In the 18 months since the killing of George Floyd sparked a national conversation on race and diversity, the Air Force has launched two major studies on the treatment of racial minorities and women, with more studies still to come.
The first review, released in December 2020 found clear differences between the way White and Black Airmen were treated in the judicial system; a follow-up report published in September 2021, detailed root-cause analysis and action plans for addressing those discrepancies. A third, also released in September, found disparities facing other racial and ethic groups, along with women. Still more reports are anticipated looking at the treatment of LGBTQ Airmen, women of color, and other minority groups. What started as a moment of reckoning has turned into a sustained reflection.
We have problems in the United States Air Force. It’s undeniable. It’s right there in the data.
Lt. Gen. Marshal B. “Brad” Webb, head of Air Eduction and Training Command
“We have problems in the United States Air Force. It’s undeniable,” Lt. Gen. Marshall B. “Brad” Webb, head of Air Education and Training Command (AETC), said in September at AFA’s Air, Space & Cyber Conference. “It’s right there in the data.”
Correcting those problems will take time.
Webb began to foster “uncomfortable conversations” about race, gender, religion, and related topics in the summer of 2020 through a series of Facebook Live sessions called “Real Talk” that featured Airmen from many different backgrounds. After a few weeks, he wanted to move on from talk to action when a first sergeant intervened.
“Every one of us in the Air Force is a Type A personality that wants to get to action, right?” Webb said. “Like, OK, we’ve done a couple sessions, let’s put it in gear and go. And her counsel to me was, ‘Sir, you’re not going to change 500 years of history over the summer.’”
REVIEWS AND RESULT
What started as a narrow review of disparities in discipline quickly expanded to include underrepresentation of ethnic and racial minorities in many operational career fields, especially among pilots—the least diverse Air Force Speciality Code in the USAF officer corps.
Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr. said the diversity gap among pilots can get lost amid topline numbers, but it still has a significant impact.
“We’ve had increases in diversity across the Air Force in race, ethnicity, and gender,” Brown said. “But it’s not where we want it to be, and it’s not in some of the career fields that we’d actually like to have.” Because operational career fields typically see higher promotion rates, a lack of diversity there has a disproportionate impact across the rest of the service.
With 74 percent of current general officers growing up in operations jobs and 52 percent having been pilots, the lack of diversity in those specialities greatly reduces diversity at the very top, where 93 percent of general officers are White and 92 percent are male.
Similar trends are apparent among wing and group commanders during the second racial disparity review, which found racial and ethnic minorities were less likely to be selected for command positions than their peers.
“If the data tells you you’re expecting to see a certain percentage in command given the base population of a minority, and you’re not seeing it, and it’s statistically significant, that is worth a careful look,” stated Lt. Gen. Sami D. Said, Inspector General of the Air Force. “The data is telling us something that we’re not expecting.”
The second review also showed that for some racial and ethnic groups, the issue starts far earlier than leadership positions, going as far back as who and who doesn’t join the Air Force in the first place.
“The problem starts with accessions,” according to Said. “And that’s where the ball starts rolling, where we start building disparity, because if you’re not gaining a percentage of the population that’s reflective of the wider population, you start with the problem.”
Among the enlisted force, the biggest gap between the qualified population and the service was among Asian Americans, said Maj. Gen. Edward W. Thomas Jr., head of the Air Force Recruiting Service. “The Asian American qualified population in America is about 9-plus percent,” he added, but only about 4.1 percent of the enlisted force is Asian American.
Hispanics, Native Americans, and women also join the Air Force and Space Force at rates lower than their population size would suggest. Among officers, similar discrepancies exist along with a shortage of African Americans.
For each particular racial and ethnic group, the overall trend points to differences that can’t be explained away, leaders say.
Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall summed it up: “It basically points out very clearly, and I think very convincingly that there are a lot of disparities within the Air Force, in a number of facets of the Air Force experience,” he said. “And this includes things like promotions, between their careers, how they’re treated in assignments, how they’re treated in the judicial system … and also about perceptions that people have.”
Both of the major disparity reviews solicited feedback from Airmen and Guardians, drawing an overwhelming response amounting to more than 230,000 survey answers and 44,000 pages of comments.
The results showed most White men did not see widespread disparities along racial, ethnic, or gender lines, while non-White men and women did.
Even that difference in perception is an issue worth review, Said noted. “If somebody believes something, it weighs on them, it affects their choices, their decisions, their stress level, how they react to things,” Said pointed out. “So, we need to clear that up. Either they’re correct and they’re telling us there’s a problem .. and we need to figure it out, or their perception is off and we need to better educate.”
Webb said participating in “Real Talk” sessions made a big difference for him. “There hasn’t been one session where I haven’t walked away going, ‘Didn’t know that,’ ‘Never heard that before,’ ‘Didn’t know that,’” Webb said. “And the point is, you’re looking at a career Air Force officer that’s done four decades of service. And yes, I’ve gone through [equal opportunity] training, and the PowerPoint presentations, and all that stuff that’s mandated for us. But we simply have never, before until recently, had the kind of discussions that are real, that really get down to the … topics that are just uncomfortable to talk about.”
Retired Gen. Edward A. Rice Jr., former head of AETC, said what leaders are seeing now is coming about because they’re asking questions that weren’t asked in the same way before. Historically, “I don’t think that we’ve done a good enough job of asking and listening to what our Airmen have to say about this issue,” Rice said during a panel on diversity during AFA’s Air, Space & Cyber Conference.
