The military is targeting blacks and Latino youth, and it's using hip-hop to do it.
Last year, the U.S. Army, partnering with an African-American owned advertising firm called the Viral Marketing group, launched its "Taking it to the Streets" campaign to recruit African-American and Latino youth.
It featured a bright yellow Hummer spray-painted with images of the military and the Stars and Stripes. Hip-hop music blared, and people wore basketball throwback jerseys in an obvious attempt to seduce urban youth, many of whom have little or no job prospects.
Since its 2003 debut, "Taking it to the Streets" has showed up at MTV's "Spring Break," BET's "Spring Bling" and various NAACP functions.
This spring, "Taking It To the Streets" is planning to storm gatherings like Miami's Calle Ocho festival, Black College Reunion in Daytona, Fla., the Black Heritage Fest in New Orleans and the Puerto Rican Day Parade in New York.
Last fall, a related event, the "Campus Combat Tour," appeared at five college campuses with high percentages of African-American students. It culminated with a battle between rappers who were judged by the tour's co-sponsor, the popular hip-hop magazine The Source.
The military's drive aimed at African-American and Latino youth is evidence of a long-standing tradition of recruiting soldiers of color to the front lines. Both groups consistently show participation and casualty rates higher than their proportion of the population.
In the early years of the Vietnam War, black soldiers suffered 23 percent of the fatalities even though they were 11 percent of the nation's population then, according to journalist Wallace Terry.
For Latinos, some 80,000 served during Vietnam, incurring about 19 percent of all casualties. At the time, Latinos made up only 4.5 percent of the total U.S. population.
Today, among U.S. soldiers in Iraq, about 32 percent of those who have died at enemy hands, or from accidents, suicide or illness, have been identified as being from a member of a minority group, according to a Scripps Howard article. Of those wounded in action, 30 percent have been people of color. Blacks and Latinos currently combine to make up 25 percent of the total U.S. population.
In 2002, in a push to recruit more Latinos into the military, the Bush administration accelerated the naturalization process for noncitizens (predominantly Latino) if they chose to serve in active duty.
The continuing exorbitant rise in college tuition rates, coupled with the decrease in funding for urban schools, makes it almost a pipe dream for many black or Latino youth to attend college. With few other options, some see the military as the only viable way to prepare for good jobs or pay for higher education.
On average, the Army spends about $13,000 in recruitment advertising to get one young person enrolled -- about what it costs New York's public school system per year to educate one child, according to a recent Village Voice article.
America's current system of foraging for recruits among urban and poor rural white youth to serve on the front lines of its military is harming our country.
First, by misplacing funds into recruitment, it takes away federal spending from social and educational programs in our communities that could better invest in our youth.
Second, it assures that middle- and upper-class America (like the one President Bush and many other lawmakers belong to) almost never serve in combat.
Strong resistance to the Vietnam War began only when families from well-to-do social and economic classes started to worry whether their kids would be drafted and return home in a box.
By packing the front lines with America's disadvantaged youth, the military is doing them -- and our country -- a disservice.
Ed Morales is a contributor to the Village Voice and Newsday in New York, and author of "Living in Spanglish" (St. Martin's Press, 2002). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.