An airman is facing discipline after Air Force officials found that text messages appearing to show job discrimination against a Black airman were fake.
Partially redacted screenshots of the alleged conversation spread on social media in May, prompting leaders of the 56th Fighter Wing at Luke Air Force Base, Arizona, to investigate.
“We won’t be sending your name up for [redacted] at the squadron,” one airman appeared to tell another in the screenshot. “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.”
“This is the third job that has been held over my head due to my looks, and something that’s based on personal preference,” the purported recipient answered.
Task & Purpose, which first reported on the investigation, had identified the sender as a white technical sergeant and the recipient as a Black senior airman. Both allegedly served 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 allegedly sought a job to oversee and administer physical fitness tests, Task & Purpose reported.
But the exchange never happened, an Air Force spokesman said.
“The 56th Fighter Wing has concluded its investigation into reports that an airman was denied a special duty assignment by their supervisor based upon their demographic identity,” base spokesman Sean Clements said in an email Tuesday. “Following an exhaustive investigation, authorities determined that the statements published did not occur and the text messages were fake.”
Clements told Task and Purpose that an airman facing nonjudicial punishment for the incident is still able to appeal.
He declined to answer questions from Air Force Times about the person’s identity, what disciplinary action could be taken or whether more than one person was involved in the scheme.
“The 56 FW has a zero tolerance policy on acts of discrimination,” Clements said
The military issues shaving waivers to troops who suffer from a condition called pseudofolliculitis barbae, a chronic skin irritation that is aggravated by shaving. The painful bumps disproportionately affect Black men.
Waiver holders are allowed to grow beards up to one-quarter inch in length, and can renew their exemption every five years. As of March, 11,200 active duty airmen had shaving waivers. That amounts to 4.3% of all male active duty troops in the Air Force, according to data the service recently provided to Air Force Times.
Despite that percentage steadily growing from 1.3% in 2014, some argue that getting medical approval to wear a beard ends up hurting their careers. In turn, those critics say, that impacts retention and promotions for airmen of color.
Beards are generally frowned upon because of the U.S. military’s longstanding tradition of uniformity and attention to detail as well as concerns that certain gear, like gas masks, wouldn’t tightly seal with hair in the way.
Fifteen percent of active duty troops in the Department of the Air Force, which includes airmen and Space Force guardians, are Black, according to the Air Force Personnel Center. Service data did not indicate what percentage of Black airmen hold shaving waivers compared to those of other races and ethnicities.
In July 2021, 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.
“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.”
The Department of the Air Force has considered launching a pilot program to allow some airmen to sport quarter-inch beards, Air Force Times reported in August. The study’s findings could help convince high-level Pentagon officials to allow more flexibility on facial hair.
It’s unclear why the department would need a separate study when thousands of airmen with shaving exemptions and religious waivers allowing beards could serve as the test case.
If the initiative moves forward, bearded airmen would have to keep their whiskers “neat in appearance, shaped appropriately, not faddish,” the study proposal noted.
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.