At his inaugural parade a half-century ago, President John F. Kennedy watched the U.S. Coast Guard Academy’s marching unit pass him on Pennsylvania Avenue and declared it unacceptable. Not one cadet was black, he told an aide, and something ought be done about it.
Not a lot has, even to this day, when the nation’s first black commander in chief is almost at midterm.
The cover of the academy’s 2010 cadet handbook comes close to summing up the situation. There are 14 faces, with a single black one barely visible and off to the side and behind a white cadet.
In a year when the academy proclaims the Class of 2014 as its most diverse ever, the share of blacks enrolled is even more modest than the picture would suggest. Only nine of the 289 students sworn in last June identified themselves as blacks or African-Americans — or 15 when mixed-race blacks are included. By mid-August, the total had dropped to 14 after one cadet withdrew.
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The problem is so vexing — and so long-standing — that the Coast Guard last year spent $40,000 buying lists of names of blacks and others to recruit as cadets. It didn’t pay off, and Congress is wrestling with whether it should change how cadets are selected to attend the academy, located along the Thames River in New London, Conn.
“It’s very hard to change the culture there without having the students to change it,” said Marcus Akins, a black 1999 graduate who is a civilian Coast Guard architect after a 10-year career as an officer.
An internal task force report at the academy described negative perceptions of blacks and recounted racist remarks by faculty. Just a few years ago, in 2007, a black cadet and an officer conducting race relations training found nooses left for them. A major investigation was inconclusive.
“There is no affirmative action but people think you are there on affirmative action,” said Lt. j.g. DeCarol Davis, who became the first black woman to be top of her class at the academy when she was the 2008 valedictorian as an engineering major. “It did persist throughout my tenure at the academy. I was even told I got where I was because I was the token black girl.”
This year’s figures are still an improvement over the five blacks who enrolled last year and represented only 2 percent of the Class of 2013. But twice in past years there were 22 blacks, in 1974 and again in 1999. As recently as the Class of 2010, there were as many as 13 blacks.
The latest figure is so small the academy shifts the focus to how its latest class is one-fourth composed of underrepresented minorities, including blacks, Hispanics, Asians, Native Americans and Pacific Islanders.
“We are by no means resting on our laurels,” said Antonio Farias, the academy’s director of diversity affairs. Farias said the Coast Guard’s goal is for minorities to represent 25 percent to 30 percent of each cadet class.
At the rate the academy is going, it could easily reach its overall diversity goal by 2015 and still be lagging in its numbers for black cadets.
Blacks make up 12.9 percent of the U.S. population — or 13.6 percent when including mixed-race blacks — according to census figures. That would translate into an academy class size of more than 40 cadets and raise overall black enrollment close to 130 students, about 100 more than the past year.
Applying to the Coast Guard Academy is similar to the process at a regular college. Admission is merit-based, with the standards typical of a very selective institution and with a greater emphasis than most on a math and science background. Tuition, room and board are free, but there is a five-year service requirement in the Coast Guard after graduation.
According to current and former black Coast Guard cadets, recruiters and admissions officials:
_The black community doesn’t know much about the Coast Guard.
_Unlike at service academies for the Army, Navy and Air Force, there aren’t legacy generations of black graduates to steer their children toward Coast Guard service. Among the academies, the Naval Academy has the best record on recruiting blacks, who now make up more than 10 percent of its cadet classes.
The Coast Guard is competing with public and private universities offering full-ride scholarships for the same black students with high science and math scores.
London Steverson, a black graduate who was a minority recruiter in the 1970s and enrolled a record 22 blacks in 1974, ventured into crime-ridden neighborhoods around Washington. Among his recruits was Manson K. Brown, who last May became the Guard’s first-ever black vice admiral. Brown recalled Steverson’s conversations with his family.
“He really started the dialogue with my mother that built the trust enough with the family and her in particular to allow me to seriously consider the Coast Guard,” Brown said.
Under pressure from lawmakers, the academy last year spent $40,000 to buy lists of names of blacks and others from the National Research Center for College University Admissions, but the effort resulted only in 15 blacks or mixed-race blacks in the cadet class. The Coast Guard emphasized its numbers of overall minorities.
“The results were astounding,” said Capt. Stephan Finton, the academy’s admissions director. “When you go from 16 percent diversity of our entering class last year to 24 percent this year, I would say that we were pretty laser-focused and we really did get the results we were looking for.”
Congress is restless for improvements. Under a provision passed in the House last year, lawmakers would nominate candidates for the Coast Guard’s academy the same way that all the other service academies have operated. But the proposal has stalled on Capitol Hill, even as the Obama administration has cut $2.9 million from what has been the Coast Guard’s $206.8 million budget for training and recruiting.
Two prominent lawmakers — Rep. James Oberstar, D-Minn., chairman of the House Transportation Committee, and Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., chairman of the Coast Guard subcommittee and member of the Congressional Black Caucus — say the Coast Guard Academy is working hard to improve the number of blacks and minorities but has fallen short.
“I give them a B-plus for effort,” Cummings told The Associated Press. “In some instances, we are going to have to go out of our way to try to get these young people into the school. It’s not that they are not qualified.”
Oberstar said he and Cummings will insist on congressional involvement in admissions.
“The other academies have members of Congress as advisers in recommending nominations,” Oberstar said, “and there is no reason the Coast Guard can’t be treated in the same way.”