The views and opinions expressed or implied in WBY are those of the authors and should not be construed as carrying the official sanction of the Department of Defense, Air Force, Air Education and Training Command, Air University, or other agencies or departments of the US government or their international equivalents.
By Capt Benjamin Ayivorh, Capt Mark Thompson, and Capt Robert Tolossa
/ Published November 01, 2021
Briefly imagine a loud stereo, a request to turn it down, and an ensuing fight that leads to 135 arrests, 10 people injured, and one death, all on a military installation. At face value, it sounds farfetched until you realize this is precisely what happened in the summer of 1971 on Travis AFB. Over three days, Airmen rioted over the detainment of two African American Airmen involved in that altercation. The Travis AFB Riots of 1971 led to the creation of the Equal Opportunity Office.1 Race relations within the USAF is not a new issue; it arguably has been a challenge since its inception in 1947. Unfortunately, the USAF has continuously fallen short in preventing its Airmen’s regression in diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I). In the 1970s, the Department of Defense had an aggressive posture on equal opportunity and racial issues, and it all started with the Department of Defense (DOD) Directive 1322.11.2 This is the foundation of DE&I policy and education today.
The US Air Force Academy (USAFA) class of 1963 was the first to graduate and commission African Americans, approximately three. By 1973, the USAFA was persistently graduating African Americans yearly. In addition, the Air Force made strides by specifically expanding its curriculum at the USAFA Preparatory School to “assist otherwise qualified Black applicants to overcome minor education deficiencies.”3 This was in part due to lingering Jim Crow era education policies. Over the next decade, African American numbers steadily rose. However, by the late 1980s, commission numbers for African Americans began to taper and then decline from their previous highs. These downward trends triggered a congressionally directed report by the General Accounting Office (GAO) on gender and racial disparities at the USAF Academy.4 The report found that minorities had higher attrition rates and were subjugated to proportionally more honor and academic reviews than their counterparts. Most notably, the report found that USAFA leadership was aware of many of the findings. However, they did not analyze discrepancies in performance, determine criteria to factor for differences, or document or plan to sustain future equal opportunity.
Another more recent example is racial disparity in military justice punishments.5 Black or Hispanic service members were almost twice as likely to face trial. These findings were determined by an advocacy group called Protect Our Defenders (POD) in their 2017 report.6 This report led to an investigation by the GAO that was completed in 2019. It also uncovered overall inconsistencies or lack of tracking data to determine possible causes of the disparity. POD further investigated the Air Force’s internal findings and expert working groups’ progress starting back in 2016. POD published a follow-up report in May of 2020.7 While the Air Force claimed to identify and address the disparity issues, the report found the expert working groups met briefly, made superficial recommendations, and implemented no actual changes to resolve the problems. The report also found that the “Air Force had engaged in a multi-year effort to keep the findings and recommendations of its working group hidden, forcing Protect Our Defenders to file suit in federal court.”
In December 2020, the USAF Inspector General released a Racial Disparity Review (RDR).8 As a result of the survey and data, 16 recommendations were provided to address the military discipline process, personnel development and career opportunities, and other department-wide concerns. Subsequently, the Secretary of the Air Force directed the appropriate agencies to develop action plans to address RDR recommendations. An area of focus that should be further explored is how the Air Force plans to sustain the benefits of policy, processes, and procedures that are put in place to address the racial disparities identified in each recommendation. Historically, the Air Force has addressed racial issues with intention. However, those efforts seem to fade away as time and distance from that tragedy or headline grow. As a force, we have acknowledged a challenge exists in the system. So, how do we move forward? How do we get from acknowledgment to action? How do we measure up to what we value as a force? Put very simply, the things that matter get measured. If the Air Force values how we discipline, recruit, promote, and retain a diverse force, then it should put transparent goals/metrics in place to which the Air Force can hold itself accountable. Put measures in place that can be visually, frequently, and publicly tracked so that we do not find ourselves, years from now, requesting another data set for a report to address similar challenges addressed in 1971, 1993, 2014, and 2020.9
Overall, The USAF has implemented the change to create a just and progressive movement in the name of DE&I. However, the Air Force has relied on good faith to keep accountability and stay the course somewhere along the way. Unfortunately, congressional-led investigations, the Freedom of Information Act, and societal pressure are the stopgaps to the Air Force’s accountability concerning racial disparity. These stopgaps only occur after the standards have slipped and the mission focus changes from preventive to repairing.
