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Black members of U.S. Air Force are investigated and punished more often, report says

Air Force Thunderbirds fly in formation at U.S. Air Force Academy
The Air Force Thunderbirds fly in formation during graduation ceremonies at the U.S. Air Force Academy.
(Pablo Martinez Monsivais / Associated Press)

Black service members in the U.S. Air Force are far more likely to be investigated, arrested, face disciplinary actions and be discharged for misconduct, according to a new report that looks at racial disparities across the service.

The report by the Air Force inspector general, released Monday, said that Black members of the Air Force and Space Force are less likely to be promoted to higher enlisted and officer ranks, and one-third of them believe they don’t get the same opportunities as their white peers. The report concluded that “racial disparity exists” for Black service members but that the data did not explain why it does.

The report comes as the Pentagon struggles with a broader effort to expand diversity within the ranks. The Defense Department last week endorsed a new slate of initiatives to more aggressively recruit, retain and promote a more racially and ethnically diverse force. And it called for a plan to crack down on participation in hate groups by service members and draft proposed changes to the Uniform Code of Military Justice.

The Air Force inspector general’s report outlined data for racial inequities that have long been suspected. It said that a large number of Black service members reported experiences with bias and racism. Although those reports were difficult to validate within the study, the review concluded that it was “reasonable to conclude that individual acts of racism have occurred in the Department of the Air Force.”

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One Black squadron commander who was interviewed, for example, said the only mentoring he received throughout his career was from other Black leaders. And he said that, at times, one mistake can end Black service members’ careers.

“You might get left behind if you don’t have someone that looks like you helping to propel you,” he said. “Black service members need to work twice as hard and you can’t mess up.”

The death of George Floyd in police hands has pushed the U.S. military to admit that, like the rest of America, it’s fallen short on racial fairness.

As many as half of the Black survey respondents said they had been discriminated against because of their race. And 45% of Black general officers — they include one-star to four-star generals — said they had experienced discrimination.

By contrast, 94% of the white general officers said they didn’t face discrimination based on their race.

Senior Air Force and Space Force leaders asked for updates within 60 days on how to address a number of the issues, including the disparity in discipline and the fact that 60% of the Black service members surveyed said they don’t get the same benefit of the doubt as their white peers if they get into trouble.

Gen. Charles Brown Jr., chief of staff of the Air Force, said service leaders must rebuild trust with their force.

“Racial disparity isn’t an easy topic and something we don’t traditionally talk about much throughout our levels of command,” said Brown, the first Black leader of the Air Force. “Now we must all move forward with meaningful, lasting and sustainable change.”

The leader of the Air Force Academy delivered a poignant and stern message on race relations in a speech to thousands of cadets after someone wrote racial slurs on message boards outside the dorm rooms of five black students.

Air Force Secretary Barbara Barrett added that leaders would take appropriate action to remove barriers and expand mentorship and other programs to encourage diversity.

The review examined military justice process data going back to 2012, looked at promotion rates and other opportunities given to service members, conducted interviews and received more than 123,000 responses to a survey. Officials said it focused solely on Black service members to get the review done quickly, but subsequent changes would be applied more broadly to other minority groups.

Specifically, the review found that enlisted Black service members were 57% more likely than whites to face courts-martial and 72% more likely to receive nonjudicial punishment as a result of an investigation. Black troops were twice as likely to be apprehended by security, and young Black enlisted members were twice as likely to be involuntarily discharged for misconduct. Black troops also are investigated and found guilty of sexual harassment more often.

The report noted, however, that recruits who join the force with a moral waiver — whether they are Black or white — are more likely to face discipline problems. Recruits with previous criminal convictions such as assault, drunk driving or marijuana use require a moral waiver to enlist.


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