After being sworn in as the 45th president of the United States, Donald Trump began working to strengthen America’s military. A recent draft of an executive order shows that Trump is willing to spend $90 billion a year to expand all branches of defense. This increase in funding will likely be followed by a rise in recruitment. Uncle Sam’s promise of solidarity, purpose, and benefits are attractive to young men and women – especially those from oppressed groups. For example, the Pew Research Center found that women in the military are disproportionately black. This post will address the historical relationship between blackness and the United States military – and the ‘benefits’ of joining the armed forces.

Blackness, Military Strategy & History

In 1775, this country was planning a revolution against its British colonizer. When George Washington – General of the Continental Army – decreed orders for those eligible to battle, he declared that “neither Negroes, boys unable to bear arms, nor old men” could enlist. The main reason black folks were banned from the military was the fear of uprisings. Arming slaves ran the risk of enabling insurrections against their masters. But after being confronted with major shortages in manpower, Northern states recruited slaves and encouraged them to fight … in exchange for ‘freedom’. By the end of the Revolution, between 5,000 and 8,000 blacks fought in the Continental Army.

Black people also fought on the side of the British. As a military strategy, Lord Dunmore issued a proclamation stating that slaves can fight for the King … in exchange for ‘freedom’. Historians estimate that 20,000 blacks escaped and fought on the side of the British – between 2.5-4 times that which fought for America.

During the War of 1812, General Andrew Jackson sought the presence of enslaved blacks in the military. Slaves were encouraged to enlist at the Battle of New Orleans … in exchange for ‘freedom’. The following day, Jackson confiscated all the weapons from black soldiers and revoked his promises.

Black folks also served during the American Civil War. Like Lord Dunmore, President Lincoln issued a “necessary war time measure” via the Emancipation Proclamation – which freed the slaves of rebel states and invited them to join the Army. This was important because the North was suffering from a personnel shortage. This strengthened the reservoir of able-bodied soldiers to fight against the South – eventually leading to its loss. In total, roughly 200,000 blacks fought for the Union. However, blacks were largely restricted to subservient positions within the Army, served in segregated units, and had much higher casualty rates.

Throughout World War I and World War II, the armed forces were segregated (i.e. Tuskegee Airmen). Black soldiers were largely confined to manual labor and unable to fight in combat. However, President Harry Truman desegregated the armed forces by executive order in 1948. This did not occur out of the kindness of Truman’s heart. After all, he dropped two atomic bombs on Japan. So why did he do it? For the same reasons Lord Dunmore and President Lincoln did it: strategy. From the ashes of the Second World War emerged two global superpowers: the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. These nations sought to expand their axes of influence over the Asian and African countries fighting for independence (from Europe), but each had a qualitatively different worldview. Specifically, the United States practiced capitalism and the Soviets were communist by declaration. An ideological battle erupted, known as the Cold War, when the United States espoused the Truman Doctrine in 1947: a policy of containing foreign and domestic communist influence.

In Silent Covenants, Derrick Bell (2005) argues that the Brown v Board school desegregation decision in 1954 was a Cold War strategy to make America (and by extension, capitalism) appear to be a post-racial utopia on the global stage. That stated, it is reasonable to state that desegregating the military six years earlier was also a Cold War strategy. Integrating the armed forces served at least two functions: 1). it bolstered the racial image of America before the entire black/brown world, which was freeing itself from the yolk of European colonialism and deciding between capitalism and communism, and 2). it decreased the odds of internal sympathies with communism in this country.

Blackness, Gender, and (In)Voluntary Service

The Korean War (1950-53) was the first time blacks fought in an integrated military. However, racial diversity was an issue for the armed forces during the Vietnam War (1955-73). According to Amy Lutz: “the military allowed college students to defer service, a practice that largely allowed the white middle class to avoid the draft.” (2008:172). This meant that poor people and blacks constituted a large portion of the troops in Vietnam – prompting activists such as Stokely Carmichael to say the draft was “nothing more than black urban removal”.

