WASHINGTON – Air Force officials have privately acknowledged racial bias against young black airmen in judicial proceedings while also fighting the release of documents detailing the problem and their response, according to documents and a study released Wednesday.
Young enlisted black airmen were twice as likely to face punishment as their white counterparts, according to internal documents obtained by the advocacy group Protect Our Defenders after a court ordered their release. USA TODAY obtained an advance copy of the study.
“The significant disparities that young black airmen face compounds the belief their service is not as valued as their white counterparts,” said Don Christensen, president of the non-profit group, which advocates for troops facing discrimination and sexual harassment and assault.
“They already face lower promotion rates and have very few black officers to serve as mentors. They can see with their own eyes how few black general officers there are in the Air Force. Now they are faced with an Air Force that knows they are being prosecuted at a much greater rate, but has apparently done little if anything to reverse that trend.”
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After Christensen’s group released a study in 2017 showing racial bias in military justice across the armed services, the Air Force confirmed the findings, according to the new documents. The newly released documents are contained in a follow-up report set to be released May 27.
“Do we have racial disparities in our justice system or not?” according to a 17-slide presentation prepared for Air Force Headquarters contained in the report. “Yes – the data reflects a persistent and consistent racial disparity.”
Air Force officials say that after confirming the problem, they issued recommendations, including training to recognize unconscious bias, and implemented them.
“While we have taken steps to elevate unconscious bias training at all levels of our command structure, we have more work to do to identify and remove barriers that stand in the way of our people’s success,” said Ann Stefanek, an Air Force spokeswoman.
Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., who chairs the Armed Services Committee panel on personnel said Tuesday night that she would hold hearings on the report’s findings.
“It’s extremely troubling to see that the Air Force is wasting valuable resources that could have been used to address staggering racial disparities in military justice on keeping the public and the press in the dark,” Speier said. We cannot not stand idly by as our service members are subjected to injustice and discrimination that should be a footnote in our history, not a modern day scandal.”
The initial report by Protect Our Defenders in 2017 prompted an investigation by the General Accountability Office into racial discrimination in the military justice system in all the armed services.
In 2019, GAO investigators determined that black, Hispanic and male troops were more likely than white or female service members to be investigated for criminal activity and to be tried in courts-martial. The GAO also found that race and gender were not significant factors in likelihood of convictions.
Investigators also faulted the Pentagon for not comprehensively evaluating the causes of bias against minority troops.
“Doing so would better position (the Department of Defense) to identify actions to address disparities and help ensure the military justice system is fair and just,” according to the GAO report.
Further study within the Air Force shows that racial disparity in its justice system disappears after five years of service, Stefanek said. However, the problem persists for younger black male airmen, and the Air Force in 2017 began enacting “a range of initiatives beginning to elevate unconscious bias awareness and mitigate its impacts,” she said.
After additional analysis in 2019, the Air Force directed unconscious bias training to lower-level supervisors and mentorship programs to assist young airmen adapt to the military culture, she said.
The Air Force, Christensen said, has moved too slowly to remedy the problem. Blatant racism should be examined, too.
“Unconscious-bias training could be a start to improving the situation, but the Air Force’s own study recommended it be implemented four years ago,” Christensen said. “Sadly, the Air Force has drug its feet in implementing the one solution to the issue it identified in 2016. What is more troubling is the Air Force’s failure to acknowledge that part of the disparity could be a result of actual bias and prejudice.”
Pentagon officials, in testimony before Congress earlier this year, said that new vetting procedures screen out extremists among recruits.
The Air Force, like the other services, has struggled to cultivate and promote black officers, USA TODAY has reported.
Christensen is a retired Air Force colonel who at one time was its chief prosecutor. He said senior leaders resisted releasing the documents, which his group obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA.
As a military prosecutor and defense attorney, Christensen said he was aware that when black airmen were tried most juries, witnesses and court personnel were white.
“Simply put, the Air Force did all it could to hide its failures because of how poorly it reflected on the institution from the Chief of Staff on down, but this is exactly why the FOIA process exists – to hold the government accountable,” he said.
The delay in releasing the documents, Stefanek said, stemmed from an exemption for information that is part of the “deliberative process.”