The United States Air Force has done much to improve its total force for the past 74 years. The subsequent nine years will be a true testament to how valuable diversity and inclusion efforts are to the DOD. As briefly mentioned above, the RDR has outlined policy recommendations for the USAF to adopt to elevate racial/ethnic minority groups and women into career fields that statistically yield higher promotion rates. About recruiting efforts, the Rand Report explicitly explains the significant impact that “clear and persistent” outreach programs could have in influencing underrepresented groups to join rated career fields. As of March 2021, the Air Force has begun working on a strategy to accelerate change on creating such programs systematically.
Per the “Chief of Staff of the Air Force Action Orders” affecting Airmen, Air Education and Training Command (AETC) has rightfully taken the lead to improve the recruiting, assessment, training, and retention of diverse populations among the rated career fields.10 As a result, AETC has outlined an initiative called the Air Force Rated Diversity Improvement Strategy with three primary goals:
1. Attract and recruit the best talent from diverse backgrounds to cultivate a high-performing and innovative Air Force reflective of the best of our nation.
2. Develop and retain the Air Force’s best-rated aircrew by harnessing diversity as a force multiplier and fostering a culture of inclusion.
3. Optimize diversity advancement efforts by leveraging data-driven approaches.11
The objectives highlighted and the initiatives prioritized are evident by the language used within each goal: attract, recruit, develop, retain, optimize. This strategy systematically improves each facet of the talent acquisition process; the Air Force has gone to great lengths to ensure that this plan’s foundation is built upon clear objectives, supported by continuous engagement, and measured with quantifiable metrics until the fiscal year 2030. Specific details of the improvement strategy can be found within the published document. Second-order effects of the Rated Diversity Improvement Strategies listed above help nurture a culturally diverse workplace, arguably just as crucial as garnering and selecting qualified minority groups within the military. An organization succeeds in fostering such a workplace by respecting underrepresented groups for who they are and valuing their diverse perspectives and thoughts, which they bring to the mission planning table.
Getting the right people through the door is one thing; keeping the right people within the service to provide a competitive advantage on a global scale is an entirely separate task. By creating processes to retain better and optimize our Airmen, the culture of the Air Force evolves. The organizations that find success through Diversity & Inclusion programs can do so because they increase contact with minority groups and encourage social accountability.12
In past years, programs with the intent to help minority groups often backfired. Such programs were seen as mandatory to prove legal compliance or as shallow plans to minimize workforce grievances rather than a viable strategy to create an advantage over external threats. It could be argued that the DOD has implemented similar programs without fully understanding these shortfalls. Deloitte University Press published global research findings focusing on the evolution and integration of successful DE&I initiatives framed as organizational priorities capable of adding value:
Organizations can start by broadening their understanding of diversity to focus not only on the visible aspects of diversity, such as race, gender, age, and physical ability, but also diversity of thinking. This means deriving value from people’s different perspectives on problems and different ways to address solutions. It is a complex world, it is a global world, and maximal participation is required from every workplace participant from the bottom to the top. Thinking of diversity in this way helps organizations to see value and to be conscious of the risk associated with homogeneity, especially in senior decision makers. And this means that diversity is no longer a “program” to be managed—it is a business imperative.13
With the Office of Diversity and Inclusion realignment under the Department of the Air Force earlier this year and the implementation of the Rated Diversity Improvement Plan supported by its strict rules of governance, the USAF is on course to create and sustain real change for the foreseeable future.14
These improvement plans will likely fail if the DOD continues to harbor attitudes of complacency once the program or intent is no longer seen as a priority. DE&I best practices in human resources capital investment coupled with iterative data-driven decision-making can produce incredibly positive results in the long term.
During the years of World War II, when our Allied forces needed dedicated and talented professionals the most, our nation looked to the daring Women Airforce Service Pilots and the bold Tuskegee Airman of the 99th Pursuit Squadron to defeat our existential threat. We look upon these groups now in preparation for what may lie beyond the horizon. We must remember to remain committed forever and always to dedicated and talented minority groups. Diversity and inclusion create a competitive advantage, and the player with the competitive advantage wins.
Captain Benjamin Ayivorh
Benjamin Ayivorh is a Captain in the USAF and is the Chief of Scheduling for the 122d Fighter Squadron at NAS JRB New Orleans.
Captain Mark Thompson
Mark Thompson is a Captain in the USAF and is currently serving as the Budget Officer and Flight Commander, Financial Analysis, at Travis Air Force Base. He earned his master's degree in organizational leadership from Western Kentucky University.
Roberto Tolossa is a Captain in the United States Air Force, working under the Air Education and Training Command as an MQ-9 instructor pilot at Holloman Air Force Base. Capt Tolossa is currently finishing his master's degree in Human Resources and Organizational Development from the University of Louisville.
This paper was written as part of the SOS Air University Advanced Research (AUAR) elective, Barriers Analysis Working Group (BAWG).
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