Washington, DC — Today, Protect Our Defenders (POD) released a new report revealing the Air Force has attempted to cover up its data on racial disparities following an internal investigation mandated by Congress. The report shows that, since 2016, the Air Force has repeatedly concealed its records, embellished its efforts, and attempted to discredit its own statistics while failing to address persistent racial disparities in the military justice system. The refusal of the Air Force to adequately address the inequalities facing Black and Hispanic servicemembers is particularly troubling, as POD’s 2017 report and coverage by USA Today found the Air Force has the worst military justice racial disparities in the Department of Defense (DoD).
“The Air Force fought for almost three years to conceal its failure to address racial disparities in its criminal justice system,” said Col. Don Christensen (ret.), the former Chief Prosecutor of the United States Air Force and President of POD. “Despite the Air Force’s internal findings in 2016 that it has a “consistent” and “persistent” racial disparity in prosecutions of Black servicemembers, it appears the Air Force has done nothing in the last four years to solve the problem. Instead, the Air Force dedicated time and effort to cover up its failure to act on any solutions. All servicemembers must have faith that they are treated equally when facing punishment. The Air Force has utterly failed to do that.”
POD’s report reveals that the Air Force’s own data determined racial disparities in its justice system have been a long-term problem that is only getting worse, yet has apparently taken no action to address the issue. Instead, the service engaged in a multi-year effort to hide evidence of the disparities plaguing its ranks. The report also found that:
- The Air Force’s internal investigation revealed that Black Airmen with the ranking of E-2 receive discipline at double the rate of other demographics, and noted that: “If this were the case for Airmen that were female, versus male, we would have concerns about what is making the difference, and investigate…”
- After its internal investigations, Air Force leadership cast doubt that the disparities were as severe as their own data reveals, contrary to conclusions reached by the Government Accountability Office’s (GAO) and POD’s investigations.
- It appears the creation of the Air Force’s Disparity Working Group was an attempt to deflect from the service’s abysmal record, rather than a true step towards substantive change.
- The working group met only briefly and made only superficial recommendations, none of which have apparently been implemented by Air Force leadership.
- Across all branches of the military, Black servicemembers were substantially more likely than White servicemembers to face military justice or disciplinary action.
- No branch of the military appears to consistently collect and publish racial and ethnic data regarding military justice involvement and outcomes.
These findings come four years after POD submitted a series of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests that ultimately spurred Congressional action, mandating the DoD transform how the military tracks, investigates, and addresses racial disparities in the military. After POD’s initial FOIA request, the Air Force attempted to keep the information from becoming public and admitted that none of the recommendations were acted upon, forcing POD to file suit in federal court alongside the Veterans Legal Services Clinic at Yale Law School.
“Protect Our Defenders’ new racial disparity report highlights the longstanding, profound racial discrimination in the military justice system and a clear lack of action from military leadership to address the problem,” said Professor Michael Wishnie, Veterans Legal Services Clinic at Yale Law School. “We have analyzed this issue at the clinic for years and, despite empty rhetoric from military leadership, there have been no meaningful steps taken to tackle racial disparities. Instead, they are doing their best to cover up the problem. We need to fight back against this continued lack of oversight by reforming the FOIA process to make information more accessible and hold the military accountable.”
The U.S. District Court in Connecticut that heard the case rejected multiple DoD arguments and ordered the government to disclose key documents related to bias in the military justice system. The Court referred to the Air Force’s investigation as a “mystery,” questioned whether it conducted any “real governmental decision making process,” and accused it of trying to change its story and “plug gaps” over time.
Black servicemembers have long faced discrimination in the military; in the Air Force, Black airmen on average are 71% more likely to face court-martial or Non-Judicial Punishment (NJP) than White airmen. The GAO’s report in 2019, spurred by POD’s initial findings, was the nation’s first report to Congress to analyze data on racial disparities in the military justice system.
In light of POD’s new report, Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC) and long time member of the Congressional Black Caucus, intends to push for Congressional oversight.
“As the nation commemorated Memorial Day this year, there was timely justice in the release of the Protect Our Defenders (POD) report documenting the suppression of racial disparities by the Air Force. Although backed up by official findings of the Government Accountability Office report, requested by the Congress, it took federal court litigation by POD to get release of the recommendations of the Air Force working group finding ‘consistent’ and ‘persistent’ racial disparities in both courts martial and judicial punishment. The report was so convincing that this year Congress, for the first time, passed legislation requiring both reform and transparency in addressing racial disparities in the military,” said Representative Norton.
“As chair of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission before being elected to Congress, I am astonished that racial disparities in federal agencies, long subject to corrective legal action in federal courts, are only now under similar scrutiny in the military system. We are indebted to POD for breaking open a new area of oversight for racial justice. As a senior member of the Committee on Oversight and Reform, the main investigative committee of the House of Representatives, I intend to ask our committee and other committees of jurisdiction to follow the recommendation for annual oversight of the military to identify corrective action needed,” said Representative Norton.
“This report is more evidence that when military leadership touts ‘fairness for all,’ it’s just for show,” said military sexual assault survivor and POD Board Member, BriGette McCoy. “Black servicemen and women like myself have been pointing out this unjust treatment for years, coming from the top down. This is especially true with respect to survivors of military sexual assault, our LGBTQ servicemembers, and any Black servicemember who hopes to be promoted.”
Navy Veteran Darchelle Mitchell joined the service to follow in her father’s footsteps, but in 2017 she experienced unjust treatment from military leadership first hand — the same year POD released the first racial disparity report in the nation.
“Military leadership have gotten away with punishing black people for unjust charges for so long that they don’t even try to hide it anymore. This report affirms that I wasn’t crazy, and the discrimination I endured was the experience of so many,” said Mitchell. “The reality is that the rules don’t apply the same if you’re Black. There are so many bright, young soldiers who are being held back from greatness, and from basic equality, because of their skin color. I hope this report helps bring in a new era in the military, where the next generation of Black servicemembers are able to thrive.”
The apparent lack of action and efforts to conceal information across the military underscore the need for Congressional oversight and the importance of reforming the FOIA process to appropriately address racial inequalities and hold military leadership accountable. Protect Our Defenders calls on Congress to investigate the Air Force cover up and military inaction with respect to racial disparities.
Click here to read POD’s 2020 report summary with key findings:
Click here to read the full 2020 disparity report:
Click here to read POD’s 2017 report summary with key findings:
Click here to read the full 2017 racial disparity report:
About Protect Our Defenders: Protect Our Defenders is a human rights organization. We seek to honor, support and give voice to the brave women and men in uniform who have been sexually assaulted while serving their country, and re-victimized by the military adjudication system – a system that often blames the victim and fails to prosecute the perpetrator. Learn more about Protect Our Defenders at www.protectourdefenders.com or on Facebook at http://facebook.com/ProtectOurDefenders or follow us on Twitter at https://twitter.com/ProtectRDfnders.