The inspector general of the Department of the Air Force released the Independent Racial Disparity Review on Dec. 22, just three days before Christmas, as airmen began leave with their families. The timing of the release was made more interesting by the fact that many of us aware of the report’s existence and curious about its contents had been waiting expectantly for months for its publication.
The report found that enlisted Black service members were 72 percent more likely than enlisted white service members to receive nonjudicial punishment and found that young Black enlisted members are involuntarily discharged at twice the rate of their white counterparts. The report concludes that Black service members are 1.64 times more likely to be suspects in Office of Special Investigations criminal cases and twice as likely to be apprehenblacded by Security Forces.
The report also reveals that Black service members are consistently underrepresented in both officer and enlisted promotions at the noncommissioned officer and senior field grade officer ranks. Although Black officers receive more nominations to attend professional military education, they are less likely to do so.
The report was not at all surprising to me. In fact, I was only surprised by the honest responses of our Black general officers that they, too, experience this disparity and that they, too, recognize the bias of senior leaders— their peers. An astonishing 64 percent of Black general officers believe racial bias exists in the way leadership provides feedback and counseling, and a disturbing 55 percent of Black general officers agreed that racial bias exists when leadership makes decisions concerning lower level administrative actions like letters of reprimand.
Otherwise, the report only validated what I have experienced in my career and what I attempted to bring to others’ attention as well. The report tracked with my sense that three times more Black airmen were receiving nonjudicial punishment, consistently and pervasively, and aligned with the significant disparity in attrition rates I noticed at the Air Force Academy and worked for years to understand.
This long overdue report and its public acknowledgement of what has been a poorly kept secret requires a bold response and courageous leadership willing to enact radical change to dismantle the culture, challenge the systems, and tear down the institutional frameworks that support the racial disparity in our Air Force.
Truth, I scream silently every time someone answers the question, “What do we do?” at the end of another Zoom session with a “We need to have more conversations like this.” If you’re someone like me, a Black woman leader in this Air Force, chances are you have been having these conversations or trying to have these conversations for a very long time.
Convincing white male leaders that racial disparity is their issue is easier said than done. We’ve worked tirelessly for nearly two decades to convince male leaders that sexual assault is not a women’s issue — with only incremental progress. These conversations are important, even crucial, but we have got to find our way beyond the talk and into action. We need airmen who are confident enough to speak up honestly. We need leaders who are brave enough to grab a sledgehammer and tear down old systems and build new ones. If we want to create opportunities for real progress and bridge the disparities identified — the gaps — we need radical change.
In order to fully understand the need for radical action we must fully appreciate the role of inaction. I think about it this way — we underrepresented airmen often pay what I call a diversity tax. In my case, I pay a Black tax, a woman tax, and a Black woman tax. And while I believe we should all pay our fair share of taxes for the greater good — that’s a lot of taxes and it becomes taxing.
If you don’t understand what I mean by this tax, just ask your average white male colonel how many Black History Month luncheons or MLK services he’s put on; how many Making Excellence Inclusive committees he’s chaired, how many diversity panels he’s led or participated in. Ask him how many times he’s been charged to lead Diversity and Inclusion efforts, or initiatives or discussions in his career. Then ask me. As with all inequitable taxation, the result is inequality.
It should be no surprise that the disparity in taxation is reflective of the disparities detailed in the IG’s report. Those taxed shoulder the burden of the problem — the lack of knowledge, the lack of opportunity, lack of resources — while the untaxed are unaffected, free to exist and thrive in the system, often with very little recognition that a problem exists. In this specific case, in the case of racial disparity in the Air Force, white male airmen are placed in a position of plausible deniability while the taxpayers’ investment works to stabilize a force built on an increasingly damaged foundation of inequity and inequality.
Radical change requires an equitable distribution of taxes. And by that, I mean an immediate call to action for all Air Force leaders to all Air Force members. We need everyone to pick up a sledgehammer and get to work. Do U D.A.R.E?
Do the training. Yes, we need training on implicit/unconscious bias, education on how to become more cross-culturally competent, leaders who encourage open and honest dialogue. This training need not be just for commanders and enlisted leaders, but for all airmen at all levels.
We need leaders who acknowledge their privilege. We need to provide opportunities for our airmen to acknowledge and confront biases from the time they enter basic training. We need to invest in skilled diversity practitioners who know how to facilitate crucial and, at times, uncomfortable conversations.
We must lessen the tax on our junior officers and NCOs who are called upon to lead in this arena at the wing, group and squadron levels and invest in professional certifications for those who choose to do this work. Being Black or brown or a woman does not mean one is inherently skilled in mediating difficult conversations or knowledgeable about diversity and inclusion frameworks, so we must recognize the need to restore officers in our military equal opportunity functional community and mandate that those officers report directly to a wing-equivalent commander.
We must avoid computer-based training at all costs and insist on engaging in real human interaction and get comfortable being uncomfortable. We must also recognize that training is not enough. Training alone does not change culture.
