The Unspoken Disparity: The Lone Black Pilot in the Marine Corps

While the Marine Corps has made efforts to become more diverse, the number of Black fighter pilots remains disproportionally low, and many African Americans within the armed forces feel this is a serious problem.

A Surprising Question

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Zach Mullins, a Marine Corps fighter pilot, was once surprised when a man asked him, “Did you know that you’re the only Black fighter pilot in the Marine Corps?” 

“A Little Staggering” Reality

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Mullins, who flies F/A-18 Hornets, noted, “I never really thought about the numbers just because it was the job that I wanted to do,” but he admitted that the small number of African Americans in elite roles like his was “a little staggering.”

Obstacles in the Path

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Gary Graham Jr., a film producer whose father flew fighter jets in the Marine Corps, researched the racial imbalance and pointed out that Black candidates face many different obstacles, such as the high cost of gaining the flying experience needed to join.

Poor Outreach

Graham Jr. also criticized the recruiting system, saying it has done a poor job of engaging the Black community. This poor effort in outreach leads to a lack of awareness about available opportunities.

Awareness of Opportunities

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Due to the poor outreach, Graham Jr. said, “Those opportunities aren’t known to folks who would even consider it, and who would be skillful or educated enough.”

A Stagnant Disparity

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Over the past 25 years, the number of Black Marines flying fighter jets has dwindled from 15 in 2000 to just five today, making up less than 1% of the 580 fighter pilots in the Marine Corps. 

Chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff

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This glaring disparity is particularly noticeable with the recent rise of Air Force Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr., an African-American fighter pilot who serves as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

The Unimplemented Roadmap

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Former Marine Corps General David Berger initiated an independent study to address this issue, but two years later, the most transformative recommendations from the study remain unimplemented. Marine Corps leaders seem to favor a broad approach to diversity rather than addressing specific demographic or career field disparities.

Leading the Study

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To lead the study, Berger contacted Charles Bolden Jr., the second Black Marine aviator promoted to general officer and a former NASA administrator, and his son Ché Bolden, who spent over 2 decades serving in the Marine Corps.

A Roadmap for Change

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According to Bolden’s study, the Marine Corps must establish new pathways to reach and recruit African Americans, and the “chief diversity officer” role should be held by the commandant to ensure visibility and influence.

The Need for Education

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The Bolden’s emphasize the importance of educational opportunities by proposing the creation of a military feeder school at a historically Black college or university and aviation-specific recruitment programs at each. This would ideally strengthen the Marine Corps’ relationships with the Black community.

A Culture of Silence

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While the study acknowledges few incidents of racial hostility within Marine Corps aviation units, it describes a culture of “silence” where Black and White Marines are reluctant to discuss race and representation. 

The Need for Senior Leadership Involvement

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The Boldens argue that senior Marine Corps leaders must promote the importance of Black fighter pilots to effect real change. They suggest assigning the responsibilities of the chief diversity officer to the commandant, empowering Marines to explore innovative solutions for diversity.

Going Backwards

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After the study concluded, Charles Bolden and his son are doubtful Marine Corp leadership will take the necessary steps to remedy this issue. Charles said in an interview, “I came out depressed, because I personally had no idea we had gone as backward as we have gone.”

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Featured Image Credit: Shutterstock / Steve Sanchez Photos. The people shown in the images are for illustrative purposes only, not the actual people featured in the story.

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