A squadron in the 56th Fighter Wing at Luke Air Force Base, Arizona, has opened an investigation into a widely shared claim that a Black airman was passed over for a new job because of his race.

In a partially redacted screenshot of a May 4 text exchange that was anonymously posted to the “Air Force amn/nco/snco” Facebook page the same day, an undisclosed sender told a service member that his skin color and facial hair had disqualified him for the position.

Task & Purpose, which first reported on the investigation, identified the sender as a white technical sergeant and the recipient as a Black senior airman. Both serve in the 56th Equipment Maintenance Squadron, where the technical sergeant was the senior airman’s manager in charge of planning and scheduling maintenance, the publication said.

The senior airman sought a job to oversee and administer physical fitness tests, Task & Purpose reported.

“We won’t be sending your name up for [redacted] at the squadron. Sorry about not telling you in person,” the technical sergeant wrote.

When asked why, the technical sergeant said: “We personally do not feel as if you are a good choice for the squadron. You currently have a shaving waiver, which isn’t a professional image, and I think the Air Force is looking for somebody of white complexion and with the image that the Air Force needs.”

It’s the third time the airman was snubbed for a job “due to my looks, and something that’s based on personal preference,” the senior airman said.

“I will not talk about it any further than what was just said,” the senior airman said. “I know the commander would not agree with this.”

Sean Clements, a spokesperson at Luke, said the wing is looking into “maltreatment and discrimination” based on the post but did not verify whether the screenshot is real.

“Luke airmen are held to a high standard of conduct,” he said. “We maintain a zero-tolerance policy regarding acts of discrimination.”

Waivers that allow airmen not to shave their facial hair are largely awarded to Black men, who are disproportionately affected by a painful skin condition called pseudofolliculitis barbae, or razor bumps. Fifteen percent of active duty troops in the Department of the Air Force, which includes airmen and Space Force guardians, are Black; the Air Force did not immediately answer how many shaving waivers are currently approved.

Airmen can apply for shaving waivers that last up to five years at a time. But the waivers have drawbacks, too.

Though men with shaving waivers aren’t breaking Air Force rules by sporting a beard — which must be trimmed to a quarter-inch or shorter — it can still be perceived as troublesome.

Last July, the journal Military Medicine published the results of a study that found airmen — largely Black men — who seek shaving waivers may get promoted slower than their peers.

Surveys filled out by around 10,000 airmen, most of whom were noncommissioned officers, showed that people who had used the waivers for at least eight years were promoted to staff sergeant or technical sergeant about six to 12 months behind others.

Nearly 40 percent of the 1,139 waiver-holders said they felt it had negatively affected their careers, About three-quarters of those respondents believed it kept them from leadership positions, and half felt it impacted their consideration for awards.

Researchers believe that perception causes airmen with shaving waivers, regardless of race or ethnicity, to leave the service earlier than their clean-shaven peers.

“We hope that the findings of this study shed light on this issue by showing that the promotion system is not necessarily inherently racially biased, but instead biased against the presence of facial hair,” researchers concluded. “Wider study of this issue is warranted.”

Rachel Cohen is the editor of Air Force Times. She joined the publication as its senior reporter in March 2021. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Frederick News-Post (Md.), Air and Space Forces Magazine, Inside Defense, Inside Health Policy and elsewhere.

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