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Air Force investigation finds disparities in how Black and White members are treated

U.S. airmen stand in formation at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas in 2017. (Samuel King Jr./U.S. Air Force)

Black members of the Air Force are treated differently than their White counterparts when it comes to job placement, leadership opportunities, educational options, criminal investigations and administrative discipline, according to the findings of a months-long investigation by the service’s independent watchdog.

In a 150-page report released Monday, the Air Force Inspector General’s Office recommended that leaders develop action plans and schedule additional reviews to ensure that changes are made.

The report stopped short of declaring that systemic racism existed in the Air Force but found that 2 out of 5 Black members of the service do not trust their leaders to address racism, bias and unequal opportunities, and 3 out of 5 believe they will not receive the same benefit of the doubt as their White colleagues if they get in trouble.

“We’re analyzing root causes and taking appropriate actions to address these challenges,” Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr., the service’s top officer, said in a statement. “Now we must all move forward with meaningful, lasting, and sustainable change."

Air Force leaders ordered the investigation in June amid a nationwide reckoning over race after the police killing of George Floyd triggered protests across the country. The nonprofit Protect Our Defenders had just released a report in May detailing how the service had mostly failed to follow through on a promise to address racial disparities in 2016.

Senior Air Force leaders, including now-retired Gen. David L. Goldfein, the service’s former top officer, began speaking about race as an issue of concern regularly over the summer. In a memo released shortly after Floyd’s death, Goldfein told airmen that “what happens on America’s streets is also resident in our Air Force,” and that the service needed to deal with it.

“Sometimes it’s explicit, sometimes it’s subtle, but we are not immune to the spectrum of racial prejudice, systemic discrimination, and unconscious bias," Goldfein wrote.

More than 123,000 airmen responded to the request for feedback, Lt. Gen. Sami Said, the Air Force inspector general, said in a phone call with reporters on Monday.

“The things that surprised me: The pent-up angst on the topic,” he said. “The volume was surprising. When we asked for feedback, I expected to get feedback. But we were just drowned with feedback. The airmen were very eager to tell the story -- their story. They wanted their voices heard.”

The Air Force report’s publication does not on its own require any additional action. But Said said his office will continue to scrutinize the issue, providing updates after 60 days that will examine disparities in how Black and White airmen are criminally prosecuted, administratively disciplined and elevated for promotion. The investigation found that Black airmen faced harsher treatment in all three areas.

The problems in the Air Force, which has about 330,000 members on active duty, come amid broader scrutiny across the Defense Department of areas in which the military is falling short on race relations.

On Friday, the Pentagon released a report that highlighted persistent shortcomings in some areas, including the advancement of Black officers to senior ranks and the existence of service members who participate in hate groups.

The report was compiled following the formation in June of a new Department of Defense Board on Diversity and Inclusion. It highlighted that while junior members of the military, on the whole, are more diverse than the American population, senior ranks are progressively less so.

The board’s recommendations include making sure that recruiting advertisements better reflect the country’s diversity, increasing the number of scholarships available to college students who pledge to join the military through Reserve Officer Training Corps programs, and assessing barriers to the advancement for Black service members already in the military.

Chief Master Sgt. Ramón Colón-López, the senior enlisted adviser to Gen. Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in the report that commanders must offer solutions when service members feel ostracized or raise concerns about being denied opportunities.

“Candidly, the Pentagon’s work on this should take no more than six months getting our policies straight,” he said. “The work then goes to commanders to do what commanders do -- lead and care for their people.”