The Air Force says it's trying to dig into systemic issues that have resulted in widespread and consistent racial disparities that have hurt female airmen or Space Force Guardians and service members from racial minorities.
But in an online Facebook town hall Thursday for the services' leaders to discuss racial issues, it was clear that even convincing some service members and leaders that there is a problem remains a challenge.
"We do need to wake up," Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force JoAnne Bass said when asked what service members should do if they have a leader who dismisses such discussions as "woke culture." Those leaders, she added, should "read the over 17,000 [anonymous] comments from over 100,000 airmen and Guardians that have said there are some challenges" with racial disparities.
The panel's moderator began by noting that the comment section below the Facebook Live event contained multiple comments -- at least dozens, if not hundreds -- from people who felt racial, gender or ethnic disparities in the Air Force and Space Force did not exist, and that the discussion itself was divisive.
Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall pointed to vast quantities of data that have been compiled by the service's inspector general over the last year and a half showing significant disparities in the way women or those from racial minorities are treated when it comes to promotions, the military justice system, or sexual harassment or assault.
"The data is quite clear on this," Kendall said. "There's not a question about whether it exists or not, as far as I'm concerned."
The IG's second racial disparity report, released Sept. 9, found that Hispanic and Latino, Asian American and Native American officers and enlisted service members were promoted to certain ranks below the overall average rate. Officers in those racial minority groups, for example, were also less likely to hold leadership roles such as squadron, group or wing commander. And enlisted service members in those racial or ethnic groups also were underrepresented among command chiefs and first sergeants.
The first report last year focused on Black service members and found similar trends.
Part of the issue is that the Air Force has tended to choose its leaders from the ranks of operations career fields -- particularly pilots. And because those jobs tend to be filled by white men for reasons that aren't 100% clear to experts, that has resulted in an Air Force leadership that is likewise more white and male.
Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles "CQ" Brown, the first Black service chief in U.S. military history, said that the Air Force's overall racial, ethnic and gender diversity has increased in recent years -- but it's not yet where it should be.
Broadening career opportunities for airmen of all backgrounds is crucial to retaining talented airmen, Brown said. And the Air Force's retention trends trouble him.
"We have certain members of diverse backgrounds that don't stick with our Air Force, for whatever reason," Brown said. "We don't fully understand why. But we also want to get people to the senior level, both on the officer and enlisted side, because all of us want to look up and see somebody who looks like us. That will open the door for future opportunities."
Kendall said that the services need white men, like himself, to be aware that some fellow service members are having experiences that differ greatly from theirs.
"When perceptions differ, that's the disparity," he said. "To turn our back on that and ignore it would be exactly the wrong thing."
Kendall acknowledged that some people may "think of this 'woke' stuff as silly, or a waste of time."
But he pointed out that he's been stopped by police 10 or so times in his life, typically for speeding, sometimes in the middle of the night in the country.
When that happens, he said, he might sigh and wonder whether his military ID might be enough to be let off with a warning instead of a ticket.
But, he said, "I've never been afraid once when a cop has stopped me, at any time or at any place. There are a lot of our fellow teammates who have ... had a very different experience."
Kendall encouraged airmen and Guardians from differing backgrounds to have these conversations, to understand where the other is coming from.
"For the rest of us to understand that and appreciate it will take us a little ways down the road of being more ... aware, more conscious, how we all haven't had the same type of experience," he said. "And we can learn from each other about that. And we can all grow together as a result of that."
The high percentage of women who have been victims of sexual harassment -- the latest IG report that came out found that one out of every three female airmen or Guardians, and one out of every four female civilians in the department, had been sexually harassed -- is also "totally unacceptable," Kendall added. He said the Air Force will be ready to adopt changes to the way sexual assaults and related crimes are prosecuted, to remove those decisions from the military's chain of command, as soon as Congress passes legislation requiring the change.