The Myth of Color Blindness
There’s a popular expression, “Oh, I don’t see color.” Have you ever heard it? On the surface, it sounds like it could be a good thing. However, the notion that color blindness is a good thing is a myth. To not see color, to be color blind if you will, is to be blind to important differences in culture, upbringing, and norms. As it pertains to minorities, it means being blind to their different experiences, pressures, and disadvantages. Even worse, the color blindness myth says if I can’t see the differences and their corresponding disadvantages, they don’t exist. More specifically, under the myth of color blindness, majority-race Airmen are blinded to and forced into denial of the disadvantages that minority Airmen experience.
The surveys from the Air Force’s Racial Disparity Review (RDR) clearly show that the white majority is unwilling or unable to grasp that minorities can have a different Air Force experience. They don’t seem to understand that the Air Force culture can impact minorities differently than it affects them.
The fact that minorities experience the Air Force differently is not solely a function of the Air Force’s processes and regulations but of its people and culture. In the RDR excerpt below, the writers point out that no bias was found in the Air Forces personnel and legal guidance:
“AFI Review no inherent, systemic, or procedural biases were found in the twenty 36-series (personnel) guidance documents or the 51-series (legal) publications pertaining to discipline.”
The Air Force, in diversity study after diversity study, tries to find solutions by fixing processes and regulations. But one area of real blindness for the Air Force is its corporate inability to see that the Air Force, as a collection of human beings, is without question a reflection of American society/culture. As a result, unfortunately, the Air Force reflects the current ugly part of majority culture that refuses to accept that minorities have a different “American” experience. For example, an “unruly” George Floyd and an “unruly” group of mostly white people storming the Capital on January 6th vividly highlighted that African Americans often experience the police differently.
The following RDR excerpt shows how widespread the racial disparities are for black Airmen and civilians. The disparities are so pervasive and are of such magnitude that it is mindboggling to conceive they could not be linked on a cause-and-effect basis with bias and racism. (*underlining added for emphasis)
This Independent Review confirmed racial disparity exists for black service members in the following areas: law enforcement apprehensions, criminal investigations, military justice, administrative separations, placement into occupational career fields, certain promotion rates, professional military educational development, and leadership opportunities. While the data show racial disparity, it does not indicate causality. Data alone do not address why racial disparity exists in these areas. Examples of disparities identified include:
Military Justice and Discipline – enlisted black service members were 72% more likely than enlisted white service members to receive Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ), Article 15, commanding officer’s non-judicial punishment (NJP), and 57% more likely than white service members to face courts-martial.
Administrative Disciplinary Actions and Discharges – young black enlisted members are almost twice as likely as white enlisted members to be involuntarily discharged based on misconduct.
Investigations – black service members are 1.64 times more likely to be suspects in Office of Special Investigations (OSI) criminal cases, and twice as likely to be apprehended by Security Forces. Based on limited data, black service members are investigated and substantiated for Military Equal Opportunity (MEO) sexual harassment cases at a higher rate than white members. No racial disparity was identified in IG reprisal and restriction investigations, and the DAF does not maintain demographic data on Commander Directed Investigations.
Accessions – enlisted black service members are overrepresented3 in accessions when compared to their proportion of the eligible U.S. population. Black service members are underrepresented4 in operational career fields and overrepresented in support career fields, which may affect their promotion opportunities.
Professional Military Education (PME) – since 2015, black officers have been overrepresented in PME nominations but underrepresented in designations to attend. The gap between nomination percentages and designation percentages is larger in Senior Developmental Education (SDE) than Intermediate Developmental Education (IDE). Enlisted PME are all “must attend” courses based on rank and promotion date.
Promotions – black service members are underrepresented in promotions to E5-E7 and O4-O6. Additionally, black officers are underrepresented in Definitely Promote (DP) allocations for O5 and O6. Black, permanent, full-time civilians are underrepresented in GS-13 through Senior Executive Service (SES) grades.
Retention – across the enlisted population, the data revealed no consistent disparity in retention rates by race. Within the officer population, the data revealed black officers were slightly overrepresented in separations at 5-15 years of service and underrepresented in separations at 16-20 years of service.
AFI Review – no inherent, systemic, or procedural biases were found in the twenty 36-series (personnel) guidance documents or the 51-series (legal) publications pertaining to discipline. Edits to enhance clarity were recommended.
