On Tuesday, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Mark Milley appeared before the Senate Armed Services Committee, where lawmakers had their first chance to grill the officials about the United States’ withdrawal from Afghanistan.
As the senators lobbed their questions — largely about U.S. efforts in nation-building and enforcing human rights abroad — one voice was conspicuously absent from the discussion: Black female service members.
In August, as I flipped from channel to channel watching coverage of the withdrawal, the archetype was clear: Each network was featuring a white, square-jawed serviceman who denounced the move as some sort of embarrassing retreat for the Biden administration.
Their characterizations made me question: Who should determine what constitutes a national disaster or embarrassment? And what do we stand to lose when the deciders are almost exclusively men and almost exclusively white?
An analysis published last month by Media Matters for America, a media watchdog group, found that cable news networks routinely selected from a pool of six former military officers when looking for pundits to discuss the withdrawal, and those men predictably supported keeping troops in Afghanistan. The six former officers — which included, for instance, retired U.S. Army Gens. Jack Keane and David Petraeus — appeared on cable news networks a combined 51 times during a roughly two-week span at the end of August.
Because Black women are underrepresented in top military positions, it’s also possible the media are overlooking them for more senior officials, who overwhelmingly tend to be white men.
But that bias doesn’t reflect the actual makeup of the rank-and-file troops. Black women account for nearly one-third of all women in the U.S. military, roughly twice their percentage in the U.S. civilian population, according to a 2010 Defense Department report. And while the military downsized from 1990 to 2017, women’s representation in the military grew over that time, according to a 2017 Pew Research Center study. This is fueled in part by Black women’s high enlistment rates.
(An analysis published in the New England Journal of Public Policy in 2016 offers insight into which factors, including economic opportunity, are likely driving such high enlistment rates among Black women.)
Black women have made key contributions to the U.S. military throughout history — and they’re continuing to do so today. As they defend national security at home and abroad, it's worth noting what threats they face to their personal security.
Staunch defenders of the war in Afghanistan argue that the U.S. must maintain a military presence in the region to protect Afghan women’s rights. But the Black women in the military tasked with doing so are seeing their own voting rights and bodily autonomy being wrenched away through Republican-driven voter suppression and anti-abortion laws at home.
News organizations shouldn’t hide that reality by failing to highlight the increasing racial and gender diversity in the military. As a nation, we deserve for that contradiction to be front and center.
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