Understand the root cause(s). Identifying root causes is difficult. I believe that one root cause for the racial disparities identified in the Air Force Report on Racial Disparity is a lack of sense of belonging. When members of a group or an organization do not feel as if they belong, when they are disconnected from the group’s purpose or organization’s mission, they act out in defiance, in frustration, in anger and in disappointment.
We must begin to acknowledge all the ways we message who belongs and who doesn’t belong in our Air Force. The recruiter who doesn’t offer special operations opportunities to Black recruits, assuming they can’t swim, sends a message. The military trainer who accuses the Black male trainee of having an attitude when he’s been conditioned to respond to strength with strength sends a message. The supervisor who determines the Black airmen’s protective hairstyle to be faddish and makes her take out her cornrows sends a message. The Black Air Force Academy cadets required to pay for barber and beauty salon services they never can use sends a message.
The flying hour component of the pilot qualification equation that disproportionally disadvantages lower economic and underrepresented applicants sends a message. The airman teased about his accent by his supervisor sends a message. The pictures on the wall send a message. We must understand the direct link from a lack of a sense of belonging to the performance issues, behavioral shifts, and poor choices made by our airmen that lead to administrative action and, radically, own our role.
Data analysis. We need a dedicated team of data analysts who will use the inspector general’s report as a starting point to examine racial disparity across our Air Force. We3 need operational research systems analysts who will look holistically at our recruiting trend data, our training pipeline data, our commissioning source retention data and delve deeper into the revelations that, for Black and brown airmen, highly selective executive officer and aide positions do not necessarily translate to command opportunities, just as nomination for in-resident professional military education does not necessarily translate to selection. If the data supports, we must be willing to take the radical step of accounting for racial bias as a causal factor.
Ask different questions. While I believe we must investigate and do our best to understand the data presented in the inspector general’s report, we must also look beyond the data if we want to fully understand the disparities revealed.
It is my experience that those who receive administrative punishment have generally earned that punishment. The infractions are made. The crimes committed. I have listened as commanders provided justifications for punishments in detail, and I never once felt a punishment was unjustified, even as I continually pointed out the significant disparity in who was receiving the punishment. A different question to ask, then, is who is not receiving punishment? Who is given the proverbial slap on the wrist? Who is given the benefit of the doubt? Who is developed vs who is punished? Who is shown grace? Who is not? And why? These are much tougher questions to answer and to do so will require a willingness of leaders at all levels to look intently at their own behaviors; to do so will require a radical self-awareness.
Resist the easy button. It’s hard to imagine an easy button that could solve the Air Force’s issue of racial disparity, but there are options that are easier than others. We tend to look for what already exists and adopt and adapt for the next priority. Many times, we do this out of necessity, for efficiency. I caution against doing that in this case. I have heard floated the idea of modeling a Diversity and Inclusion program meant to tackle the issue of racial disparity after the Sexual Assault and Prevention Response (SAPR) program as a viable option. While the SAPR program’s response initiatives instituted necessary reporting mechanisms for victims that have been of great value to our airmen, our efforts towards prevention have not been successful. Making real progress toward lessening racial disparity will require a bit of radical, outside-of-the-box thinking.
Emulate success. NASA offers one example of what I would consider a radical approach to practicing equal opportunity, diversity, and inclusion. NASA has been extremely successful in increasing its diversity and creating more inclusive environments by changing the messages sent and making the Diversity and Inclusion Strategic Plan the responsibility of every employee.
NASA elevated the authority of its Office of Diversity and Equal Opportunity, and the ODEO has a seat at the table for all high-level agency decisions, briefings and forums with the charge of bringing issues affecting equality, equity, and diversity to the attention of senior leaders in all cases. NASA’s executive leaders (general officer equivalents) are required to champion a strategy outlined in the plan and brief progress to the administrator. This would be equivalent to the Air Force chief of operations serving as the Air Force champion for increasing the diversity of rated officers in the Air Force or the Air Force chief of logistics serving as the champion for strengthening the Air Force’s partnership with local institutions of higher learning including, but not limited to, historically Black colleges and universities and Hispanic-serving institutions and being held accountable by the Air Force chief of staff for those lines of effort.’
NASA gave its leaders a sledgehammer and told them to get to work.
Gen. CQ Brown Jr., our Air Force chief of staff, has already spoken honestly about his experience as a Black airman and has challenged us all to lead courageously. Chief Master Sgt. of the Air Force JoAnne Bass has already worked to directly challenge an underlying culture of disrespect in our ranks. Finally, our newly confirmed secretary of defense is already demonstrating radical leadership with his initiative to counter sexual assault and harassment. He’s putting the sledgehammer in his general and flag officers’ hands and asking them to get to work. I am confident that now is the time for radical change. I’ve got my sledgehammer. Do U DARE?
Col. Candice Pipes is the chief of the Manpower and Personnel Division, Directorate of Personnel and Manpower (J1), HQ Special Operations Command. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of U.S. Special Operations Command, the Department of the Air Force or the Department of Defense.
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