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Air Force takes hard look at racial disparities

Two new reviews found big differences in promotions and workplace discipline based on race and gender

Women and minorities are underrepresented among Air Force pilots.
Women and minorities are underrepresented among Air Force pilots. (Photo by Yichuan Cao/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Blacks and other minorities in the Air Force and Space Force are treated differently from their white peers, according to two disparity reviews released Thursday.

In a wide-ranging look at topics ranging from who gets promoted in the ranks to who gets punished in the military justice system, the reviews found minorities are usually on the short end.

“We have made some progress, but we still have a lot of work to do,” Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall said during a call with reporters. The reports are very valuable to the Air Force, he said, because while they do not determine the root causes underlying the disparities, they provide important benchmarks against which to measure progress.

Lt. Gen. Sami Said, the inspector general of the Department of the Air Force, who oversaw the production of the reports, said that in addition to conducting anonymous surveys (which received more than 105,000 responses), his office conducted 122 small-group discussions. Additionally, when asked if respondents had anything to add that might not have been covered in the survey or group sessions, the IG’s office received the equivalent of 16,000 single-spaced pages of comments, he said. This helped ensure that airmen and guardians had a chance to make their voices heard, he said.

In December 2020, the Air Force released its first report detailing its findings on disparities experienced by Black airmen and guardians. One of the reports released Thursday was a six-month follow-up to that previous report, looking at how previous recommendations are being implemented across the department.

While there is momentum and commitment to addressing the disparities noted in the first report, it is too soon to try to measure progress, Said said.

“To expect meaningful results in six months I think is a bridge too far,” he said.

Diversity data

The second report released Thursday expanded the inquiry into disparities to include gender and additional races/ethnicities beyond African Americans.

The results were telling.

For Asian Americans: Enlisted servicemembers were 153 percent less likely than their white peers to hold leadership positions; officers were 65 percent less likely to become squadron/group commanders and 280 percent less likely to become wing commanders. All Asian American servicemembers were less likely than average to receive promotions and more likely to leave the service earlier than their white peers.

For Hispanics/Latinos: Overall, they were 33 percent more likely than their white peers to be the subject of criminal investigations but also 33 percent less likely to receive disciplinary action. Among the enlisted, they were 21 percent less likely to hold leadership positions. They were 34 percent less likely to be group/squadron commanders and 42 percent less likely to be promoted to major or colonel than their white peers.

Although they make up a tiny percentage of airmen and guardians, Native Americans and Pacific Islanders faced seemingly similar hurdles.

Additionally, 1 in 3 women in the service experienced sexual harassment during their Air Force careers, either as victim or observer. Almost half of female respondents said they felt they had to work harder than their male peers to demonstrate their competency, while about half said they felt maintaining a work-life balance adversely affected their careers.  

Perhaps the clearest example of disparities can be seen in the lack of diversity in the operations career field. Time spent in an operations post can be a springboard to promotion and advancement, but the lack of minority officers in the field (21 percent of lieutenants and captains, 14 percent of majors and colonels, and 6 percent of generals) can have a disproportionate impact on the officer corps.

Pilots make up a disproportionately large section of senior officers, but there, too, the Air Force found a lack of diversity: Only 16 percent of the service’s pilots are minorities, and only 7.7 percent are women.

“The lack of diversity of officers in the operations career fields and, specifically, in pilots directly impacts diversity in senior leader representation and also influences the disparities throughout the lifecycle of an Airman or Guardian,” the report states.

“The lack of people that look like us who can mentor us and advise us, that’s an important theme,” added Said.

Congressional response likely

The data and analysis in these reports will likely give more ammunition to members of Congress looking to change the military justice system as both chambers take up the annual defense policy bill in the coming weeks. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., has spearheaded a proposal to remove prosecutions of sexual assault cases and other serious felonies from the chain of command. Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., sponsored a number of provisions related to military justice reform that were included in the House version of the bill.

But there is also frustration from Republicans that the Defense Department is highlighting issues of race they believe undermine readiness and orderly discipline. In an indication of that, House Republicans on the Armed Services Committee tried to add amendments restricting instruction in “critical race theory” to the policy bill last week, but they were voted down by Democrats.

Said on Thursday said he had not heard any pushback from Congress regarding his office’s efforts to examine disparities. He dismissed potential critics of the effort, saying that diversity strengthens the Air Force and that efforts to improve outcomes for minorities have complete support from the top down.

“Show me something that the Department of the Air Force is currently considering or doing that is going to harm lethality, going to harm discipline,” he said. “I don’t see it.”

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