Had the Air Force asked for those comments years before, they would have gotten a similar response, Rice suggested.
Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force JoAnne S. Bass said the positive takeaway to what’s coming out now is that “our Airmen and Guardians, I think, trusted us enough to be able to share some of the experiences that they’ve had, whether they’re small experiences or very impactful or hurtful experiences.”
MORE TO COME
Changes are underway. Brown said the pilot selection process is being tweaked to reduce the value, for example, of prior flight training. That will reduce the advantage wielded by someone with the financial means to afford private flying lessons.
Other efforts include unconscious bias training, mentorship programs, and expanded recruiting efforts.
“Those are important steps,” Rice said, but the measure of success is not in outputs but outcomes, he added. “Are we recruiting the diverse force that we want? Are we retaining the diverse force that we want? Are we promoting and advancing the diverse force that we want? And are we applying discipline equally across that diverse force in a way that makes us proud?
“Those ought to be the four big dials that we are watching and determining whether or not we’re successful,” Rice said.Measuring progress on those fronts will require regular updates for the foreseeable future, something Kendall pledged to do.
“I’m planning on one-year cycles in general, six-month updates to get some sense of whether we’re making progress on actions or not,” Kendall said. “And then every year, we’ll take another look—like we did with the most recent study—to see if those benchmarks have moved, to see if we’ve improved or not.”
On top of just data, Kendall also said there needs to be root-cause analysis for why these disparities exist. While the numbers show that racial and ethnic minorities are promoted at lower rates, for example, more study is needed to understand what exactly causes that result, from career opportunities afforded to the way performance evaluations are recorded to any number of factors
The second diversity study found that more than a quarter of female Airmen and Guardians said they had experienced sex-based discrimination, and one in three said they had witnessed or experienced sexual harassment.
That’s “just unacceptable,” Kendall stated.
Undersecretary of the Air Force Gina Ortiz Jones said the second study missed an important nuance.
“When I read the racial disparity report, the second one, it talks about minorities, and it talks about women. It does not talk about female minorities,” said Ortiz Jones. “And so I flagged that for the Secretary and the Secretary said, ‘Yep, we’ve got to fix that.’ And so in 30 days, we are going to have the addendum to that report.”
Ortiz Jones said she is particularly concerned about discrimination of LGBTQ service members, noting that Pentagon policies make gathering data in that regard difficult.
“We just celebrated the 10-year anniversary of the repeal of [the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell] policy,” she said. “But now, what are some of the other policies that we can get after, that will make sure that we are demonstrating to those serving and those that want to serve that this is a place where they can serve to their full potential?”
IT TAKES TIME
Race and gender issues come up periodically, Rice said, but then tend to fade again.
“We have a study, we have a commission, we have someone look at it. They make recommendations, we say yes, the recommendations are good, we’re going to implement them. We set up a process to implement the recommendations,” Rice affirmed. “And then we move on to the next challenge that pops up above the noise level, not really fully … appreciating that this isn’t the type of problem that you can launch a missile at and leave it. It’s a problem, it’s a challenge that takes persistence.”
Lt. Gen. Brian T. Kelly, deputy chief of staff for manpower, personnel, and services, said what is different this time is that “we’re better informed.” Leadership has made it clear, “we have a commitment to do it across multiple years, and not just look at it for a few months.”
That’s essential because these things take time, he said. “We are not going to change tomorrow the demographics of the wing commander force that we have. That’s not going to be something that changes overnight,” he continued. “It takes the development, the recognition over many years for us putting other things in place to get us to the right spot.”
“We do believe that the long game here is, we expose our problems, we deal with them, and we move on, and we get better for it,” Thomas said. “And then in the long game, our recruiting is going to benefit from the transparent approach.”
Critics say they don’t have a problem with more diversity as long as it doesn’t reduce readiness and lethality, but USAF and USSF leaders push back.
“I think it absolutely is a readiness issue,” said Chief of Space Operations Gen. John W. “Jay” Raymond. “And it’s not just for the Space Force. I think any organization or any team… [is] more ready when you have a diverse makeup.
“I’m a football fan, just look at a football team. If you had a bunch of defensive linemen, you’re not going to score a lot of touchdowns. You’ve got to have a diversity of talent. And so diverse teams give you the ability to bring people together that have diverse talents, diverse perspectives, [and] help you solve complex problems, and keeps you from getting into groupthink,” Raymond said.
Brig. Gen. Shawn W. Campbell, the deputy human capital officer for the Space Force, said studies show consistently that “diverse teams outperform homogeneous ones.”
Leaders need to hold to such convictions, but they also have to share that view and convince others to buy in, said Chief Master Sergeant of the Space Force Roger A. Towberman.
“I can’t change hearts and minds if I don’t first understand hearts and minds, and I can’t understand anything if I’m not willing to listen,” he said. “So, if it’s thinking, and if it’s conversation, I’d say in general terms it’s healthy. It’s moving us where we want to be. This is about having conversations about working together to get through it,” Towberman said. “We can’t do that if we shut anyone down.”
Nor will USAF or USSF succeed if they only pursue one kind of Airman and Guardian, Thomas said. Any approach other than recruiting and training the best possible warfighters is “a losing proposition.”