For many Black Americans, the outbreak of World War II posed a dilemma. Why fight white supremacy abroad when it was destroying lives at home, through lynchings and Jim Crow laws that denied them basic freedoms and equal access to public services? Why serve in a military that treated them as second-class? Yet despite this paradox, Black soldiers made essential contributions to the Allied victory.
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To Nancy Qian, the story of Black military service in World War II raises important questions about how racism can interfere with a nation’s social contract.
“There’s an exchange between the government and citizens: citizens give up some rights and pay taxes, and in return, the government gives them protection and services,” she says. But what happens when a group of citizens isn’t getting its fair share of protection and services? In what ways might they refuse to engage in such a contract?
That is the focus of Qian’s new paper, which examines military participation in the aftermath of the Pearl Harbor attack. Qian and her coauthor, Marco Tabellini of the Harvard Business School, wanted to know whether racism influenced Black Americans’ willingness to pay what she describes as “the ultimate tax”: wartime military service.
They found that the racism did indeed have an effect, discouraging Black men from volunteering in the immediate aftermath of Pearl Harbor. However, this effect was only temporary—a concerted campaign by Black leaders soon boosted Black enlistment rates, and in fact, by the end of WWII, a greater share of Black Americans served than white Americans.
“For a nation to function, you want people to be willing to pay taxes and to fight when you have a war. To achieve that, you have to treat people equally.”
— Nancy Qian
Tellingly, the short-term race gap in volunteer enlistment after Pearl Harbor was most pronounced in areas of the country where racism and racial violence were most severe.
The researchers also found a similar pattern among Japanese Americans: those from the mainland United States, which sent its residents to internment camps, were much less willing to serve than those from Hawaii, which did not send residents to the camps.
To Qian, the results show just how far the consequences of systematic racism can reverberate. “For a nation to function, you want people to be willing to pay taxes and to fight when you have a war,” she says. “To achieve that, you have to treat people equally.”
Racial Differences in Volunteer Enlistment after Pearl Harbor
To understand how racism influenced Black enlistment rates, Qian and Tabellini focused their analysis on the weeks surrounding the bombing of Pearl Harbor.
They chose Pearl Harbor because the attack marked the moment that U.S. soldiers joined the fight. In an instant, World War II went from “an abstract political event in Europe and Asia into a defense of the United States,” Qian explains. As a result, the bombing prompted a sudden increase in Americans volunteering to enlist in the military.
The researchers looked at enlistment figures in the eight weeks before and the eight weeks after Pearl Harbor. In the run-up, they found, both white and Black volunteer rates were holding steady, with whites volunteering at higher rates—not surprising, given the racism and discrimination Black soldiers experienced.
But after December 7, 1941, the picture changed. In the weeks after the attack, white volunteer enlistment rates increased by roughly 25 per 100,000 eligible individuals, while Black volunteer rates increased by roughly 8 per 100,000—only one-third as much.
The researchers wanted to understand what forces were driving this difference. “Given the historical fact that, by the end of the war, a greater share of African Americans had served than whites, it never entered our mind that they were in some way less patriotic or less brave,” Qian explains. Clearly, other forces were at work.
Understanding the Race Gap in WWII Military Participation
Qian and Tabellini considered a variety of explanations for the race gap in volunteer enlistment after Pearl Harbor. For instance, perhaps the military simply wasn’t accepting Black volunteers. Because the military was completely segregated, with separate barracks, training facilities, and mess halls for Black and white soldiers, perhaps it wasn’t set up for an influx of Black volunteers—or didn’t want them.
To investigate this possibility, the researchers looked at the other avenue into the military at the time: the draft. They reasoned that if the military didn’t want or wasn’t prepared for Black soldiers, you’d expect to see lower rates of Black draftees as compared with white draftees. But that wasn’t the case: the Pearl Harbor attack didn’t cause a noticeable difference in the relative share of Black and white draftees.
