Black Airmen More Likely to Be Investigated, Arrested and Discharged, Air Force Finds

U.S. Air Force basic military graduation.
U.S. Air Force basic military graduation is held Apr. 16, 2020, on Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, Texas. (U.S. Air Force/ Johnny Saldivar)

Black airmen are nearly twice as likely to be suspects in a military criminal investigation, arrested or apprehended by base patrol, or involuntarily discharged based on misconduct.

These and other findings are part of a comprehensive, six-month Inspector General review into racial disparity within the Air Force and Space Force, the Air Force said in a release Monday.

The 150-page Independent Racial Disparity Review confirmed that Black service members are adversely affected within the military judicial system and detailed how they compare to white airmen in career and other developmental opportunities -- but could not define the causes, according to Air Force officials.

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"This was intended to paint a picture and inform the broader diversity and inclusion effort on specifically where to look, what to focus on, and where we see issues of concern that need to be further assessed," said Lt. Gen. Sami Said, the service's Inspector General. Said spoke to reporters ahead of the review's release.

For some key findings, "we're not implying that [either] racism or bias is the causal factor of such risk disparity," he said. "That requires more detailed assessment and analysis. When we say disparity, it doesn't imply, immediately, racism, bias or otherwise."

The IG's office received more than 123,000 survey responses from active-duty, Guard and Reserve members and conducted 138 group interviews -- ranging from 12 to 50 service members, officer and enlisted, per group in two-hour discussions -- to understand where Black airmen are at a disadvantage.

While the report's authors said it was "impossible" to validate overt bias or racism, including in job placement and promotion rates, the themes that emerged from the feedback "make it reasonable to conclude that individual acts of racism have occurred in the Department of the Air Force and that racial bias contributes to the disparities found by the review team," whether consciously or unconsciously.

The review included an examination of military justice data dating back to 2012. No individual reports from airmen prompted further criminal investigation, administrative review or discipline -- at least not yet, according to Said.

"We haven't actually as a result of the review itself," he said, adding airmen can register complaints at any time via the Air Force's IG or local IG office hotline.

"This report is not simply a collection of facts and statistics. It's a look into how people's lives have been impacted by racial disparity," Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force JoAnne Bass said Monday on Twitter. Bass is the first woman to serve as the highest ranking enlisted noncommissioned officer of a U.S. military branch. "The hard right we need to take involves tough conversations all of us need to start having -- conversations about respect, diversity and inclusion being bedrock principles that must all fit together as one."

Underrepresented Within Operational Force

Under then-Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein, the service launched the review to address racial disparities across the force in June as the nation grappled with the realities of systemic racism and injustice following the May 25 death of George Floyd in police custody.

Just a few weeks after sending the survey -- part of a larger intraservice study -- to airmen, officials realized the response was on track to shatter previous records.

"I can tell you right now that the response has been overwhelming," Goldfein said in a July 22 interview with "What's important is that there's a forum for this conversation to happen, as uncomfortable as it may be. That's what we're trying to get after."

According to the report, many Black service members expressed a lack of confidence in the discipline and career development systems within the service, compared to their white peers.

Per the report, from the 123,000 survey responses, officials concluded that:

  • Two out of every five Black enlisted members, civilians and officers do not trust their chain of command to address racism, bias and unequal opportunities;
  • One out of every three Black service members said they believe the military discipline system is biased against them;
  • Three out of every five Black service members believe they do not and will not receive the same benefit of the doubt as their white peers if they get in trouble;
  • One out of every three Black officers do not believe the Air Force and Space Force provide them the same opportunities to advance as their white peers; and
  • Two out of every five Black civilians have seen racial bias in the services' promotion system.

Disparities exist even among how Black and white airmen are placed into jobs, according to Said.

"We identified disparities on what specialty codes we send our African American airmen into operational versus support [fields]," he said. "That's significant because your career unfolds in different ways when you go into different specialty codes."

For example, airmen in support roles, or those with more management requirements, aren't offered career developmental opportunities or more senior advancement as often as operational jobs. Black airmen are overrepresented in support roles, but rarely make it into jobs such as aviation, cyber or intelligence, the report found.

The difference in the pilot community is especially staggering, Said added.

