Review Shows Widespread Racial Disparity in the Department of the Air Force

An extensive, 150-page report released Dec. 21 shows wide-spread racial disparities within the Air Force, with Black Airmen reporting distrust with their chain of command and military justice, and data showing Black Airmen are much more likely to face administrative and criminal punishment compared to white Airmen.

The Air Force Inspector General’s Independent Racial Disparity Review is based on more than 123,000 survey responses from Airmen, 138 in-person sessions at bases across the department, and 27,000 pages of responses. The review was launched in June following a nationwide reckoning on race relations in the country, and even those behind the effort were surprised at the response.

“The pent-up angst, … the volume was surprising,” USAF Inspector General Lt. Gen. Sami D. Said said in a briefing Dec. 21. “When we asked for feedback, I expected to get feedback. But we were just drowned with feedback. So, the Airmen were very eager to tell … their story. They wanted their voices heard. So glad we did that element of the review. And I was, at first, like ‘Wow.’ I realized the response would be high, but this was unprecedented, overwhelming.”

Broadly, the Airmen participating in the review shared how they personally have faced disparities. The survey responses reported that:

  • Two out of five Black enlisted, 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.
  • Two out of every five Black civilians have seen racial bias in the services’ promotion systems.
  • Half of all respondents said they experienced or witnessed racial discrimination from another Airman.

In addition to surveys, the IG report focused on data related to Article 15, courts martial, administrative, and other punishment. Data showed that enlisted Black Airmen are 72 percent more likely to receive Article 15s, and 57 percent more likely to face a courts martial. Young Black Airmen are twice as likely to be involuntarily discharged based on misconduct.

Black Airmen in the service are twice as likely to be stopped by Security Forces and 1.64 more likely to be suspects in Office of Special Investigations cases.

Outside of criminal justice, Black Airmen are underrepresented in operational career fields, and overrepresented in support career fields. Specifically, as of May 2020 there were only 305 Black pilots out of about 15,000 Active Duty pilots in the Air Force. As of July 2020, there were about 19,000 rated officers in the rank of O-5 and below, with Black officers making up just 3 percent of that.

Black Airmen are underrepresented in promotions to the ranks of E-5 through E-7 and O-4 through O-6, and while they are overrepresented in the percentage of Airmen receiving nominations to attend professional military education, they are underrepresented in the actual designations to attend.

Secretary of the Air Force Barbara M. Barrett, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr., and Chief of Space Operations Gen. John W. “Jay” Raymond will assign stakeholders to review the report, conduct a root cause analysis, and develop recommendations to address the disparities. The IG plans to conduct a “vector check” every six months to evaluate progress.

Said said the IG Office itself also was called out in the report, with Airmen raising concerns about the effectiveness of equal employment offices and the IG system as it pertains to handling claims of bias. Specifically, Airmen are worried that IG investigations are not independent from the chain of command and in turn face influence from commanders, the claim is not taken seriously, or it is not handled in a timely manner. This is an issue the IG is aware of and was already moving on by changing regulations.

“If you get a complaint at the IG level at the installation that in any way shape or form compromises the local leadership in their ability in dealing with it, whether the complaint is about them or the system not reacting, which they own, the issue has to be elevated outside that organization,” Said said.

Other recommendations and efforts include:

  • For disparity in Security Forces apprehensions: The AF/A4S and Headquarters Air Force Security Forces Center should begin including disparity topics during leadership sessions and symposiums, along with funding a “deep dive” review and root causes analysis.
  • For disparities in promotions: Groups such as A1, Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force, and leaders of major commands should take steps such as reworking enlisted evaluation systems to remove disparate testing outcomes, update officer evaluations with more emphasis on inclusive leadership, implement developmental categories to allow for more agility, implement bias training, and expand mentorship matches with emphasis for minorities, among others.
  • For the disparity in Air Force Specialty Codes: Air Education and Training Command and the A1 should review specialty selection criteria for minority barriers to entry and review rated officer selection processes and barriers to selection.
  • For disparity in Wing command and equivalent: A1 should strengthen minority representation and visibility throughout the command selection process, expand mentorship programs, and implement bias training.
  • For the disparity in undergraduate pilot training accession and graduation: AETC should work to inspire and attract talented and diverse youth and use multi-layered outreach to increase awareness of rated careers.

While the review found and confirmed several disparities in the experience of Black Airmen compared to other races, the report did not state that there is racism in the Air Force. Such a determination was not in its directive, Said said.

“Importantly, this review was not chartered to determine whether or not racial bias or discrimination is present,” the report states. “Such an examination would require considerable social sciences expertise, a broader look at American society in general, and was outside the defined scope.”

Brown said the review has opened the eyes of many leaders, and committed to continuing discussions and working toward “lasting change.”

Raymond echoed those comments, calling on Space Force leaders to continue having the tough decisions as the it builds up the new service around a culture of inclusion.

Editor’s note: This story was updated at 7:28 a.m. to correct a quote from Lt. Gen. Said.