leaders is to look for those motivated, intellectual, even charismatic individuals and help them harness their potential. We cannot, as a society, sit by and judge people for their differences and tell them they’re not good enough to be like us. It is unethical and unprofessional. Only after finding those young leaders can we utilize their individual differences to the max extent possible to accomplish the mission.
For a broader insight into the importance of diversity in the military, you can read Carl Forsling’s article listed here: http://taskandpurpose.com/why-the-military-needs-diversity/.
Costa, P. T., & McCrae, R. R. (1992). Revised NEO personality inventory: NEO PI and
NEO five-factor inventory (NEO FFI professional manual). Odessa, FL: Psychological Assessment
Wheeler, J. (2016a). Unit 4, Lesson 8: Individual Differences [Canvas]. Retrieved
October 27, 2016, from https://psu.instructure.com/courses/1791578/
Wheeler, J. (2016b). Unit 4, Lesson 9: Personality [Canvas]. Retrieved October 27,
2016, from https://psu.instructure.com/courses/1791578/pages/l09-personality-defined?