Pilots are the largest Air Force Specialty Code, but also the least diverse. Black airmen make up only 2% of the total pilot population -- something Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles "CQ" Brown pointed out in a video message days after Floyd's death, but before the historic Senate confirmation vote that would make him the first Black top general for any service.

"I'm thinking about my Air Force career, where I was often the only African American in my squadron, or as a senior officer, the only African American in the room," he said in an emotional June 5 video. Brown is an F-16 Fighting Falcon pilot with nearly 3,000 flight hours, 130 of which were in combat.

"I'm thinking about wearing the same flight suit with the same wings on my chest as my peers, and then being questioned by another military member, 'Are you a pilot?'" he said in the video.

"Exposure early on to the pilot career field is lacking and could be further enhanced," Said explained.

Air Education and Training Command and the Air Force Recruiting Service each have initiatives that give underrepresented groups more exposure to potential flight candidacy in the military, he added.

Sustainable, Measurable Action

The Air Force's latest report also confirms what other independent think tanks, research groups and media have established.

In May, the advocacy group Protect Our Defenders released newly obtained materials from an Air Force study that found the service has not implemented serious solutions to fix the long-standing problem of racial disparity in the military judicial system -- specifically, that Black airmen in junior enlisted ranks are twice as likely to receive discipline as those from other demographics.

From the service's report, investigators found that enlisted Black service members were 72% more likely than enlisted white service members "to receive a Uniform Code of Military Justice

Article 15, commanding officer's non-judicial punishment; and 57% more likely than white service members to face courts-martial."

Said emphasized that the Air Force is "peeling back the problem[s]," which could have multiple contributing factors, such as biased commanders, lack of mentorship opportunities for younger airmen, and arbitrary action within the administrative or criminal investigation processes.

Separately, an Air Force Times investigation in 2016 found that there was a definitive racial gap in Air Force promotions between whites and other minority groups in both officer and enlisted ranks. Citing six years of data between 2010 and 2015, the paper found that white airmen were offered higher selection rates "than airmen who are of Asian descent, Black, or multi-racial."

"We have indications that there is a 'there' there, that we flag to the functional [teams] that are looking at each and every disparity," Said added. "And not just the underlying systemic problems, whether it be in policy or procedure, but the bias element [too]."

The Air Force's disparity review comes days after Acting Defense Secretary Christopher C. Miller signed a new memorandum calling on the military branches to pursue aggressive recruiting, retention and promotion efforts for minorities in order to promote a more inclusive and diverse force.

"We must not accept -- and must intentionally and proactively remove -- any barriers to an inclusive and diverse force and equitable treatment of every Service member," Miller said, according to the memo reported by The Associated Press.

The recommendations were submitted by the Pentagon's Board on Diversity and Inclusion, a group created by then-Defense Secretary Mark Esper, the AP said. Esper in July issued a military-wide directive outlining a series of steps aimed at eliminating "discrimination, prejudice and bias in all ranks" and promoting equal opportunity -- including barring the use of photos in promotion boards

As part of its own widespread efforts, the Air Force over the summer created a new task force to analyze diversity and inclusion issues.

Some cultural reforms from the task force have already begun, including increasing scholarships for hundreds of Black and Hispanic cadets, as well as creating policies that give airmen with unique names featuring accent marks or diaeresis the ability to purchase name tapes or tags that reflect the correct spelling and pronunciation.

"There's a lot of things we still need to do," Brown said in an interview with last week. "Where I'm most focused on is ensuring the actions we do take are meaningful, have an impact, and they are sustainable over time, and that they're measurable. And some of the things that we will deal with may take some time to see the results."

Starting next month, junior airmen will be given the opportunity to accompany general officers as they travel between bases for meetings and other functions, as part of a mentorship program that shows them they too can rise within the organization, he said.

Brown said he is hopeful the review will change perceptions within the force, especially top leadership.

"For many of the leaders in the Air Force, it really helped to open our eyes to certain areas that, you know, some of us knew about -- others, maybe not as much," he said.

"I see it as an opportunity."

-- Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at Follow her on Twitter at @Oriana0214.

Related: Pentagon Memo Maps Out Plan to Expand Diversity in the Force

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