Dr. Isaac Hampton II Discusses Historical Challenges of African-American Military Officers
GSPIA recently hosted Dr. Isaac Hampton II for the Roscoe Robinson Jr. Lecture, "The Journey of African American Officers Through the Vietnam Era." Sponsored by the Roscoe Robinson Jr. Memorial Endowment, and held in honor of the achievements of GSPIA alumnus General Roscoe Robinson Jr. (MPIA '64), the first African American to become a four-star general, this annual lecture promotes discussion and understanding in key issues related to diversity in public service.
Hampton's lecture spoke to the gap in the current literature regarding the typical African American officer's experience during the Vietnam War. Hampton, a member of the history faculty at San Antonio College, has spent many years researching of African American officers' experiences in relation to military desegregation and the civil rights movement, echoed in his recent book, The Black Officer Corps: A History of Black Military Advancement from Integration Through Vietnam.
During his lecture, Hampton highlighted that even though there were some notable exceptions (as represented by General Robinson Jr. himself), the 1960s and 1970s where characterized by an ongoing system of subtle racism and unfair promotion that inherently isolated African-Americans from the higher ranks.
Hampton outlined the systematic methods by which African American officers, despite having a much higher demographic representation in the military than their white counterparts, found themselves denied higher commands. Drawing evidence from the 1971 Butler Report and a rich body of personal archives and interviews, Hampton explained the effect of the “coded” narrative within the Officer Evaluation Report (OER) performance ratings (the rating system in turn used as the basis for promotion). Commanding officers employed certain key words in the narrative of African-American OER ratings that, though they gave an outward indication of positive performance, in subtext refused to give any in-depth character or leadership assessment. Over time, African-American officers were largely shifted into “combat support” roles, as opposed to “combat arms” roles, with even fewer opportunities for military advancement.
Moreover, Hampton noted, with such a small number of African-American officers serving in the higher ranks, younger African-American service members often found themselves at a particular disadvantage. They often simply did not have the higher-up benefactors and mentors to guide them in advancing through the ranks.
This atmosphere did start to change through in the mid-1970s. Following the Civil Rights Movement and critical challenges such as the Butler Report, African-American officers did begin to ascend the ranks. As they did, they began to set up those key benefactor systems so as to ensure guidance for young African-American officers in the decades thereafter.
But the number of African-American military officers in higher leadership positions remains disproportionate today. Dr. Hampton quoted the late Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall in saying, “I wish I could say that racism and prejudice were only distant memories. We must dissent from the indifference. We must dissent from the apathy; we must dissent from the fear, the hatred, and the mistrust… We must dissent because American can do better, and because America has no choice but to be better.”