For most academics who study racial/ethnic relations, we almost exclusively focus on civilian society. But what are such relations like in the military? You might recall that the military was one of the first American institutions to desegregate, occurring in 1948 through Executive Order 9981.
To help us compare racial/ethnic relations in the military versus civilian life, as Newsweek magazine reports, University of Massachusetts at Amherst sociologist Jennifer Lundquist recently published a comprehensive study that contains some interesting findings:
The study of over 30,000 active duty personnel suggests that the armed forces’ social hierarchy—explicitly based on rank—overrides many of the racial or gender biases in civil society, which tend to act as barriers for women and minorities in career advancement. . . .
In civilian society African-Americans generally express higher dissatisfaction with their jobs than their white counterparts and are less committed. But Lundquist’s study of 30,000 active-duty personnel found that those norms are largely flipped in the military.
She looked at five measurements of career satisfaction, including overall quality of life and opportunities for advancement, and found African-American women to be the most positive and satisfied with their jobs, followed by African-American men, Latinas, Latinos and white women. White men are the least satisfied with their military careers, rating their satisfaction and overall happiness with their jobs much lower.
“It’s not that the military environment treats white males less fairly; it’s simply that, compared to their peers in civilian society, white males lose many of the advantages that they had,” Lundquist says. “There’s a relative deprivation when you compare to satisfaction of peers outside of the military.”
I should provide the disclaimer that Prof. Lundquist is a colleague and also a good friend of mine. Nonetheless, her research findings are quite compelling in their own right.
To summarize, those findings are that within the military, there is a much more stringent set of regulations regarding how personnel are judged and promoted. Based on this structure, outcomes do not differ nearly as much by race/ethnicity as they do in civilian society, where such criteria is much less standardized.
Therefore, Whites in the military generally do not enjoy the same privileges of being White that their counterparts enjoy in civilian life and conversely, people of color fare better and have higher levels of life satisfaction than their counterparts in civilian life.
Prof. Lundquist’s results also show that women report higher levels of satisfaction inside the military than do men, although the specific details are a little more complicated. In the end, as the Newsweek article sums up, “There’s a very clear contrast in job satisfaction between civilian and military society, and it seems to come down to the military’s meritocractic structure.”
Of course, Americans continue to debate the institutional morality of the military’s existence and the role it plays in international affairs, but that’s a separate question. The take-home message here seems to be, in regard to fostering racial/ethnic equality, apparently American civilian society can learn a few lessons from its military.