The Voice of the Airmen and Space Professionals – black service members voiced a consistent lack of confidence in DAF discipline processes and developmental opportunities compared to their white peers. For example, of the 123,000+ DAF IG Survey respondents:
• 2 out of every 5 black enlisted, civilians, and officers do not trust their chain of command to address racism, bias, and unequal opportunities
• 1 out of every 3 black service members said they believe the military discipline system is biased against them
• 3 out of every 5 black service members believe they do not and will not receive the same benefit of the doubt as their white peers if they get in trouble
• 1 out of every 3 black officers do not believe the Air Force and Space Force provide them the same opportunities to advance as their white peers, and
• 2 out of every 5 black civilians have seen racial bias in the services’ promotion system
I shared this quote from the RDR in the “oracle” chapter, “Thousands of black service members and civilians reported experiencing issues ranging from bias to outright racial discrimination.” Those experiences were interpreted as “isolated individual acts of racism” that “may contribute to the racial disparities identified in this report.” Thousands of bias and discrimination incidents reported were not treated cumulatively as evidence of widespread bias and discrimination.
Here’s a quote from the RDR excerpt: “The Voice of the Airmen and Space Professionals. – black service members voiced a consistent lack of confidence in DAF discipline processes and developmental opportunities compared to their white peers.” Here again, the preponderance of black military and civilian people in the Air Force said that the wide-ranging disparities confirmed by the RDR are caused by bias and/or discrimination. Why isn’t that enough to “indicate causality?” Are the actual experiences of black Airmen and civilians not valid? Do they have to be verified by someone who is not black to be valid? Wasn’t that the message of George Floyd’s death? That police brutality wasn’t real until White America saw it?
Columbus Day isn’t as widely celebrated as it was when I was a kid. But the premise was that we celebrated Christopher Columbus for discovering (for Europeans) the centuries-old life and lands of the American Indians. In similar fashion, the Air Force’s Racial Disparity Review “discovered” the life and conditions that many black Airmen and civilians live everyday. The data collected came from the black side of the Air Force, if you will.
The disparities uncovered in the RDR are not a revelation to black people in the Air Force. The RDR confirmed that similar data had been collected from at least 23 previous studies going back as far as 1974. In nearly every survey, the more senior black enlisted and officer members had a more negative outlook on the Air Force and its disparities. Why? They have been in the Air Force longer and have been experiencing these disparities longer.
The following excerpt comes from the segment of the RDR that summarizes the survey results. It further emphasizes the difference between how white and black Airmen, enlisted and officer alike, experience the Air Force: (*underlining added for emphasis)
“Survey Response Conclusion
Survey responses revealed that black service members generally lacked trust in their chain of command to address racism, bias, and unequal opportunities. The perspective gap between black and white members was large. 40% of the black respondents indicated they did not trust their leadership in these areas, while only 10% of white respondents expressed doubt. This gap is more prominent when looking at officers, wherein 49% of black officers indicated they did not trust leadership compared to only 7% of white officers. A similarly large perspective gap was revealed in whether black Airmen had the same opportunities for mentorship, feedback, and role models as others in their organization. 43% of the black officer respondents indicated that all Airmen had the same developmental opportunities, while 82% of white officers believed everyone had the same opportunities. Of particular concern, approximately 50% of black officer, enlisted, and civilian respondents have either experienced and/or witnessed racial discrimination by another DAF member.
This Review found black survey respondents overwhelmingly believe racial bias exists in DAF disciplinary actions. In addition, the survey responses highlighted that black members believed racial disparities extend beyond the disparity in Article 15s and courts-martial. In particular, responses reveal a large perspective gap on whether racial bias exists when leadership issues Letters of Counseling, Admonishment, and Reprimand. Almost half (45%) of black enlisted and more than half (54%) of black officers believe racial bias exists when their leadership issues administrative disciplinary action, compared with less than 15% of white enlisted and white officers. The survey also reveals that black respondents believe they do not receive the same benefit of the doubt as white Airmen for the same infractions, which may play a role in the racial disparities in both military justice and administrative separation actions. The Review found that racial disparity in military justice actions likely extends beyond Article 15s, courts-martial and discharges to include lessor disciplinary actions such as LORs, LOC, and LOAs.
