The overwhelming majority of active duty service members of color report having positive military experiences — but they and family members also report discrimination, racial slurs, racial profiling and safety concerns, according to the results of a survey just released by Blue Star Families.

Some of these families are making career decisions — such as whether to stay in the military or turn down orders to a new duty station — based on concerns related to their race/ethnicity.

The number of active duty and veteran family member respondents in this survey is relatively small and the findings can’t be generalized to the entire population of these families, according to the researchers, but it’s a starting point given the dearth of research on these communities.

Of the 2,731 people who responded, 33% identified as active duty family respondents of color, including 303 service members and 622 spouses. In this survey, “respondent of color” refers to anyone who selected any race/ethnicity other than only white. According to the latest Defense Department demographics report, there are 415,414 active members who self-identify with groups in a racial minority. More than half of those identify as Black or African American.

About four in 10 of those active duty respondents and more than half of veterans of color experienced racially or ethnically based discrimination or harassment by peers at some point of their career, according to the survey, which was fielded in June and July 2021. On the other hand, seven in 10 active duty members of color said they are respected by their peers and feel a sense of belonging.

And active duty families of color have fears about their safety, even in the military community: four in 10 said they had feared for their safety in the military community at least once in the previous 18 months.

About 20% of the active duty members of color said they’d been threatened or harassed five or more times in the previous 18 months; and 46% said they’d been the subject of racial slurs or off-color jokes at least once in that time frame.

One in three Black active duty family respondents reported being profiled by military or civilian law enforcement at least once between January 2020 and the time of the survey. Half of Black active duty family respondents said they trust their local military law enforcement, compared to about 30% who trust local civilian law enforcement.

‘What’s the problem?’

During a Feb. 2 event to release the results of the survey, retired Army Lt. Gen. Thomas Bostick, whose heritage is part Black and part Japanese, described an incident with military law enforcement when he was on active duty that involved his son, who was visiting from Stanford University. His son called him and said he was at the installation gate and needed help. “I run to the gate and there are three policemen with their weapons drawn, pointing at him in the car, and one is holding up my three-star placard,” Bostick said. “I walked up and said, ‘What’s the problem?’

“He said, ‘This young man has the placard of a three-star. There’s no way this is his car.’

“I grabbed the placard, and I said, ‘That’s my placard. I worked about 30 years to earn that. That’s my son, and that’s my car. So, I want you to put your weapons down, relax, and I want you to tell me who your boss is.’

“I had the rank to make change. If it was my dad, Master Sergeant Bostick, and this happened to him, he would just say, ‘Okay, I’ve been stepped on again,’ and he’d move out. But he wouldn’t be able to challenge the system.”

The online survey isn’t a random scientific survey; it was fielded to military families of color with the help of a marketing campaign targeted to those communities. But the results of the survey “serve as an important foundation from which to begin difficult, but necessary conversations about the experiences of military and veteran families of color,” said Jennifer Akin, co-director of applied research for Blue Star Families. Prior to this study, virtually no research had been done on military families of color, she said.

The research was conducted with Syracuse University’s Institute for Veterans and Military Families and is part of a broader effort of the past 14 months, including focus groups, to assess the needs of military families of color, and come up with solutions to help military and civilian communities improve the quality of life for these military families.

“When military families don’t feel supported or a sense of belonging in the community where they live, they aren’t as resilient and, as a result, our military force isn’t as ready as it can be,” said Kathy Roth-Douquet, CEO of Blue Star Families.

But that feeling of inclusiveness and belonging in their local civilian community is missing for nearly half of the active duty family respondents of color. And researchers found that 16% of active duty family respondents feel “uncomfortable” or “very uncomfortable” in their local civilian community, with racism being the most common reason for that discomfort.

Safety fears

There are real concerns about safety: More than half of active duty family respondents residing in the Midwest, West and South reported fearing for their safety in their civilian community because of their race or ethnicity at least once between the beginning of 2020 and the time they took the survey in the summer of 2021; and 43% of those living in the Northeast reported the same safety fears.

These families don’t necessarily feel safe on their installations:.. About 41% reported they had feared for their safety at least once in their military community because of their race/ethnicity since January 2020, a finding described as “alarming” by the researchers. When asked about these instances, " respondents describe general feelings of racism and discrimination, sometimes accompanied by overt symbolic displays (e.g., the Confederate flag) and discussion of politics in ways they viewed to be coded racism,” the report stated.

Over half of the 303 active duty members of color have considered discrimination and safety concerns when making decisions about installation preferences. The researchers don’t have data on which installations are a concern, but said they expect to look further into this in the future.

Some positive findings

♦ 79% of active duty members of color said their experience in the military has had a positive influence on their professional growth.

♦ 61% said that the military is a place where they are able to perform to their full potential.

♦ 59% of those active duty members reported having allies in the workplace.

♦ 51% of active duty family respondents reported their financial situation is more stable than that of their friends and family of the same racial/ethnic background who aren’t in the military.

Retired Army Lt. Gen. Gwen Bingham, co-chair of the Blue Star Families’ Racial Equity and Inclusion Initiative, said at times during her career, “I have personally felt the sting of exclusion and being made to feel inferior.”

But as an African American woman who served in the Army for 38 years, she said, “part of the reason I served for so many years was that I felt that sense of belonging. I know how important it is for our service members and families to thrive,” she said, adding that the benefits of this work will extend beyond military families of color.

“Through this work, we are addressing a blind spot that can help improve the quality of life for the majority of our force,” she said.

Karen has covered military families, quality of life and consumer issues for Military Times for more than 30 years, and is co-author of a chapter on media coverage of military families in the book "A Battle Plan for Supporting Military Families." She previously worked for newspapers in Guam, Norfolk, Jacksonville, Fla., and Athens, Ga.

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