Coast Guard remains an organization that’s far whiter than the US

Dick Cheney, then the vice president, congratulated Coast Guard Academy cadet DeCarol Davis during 2008 graduation ceremonies and handed her a commission as an ensign. Dick Cheney, then the vice president, congratulated Coast Guard Academy cadet DeCarol Davis during 2008 graduation ceremonies and handed her a commission as an ensign. (Bob Child/Associated Press/File 2008)
By Dennis Conrad
Associated Press / September 10, 2010

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WASHINGTON — At his inaugural parade a half-century ago, President John F. Kennedy watched the Coast Guard Academy’s marching unit pass 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 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, off to the side and behind a white cadet.

The academy proclaims the class of 2014 as its most diverse ever, but the number of blacks is more modest than the picture would suggest. Nine of the 289 students sworn in last June identified themselves as black or African-American, or 15 when mixed-race blacks are included. By mid-August, the total had dropped to 14, after one cadet withdrew.

The problem is so vexing, and so longstanding, that the Coast Guard last year spent $40,000 buying lists of names of blacks to recruit. It didn’t pay off, and Congress is wrestling with whether it should change how cadets are selected to attend the academy, 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 described negative perceptions of blacks and recounted racist remarks by faculty. 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 Lieutenant j.g. DeCarol Davis, the first black woman to be at the top of her class at the academy. She was the 2008 valedictorian. “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 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 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, director of diversity affairs. He said the goal is for minorities to represent 25 to 30 percent of each cadet class.

Blacks make up 12.9 percent of the US 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.

Admission to the Coast Guard Academy 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 after graduation.

Current and former cadets, recruiters, and admissions officials who are black say:

■Blacks don’t know much about the Coast Guard.

■Unlike at the Army, Navy, and Air Force academies, there are no legacy generations of black graduates to steer their children toward Coast Guard service.

■The Guard competes with public and private universities offering full scholarships.

London Steverson, a black recruiter in the 1970s, ventured into crime-ridden neighborhoods around Washington. Among his recruits was Manson K. Brown, who in May became the Guard’s first black vice admiral. He recalled that Steverson “really started the dialogue with my mother that built the trust enough with the family . . . to allow me to seriously consider the Coast Guard.’’