…SUMMARY – VOICE OF THE AIRMEN AND SPACE PROFESSIONALS
The Review team developed the Racial Disparity Review survey to encourage respondents to write in their personal experiences. This Review has incorporated their stories, thoughts, and recommendations throughout the report. The survey data, interviews, and discussion responses show a substantial disconnect between how black and white service members perceive DAF discipline and opportunities. The survey responses were consistent with the empirical data and highlighted that black service members believe the racial problem extends beyond data. In particular, the responses revealed a large perspective gap on whether racial bias exists in LOCs, LOAs, and LORs. The survey responses also revealed three out of five black service members believe they do not receive the same benefit of the doubt as white service members for the same infractions. The Likert scale responses revealed 40% of black service members do not trust their chain of command to address racism, bias and unequal opportunities, while the yes/no responses indicated that 50% of black service members have experienced or witnessed racial discrimination.
The installation group sessions, targeted interviews, and text responses in the surveys supported the Likert scale and yes/no survey responses. Specifically, the interviews and installation group discussions confirmed that black service members believe they receive harsher punishment for similar offenses and do not receive the benefit of the doubt for minor infractions compared to their white counterparts. Additionally, officers in the group discussions highlighted the difficulty in maintaining consistency at lower levels of supervision. As for developmental opportunities, enlisted, officers, and civilians indicated lack of diversity and favoritism were likely barriers for black service members.
V. SUMMARY AND RECOMMENDATIONS
This Independent Review confirmed racial disparity exists for black service members in apprehensions, criminal investigations, military justice, administrative separations, placement into occupational career fields, certain promotion rates, professional military educational development, and leadership opportunities. While the data show race is a correlating factor, it does not necessarily indicate causality, and the data do not address why racial disparities exist in these areas.
It is important the reader appreciate the identification of racial disparity does not necessarily equate to either racial bias or racism. This report’s primary focus is on identifying areas of racial disparity. During the course of this Review the team received a large volume of first-hand examples of bias, as well as individual acts of racism. While it is impossible to individually validate each example, the themes that emerged from an overwhelming volume of feedback make it reasonable to conclude individual acts of racism occur in the DAF and that racial bias contributes to the disparities found by the Review team.
As an African American man who spent four years in an Air Force Academy uniform and 24 years in an Air Force officer’s uniform, it is impossible to read this summary without being disturbed. The excerpt points out that extra special effort was taken to capture the personal experiences, stories, thoughts, and recommendations of black Airmen and civilians. But even with the extra care to hear the “Voice” of black Airmen, their inputs were distilled down to a “difference in perceptions.” A difference in how black and white Airmen “perceive” the discipline black Airmen experienced and the opportunities black Airmen and civilians missed. Even though black Airmen and civilians “overwhelmingly believe racial bias exists in DAF disciplinary actions” and their beliefs were “consistent with the empirical data,” it wasn’t enough to validate their “beliefs.”
There is a different Air Force experience for many black people, and the surveys are just a way for white service members to get a glimpse of that experience. Unfortunately, white service members are handed a pair of goggles when they view this data. It’s like an usher at a movie theater handing you goggles for a 3-D movie. Unlike the 3-D goggles, however, the RDR goggles diminish/hinder what is being shown. RDR goggles prevent the viewer from seeing any bias/racism/discrimination. While wearing these goggles, the wearer knows there is an invisible, indistinguishable malevolent force that is wreaking havoc throughout the movie, but they can’t see it.
I’d like to paraphrase the last paragraph of the “Summary and Recommendations from the excerpt above. Again in my own words, this is how it reads:
As was stated on the first page of the RDR, the reader cannot conclude that finding racial disparities proves they were caused by racial bias or racism. After all, we limited the scope of this report to only find disparities, many of which we have seen in the previous 23 reports. Even though we received a large amount of first-hand examples of bias and individual acts of racism—they were reported by black people. Validating each of the experiences of thousands of black people is necessary to prove causality but is impossible. However, the overwhelming number of reports of racism makes it reasonable to white people that individual acts of racism actually still occur in the Air Force and may contribute to but not definitively cause the disparities found by the Review Team.
Color blindness at its worst says I don’t see it happening to me, so how could it be happening to you? Further, it says if something different is happening to you, it can’t be based on your color because no one sees color anymore. Color blindness is a myth. It’s a myth that is alive and well in the Air Force.
There are even darker conclusions that are not founded on myths. Racism and bias are real and cause disparities wherever they exist. Racism and bias cannot be addressed where they are not deemed to exist. Individual accounts and descriptions of racism and bias are just as valid as individual reports of sexual harassment. Racism, whether it is openly espoused or practiced, is just as impactful as racism that is dismissed as “individual experiences” and “potentially” linked to bias. Racism causes one group to have a different experience, even a different Air Force experience than another group.
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