Lawmakers Want to Know How the Military Is Fixing Its Racial Injustice Problem

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Change of command ceremony at Camp Arifjan, Kuwait.
A change of command ceremony at Camp Arifjan, Kuwait, Aug. 1, 2019. (U.S. Army National Guard/Sgt. Ashley Breland)

Lawmakers are pressing the Pentagon to show how the military services are creating more developmental opportunities for troops and working to fix the longstanding problem of racial disparities in the military justice system.

Reps. Stephen Lynch, D-Mass., and Jamie Raskin, D-Maryland, of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, sent a letter Thursday to Defense Secretary Mark Esper asking for evidence of the military's progress on addressing inequality in these areas.

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"While we appreciate Secretary Esper has announced steps to address racial inequalities across the Department of Defense, it is disappointing that the Department and military services have not provided our committee with basic answers to questions about the steps they are taking to address significant and disturbing disparities within the U.S. military justice system as required by last year's National Defense Authorization Act," the lawmakers said.

Lynch is the chairman of the subcommittee on National Security, and Raskin the chairman of the subcommittee on Civil Rights and Civil Liberties. Esper was due to address their questions by Aug. 28, and to respond to the military services separately by June 26.

In July, Esper ordered the services to begin outlining a series of steps aimed at eliminating "discrimination, prejudice and bias in all ranks" and promoting equal opportunity. The policy immediately barred the use of photos in promotion boards, for example, and ordered the development of new hair and grooming standards devoid of racial bias.

But the lawmakers first asked the Pentagon about plans specific to the military justice system on June 15, and said the 2020 NDAA mandated that "each service branch record demographic information about victims and the accused for each court-martial action, and to include this information in the service's annual military justice report."

"We urge Secretary Esper to respond to our requests so that we can conduct needed oversight to ensure the application of the Uniform Code of Military Justice is equitable for all servicemembers," they said.

Some services had launched their own investigations prior to the lawmakers' query.

For example, the Air Force Inspector General launched an independent review in June into the service's history of disparity in military punishment and developmental opportunities given to African American service members.

The inquiry came weeks after an advocacy organization found that black airmen in junior enlisted ranks are twice as likely to receive discipline as junior troops from other racial demographics.

Protect Our Defenders in May found that the Air Force openly acknowledged during a 2017 working group study that racial injustices are prevalent and enduring, according to slides obtained through a federal lawsuit to supplement its Freedom of Information Act request.

"Do we have racial disparities in our justice system or not? Yes -- the data reflects a persistent and consistent racial disparity," states one of the unredacted Air Force slides, revealed in the POD report. The most junior ranks are heavily targeted, according to another slide.

Separately, in a June 3 letter issued to the JAG corps, Lt. Gen. Jeffrey Rockwell, the service's judge advocate general, put out a request for proposals on how to improve the service's justice system, following a call for reform from service leadership. Rockwell at the time said a broader conversation must be had on the reasons that black junior enlisted airmen are punished at a much higher rate than their non-black counterparts.

According to slides accompanying Rockwell's letter, the statistics confirmed much of POD's findings, showing that black male airmen "under the age of 25 and with less than 5 years of service receive non-judicial punishments and courts-martial actions at a higher rate than similarly situated white male Airmen."

According to data collected between 2006 and 2019, "black airmen received non-judicial punishments at a higher rate for drug offenses (use or possession of marijuana being the highest) and Absence Without Official Leave [reprimands]" explicitly at the E-5 and below levels, one Air Force slide shows.

The slide did not provide specific data regarding punishment rates for those offenses for airmen of other races.

-- Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at oriana.pawlyk@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @Oriana0214.

Related: Air Force Launches Review into Racial Disparities in Punishments, Opportunities

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