With the end of the Vietnam War also came the end of military conscription. Concerns were raised that having an all-volunteer force would raise the likelihood of poor, black people enlisting at disproportionate rates. Indeed, during the Gulf War (1990-91), 20% of the troops were black men and women – a significantly higher rate than the national population. As of 2000, blacks were over-represented in the military: although blacks were just 13% of the general population, they were 19.8% of the armed forces (Lutz, 2008).

The most alarming statistic is as follows: in 2010, 16% of all active-duty men were black, while a whopping 31% of all active-duty women were black. In other words: close to one-third of all women in the military are black – a rate that is twice that of their national population. This is a trend that began in the early 1980s (Melin, 2016). We have to ask ourselves: why have black women been enlisting in the military at disproportionately high rates? Once again: it is a strategy … in exchange for ‘freedom’.

As outlined by Julia Melin (2016), there are at least two contributing factors. It is worth noting that 42% of women who served after 9/11 admit they enlisted to gain access to educational/job trainings or benefits, compared to just 25% of men. First, there is a wealth gap that is both gendered and racialized. Consequently, black women receive and inherit less wealth than white women. Moreover, black women are least likely to be married (least likely to be deemed marriage material), which relates to the proliferation of female-headed households in the black community. Black women in the military are more than twice as likely as white women to be single parents – partially explaining their dependency on the armed forces for employment.

Second, under neoliberalism, social safety nets have been under assault. For the past 40+ years, the State has been slashing funding for schools, health insurance programs, etc., and re-apportioning it for punitive apparatuses like prisons, policing, and the military. In 1996, welfare was completely overhauled from an entitlement program to a block-grant with lifetime caps and work as a condition of benefits. The State boasted about ‘training’ citizens for jobs …  but these positions were typically in the low-wage sector. Once individuals gained this ’employment’, their benefits were either terminated or slashed dramatically. As Khalid Muhammad stated, the State went “from welfare to farewell”. Since black women receive significantly lower wages than whites, these matters are only exacerbated.

In addition, many black residences are multi-generational. Out of the families that are led by grandmothers, over 50% of them are black and live in poverty. For decades now, Social Security has been on the chopping block – which is tantamount to an assault on black women and black children.

To this list, we can also add (as I do here) that black women are the fastest rising prison denomination. The criminal justice system has been disproportionately targeting black women for lengthy sentences. Against these backdrops, it is easy to understand Melin’s claim that black women’s “inability to achieve self-sufficiency or educational training through welfare and the low-wage market” propels their decision to enlist (2016: 8). Thus, the State divests from the inner cities, creating a vacuum, and then uses these vulnerable populations to either fill prisons or be soldiers in the military. As Michel Foucault pointed out: the State “does not cast the unassimilable into a confused hell; there is no outside … it saves everything, including what it punishes” (1976:301).

Give Me Liberty and Give Me Death

One of the phrases that galvanized the American Revolution was “give me liberty or give me death”. We need to examine this a bit closer. Embedded within this declaration – as evidenced by the conjunction or – is the assumption that liberty and death are opposites. While this line of thinking appears to be common sense, it reflects a white privilege. For the past 240+ years, black people have not been confronted by “liberty or death”, but liberty and death. Signing up to die in the military was ‘liberty’ from the slower death of slavery. Today, signing up to die in the military is ‘liberty’ from the slower deaths of poverty and incarceration. The ‘liberty’ we receive comes only after being positioned in a state of social death; and then, we are brainwashed into thinking that bringing that same death to others is a form of ‘liberty’ (i.e. the American idea that democracy can be exported to the Middle East with bombs).

We need to build a society where receiving a free education does not require the prospect of being killed and/or killing people overseas. We need to build a society where receiving job training does not require the prospect of being killed and/or killing people overseas. We need to build a society where receiving health benefits for one’s family does not require the prospect of being killed and/or killing people overseas. We need to build a society where gaining a sense of pride and belonging does not require the prospect of being killed and/or killing people overseas.


Bell, Derrick. 2005. Silent Covenants

Foucault, Michel. 1976. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison