The U.S. military has failed to examine the causes that lead to Black members being more likely to be investigated, or to face military justice and disciplinary action than their White counterparts, the government’s top watchdog, lawmakers, and representatives of military services say.
The Air Force alone has found that Black airmen were more likely than their White counterparts to be subject to courts-martial and nonjudicial punishments from fiscal 2013 through 2017, consistent with Government Accountability Office’s findings, the watchdog’s Brenda Farrell told the House Armed Services Personnel panel Tuesday.
More specifically, Black male airmen below the rank of E5, or staff sergeant, and with less than five years of service “are almost two times more likely” to face courts-martial or receive non-judicial punishment under Article 15 of the Uniformed Code of Military Justice, by which a commander can punish a service member without going through a court martial, said Lt. Gen. Jeffrey Rockwell, the Air Force Judge Advocate General.
“We don’t have clear answers or underlying reasons as to why the disparity exists,” Rockwell told the House panel.
`Racist Country’ No Excuse
This month, the Air Force’s inspector general announced the office will independently review the service’s record on racial disparities.
“The fact that we live in a racist country in no way excuses or justifies the perpetuation of racism in the United States’ military,” said Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif, the chairwoman of the Personnel Subcommittee. “We will not solve this problem by hiding it or denying it. The way things have always been done is unacceptable, the results are unacceptable.”
Military officials have had evidence for years that Black service members are more likely to be investigated, charged, and given non-judicial punishment than their other peers, said Don Christensen, the president of Protect Our Defenders, an advocacy organization that calls attention to racial disparities.
“There is a long track record of doing nothing about it,” he told the panel.
Protect our Defenders in May alleged that the Air Force attempted to cover up its data on racial disparities following an internal investigation mandated by Congress. The group accused the Air Force, since 2016, of repeatedly concealing its records, embellishing its efforts, and trying to discredit its own statistics while failing to address persistent racial disparities in the military justice system.
Any delay in providing documents requested by the advocacy group through the Freedom of Information Act, which led to a lawsuit, was due to an exemption for information that is part of the deliberative process, Rockwell told the panel on Tuesday.
“We are not immune to the spectrum of racial prejudice, systemic discrimination and unconscious bias,” Gen. David Goldstein, Air Force chief of staff, wrote in a message to commanders on June 1, responding to the death of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man, at the hands of Minneapolis police. “We see this in the apparent inequity in our application of military justice. We will not shy away from this; as leaders and as airmen, we will own our part, and confront it head on.”
Protect our Defenders found in 2017 that Black service members were at least 1.29 times and as much as 2.61 times more likely than White service members to have an action taken against them in an average year. In the Air Force, Black airmen on average were 71% more likely to face court-martial or non-judicial punishment than Whites.
In the Marine Corps, Blacks on average were 32% more likely to receive a guilty finding at a court-martial or non-judicial proceeding than White Marines, while in the Navy Black sailors were 40% more likely than White sailors to be referred to special or general court-martial, the organization said. In the Army, Black soldiers were on average 61% more likely to face a special or general court-martial compared to White soldiers.
Defense Department officials and the military services haven’t conducted a comprehensive evaluation to identify potential causes of the disparities and recommend any appropriate actions to correct the causes of the disparities, said the GAO’s Farrell.
No Cause Studied
The military services don’t collect and maintain consistent information regarding race and ethnicity in their investigations, military justice, and personnel databases, she said in her testimony to the House Armed Services panel.
Specifically, the number of potential responses for race and ethnicity within the 15 databases across the military services ranges from five to 32 options for race and two to 25 options for ethnicity, which can complicate cross-service assessments, she wrote.
Rep. Trent Kelly, the subcommittee’s ranking member, said that the military has to figure out “how we quit being racially discriminatory,” particularly toward junior members of the military.
“We got to get at the root of this stuff,” said Kelly (R-Miss.). “If you want to stamp put the problem you have to figure out what the problem is. Right now, we are failing horribly at it.”
Military leaders need to make a path for mentoring and promoting Black members, Kelly said.
“If you are not a fighter pilot you are probably not going to make general,” he said. If you are not a submariner or surface ship guy or an aviator you are not going to make admiral.”
“What are we doing to get African American kids into those jobs?” Kelly added.
To contact the reporter on this story: Roxana Tiron in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org