So they looked at racism, which seemed like the most obvious explanation for the gap. And they realized there was a way to measure this often hard-to-quantify aspect of American life: although Black people faced racial violence and discrimination everywhere, the historical record suggested that it was significantly more severe in some places than others. If racism was driving the race gap in volunteer enlistment, you’d expect to see lower volunteer rates in counties with higher levels of documented racial violence, and vice versa.
The researchers used a variety of factors, including the presence of the Ku Klux Klan from 1915 to 1940 and the number of lynchings before 1939, to create a metric of racism in each county in the 48 U.S. states at the time. (The researchers also controlled for extraneous factors, such as the availability of a military recruiting office in a particular county, in their analysis.)
When they compared volunteer enlistment rates with their county-level measures of racism, a stark pattern emerged: counties where African Americans suffered the most mistreatment and violence also saw significantly lower rates of volunteer enlistment.
However, this pattern did not persist over time: Black volunteer enlistment rates increased rapidly about four months after the attack, due in part to efforts such as the “Double V” campaign, which urged Black men to fight for victory over injustice on both the war front and the home front. Around the same time, the military unveiled new policies with the explicit goal of increasing Black participation, such as allowing Black men to serve in combat roles and creating the first Black air service group. Consequently, Black enlistment per capita soon exceeded white enlistment.
Another Test Case for the Racism Enlistment Theory: the Japanese-American Experience
Other groups also faced serious racism in this era. If the researchers’ underlying theory was right—that low military participation was a response to social marginalization—then they expected to find similar patterns among other marginalized groups. Of particular interest were Japanese Americans.
In March of 1942, some 120,000 Japanese Americans were forced into internment camps. The only area where some Japanese Americans managed to avoid this fate was Hawaii (still a U.S. territory at the time). Because much of the state’s population was multiethnic, with many residents having Japanese heritage, military leaders ultimately decided against internment of most Japanese Americans in Hawaii. Evacuating so many people, they reasoned, would significantly disrupt the Hawaiian economy and take up resources needed for the war effort.
Still, Japanese Americans, deemed an “enemy race” by Army general John L. DeWitt, were barred from most military service following Pearl Harbor. But in 1943, President Roosevelt allowed the creation of a segregated unit for Japanese Americans, beginning on March 1 of that year. These soldiers could only be drafted if they provided acceptable answers on a controversial loyalty questionnaire—meaning Japanese-American men could essentially opt out of service if they wanted.
As they had done in their earlier analysis, the researchers compared the weeks before and after a landmark date—in this case, March 1, 1943. As expected, Japanese enlistment prior to March 1 was nearly zero. But after March 1, they saw higher enlistment rates for Japanese Americans in Hawaii—most of whom had not been interned—than for Japanese Americans on the mainland.
Of course, there were other important differences between Japanese Americans in Hawaii and those on the mainland—namely, the attack on Pearl Harbor was closer to home for those in Hawaii, which may partially explain the higher enlistment there. And, Qian notes, the number of eligible Japanese-American men was small, making sweeping conclusions difficult.
Nevertheless, seeing the same pattern emerge for Japanese Americans and Black Americans was striking. “It suggests this is a general problem for the United States,” Qian says.
The Relationship between Racism and Civic Participation
Although the research is focused on historical racism, Qian believes it offers important lessons for readers today.
“Ultimately, the point of having a government is to provide us with public goods and services to help us,” she says. “But what if they don’t help us? Then we probably don’t want to participate very much anymore.”
Qian and Tabellini’s findings build on previous research documenting how other facets of civic life, from tax paying to social stability, also depend on governments upholding their end of the social contract. It stands to reason, then, that societies where certain groups are unfairly or violently targeted may have weaker militaries, smaller tax bases, and more social unrest. “All of these things are interconnected,” Qian says.
For policymakers, the researchers write, the message is clear: “A state which requires equal contributions from its citizens should treat its citizens equally.”
And if a state doesn’t meet that basic obligation? “Citizens are going to push back,” Qian says. “And they should push back.”
Susie Allen is a freelance writer in Chicago.
Qian, Nancy, and Marco Tabellini. 2020. “Discrimination, Disenfranchisement and African-American WWII Military Enlistment.” Working paper.
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