WASHINGTON -- Joining the military -- a traditional way of improving social and economic standing -- is being closed off, particularly for blacks.
Last year, a smaller percentage of Army recruits were black than at any time in at least a decade, as the total number of all recruits continues to shrink dramatically.
Increasingly tough recruitment standards are making it difficult formany blacks with low entrance exam scores and poor school records to join, military specialists say.
"Almost three-quarters of young blacks who might want to join the Army can't," said Charles Moskos of Northwestern University, who studies military affairs.
Between 1990 and 1991, the percentage of enlisted Army recruits who were black dropped from 25.2 percent to 20.3 percent. The trend was similar throughout the Defense Department, where black recruits in all services dropped from 21 percent to 17 percent.
"They may be physically fit, gung-ho, but they can't make the scores," said Sgt. 1st Class Robert Armiger, commander of a recruitingstation in Columbus, Ga.
Milton Morris, vice president for research at the Joint Center for -- Political and Economic Studies, a black think tank in Washington, agreed.
"I think it's part of the reality that blacks generally leave school with weaker education backgrounds than their white counterparts do. Until we can equalize the quality of schools, that disparity will be an issue," Mr. Morris said.
In 1990, for example, 17 percent of Army recruits who scored in the top one-half of military entrance tests were black. But nearly half of the new recruits who scored in the lowest range were
A decade ago, low scores wouldn't have mattered. More than half of Army recruits in 1980 scored at the lowest level.
But this year, the Army will accept, at most, only 2 percent of
new recruits with the lowest scores. Through the first quarter of the fiscal year, it had accepted none.
For old soldiers who remember when the chief requirement to become an infantry soldier was a pulse, this is cultural shock.
Sergeant Armiger, 37, said his two brothers dropped out of high school and joined the Army during the Vietnam War and "were welcomed with open arms."
Now, he said, he is turning away 15 to 20 young people, of all races, every month because they lack a high school diploma or score too low.
The Army isn't even taking people with a GED, or General Equivalency Diploma, even though the Army developed the GED for WorldWar II soldiers short of a formal diploma.
"Forty years later, we don't even accept the thing that we made. Strange," he said.
Usually, math is the problem, Sergeant Armiger said. Consumer math courses that stress practical skills like checkbook balancing "just don't cut the mustard," he said.
"We always push them to take algebra, geometry, the hard courses," he said, sounding more like a college adviser than a sergeant.
The tougher standards may mean a better-educated military, but others worry about the social costs.
"I'm unhappy . . . that we are also not bringing in the same number of young men and women, especially minority young men and women," Gen. Colin L. Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the House Armed Services Committee yesterday.
"It's not just a matter of giving those jobs now to the civilian economy to pick up. We're losing a little something in that exposure to military service that I think has been very, very
valuable to the nation over time."
Mr. Moskos, who advocates a civilian volunteer corps as a replacement, calls the declining number of blacks "just plain devastating."
"There's just no 'up' side to it," he said. "Just that many more blacks will not have honorable jobs."
"It's the only place in the world where blacks routinely boss whites around," Mr. Moskos said.