By Aaron Frishberg
In 2017, the Department of Defense (DoD) conducted a “Workplace and Equal Opportunity Survey of Active Duty Members,” mandated by Congress. It was, to say the least, a bleak assessment of racism within the services. DoD dealt with this by withholding the survey, failing to present it to Congress as required and refusing to release it to the public.
In recent months, Reuters reporter Phil Stewart revealed the existence of the survey and the Pentagon’s refusal to release it. Originally, Stewart’s request for the report was met with refusal, with DoD claiming it was exempted from a Freedom of Information Act request, using the deliberative document privilege. Senator Kristen Gillibrand, a ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, had been attempting for months to obtain a copy of the report without success, one staff member told Stewart.
At the time of Stewart’s initial expose, Don Christensen, a retired chief prosecutor for the Air Force who leads the advocacy group “Protect Our Defenders” intuited the real reason for the refusal to release the report. He told Stewart that “whatever you’re asking for makes them look bad. And if it made them look good, they’d release it.”
After the Reuters’ exclusive and considerable pressure, the Pentagon finally released the report in January, 2021. Ironically, after its long delay, DoD is required to conduct a second survey this year.
In his second exclusive on the survey, Stewart reported that, according to the study, nearly one-third of African-American service members had reported experiencing racial discrimination, harassment, or both during 12 months prior to the date of the study.
Racial discrimination against Asian-Americans and Hispanic Americans, while not as appalling as that against African-American service members, also showed shockingly high figures – 23.3% for Asian and 21% for Hispanic service members. Daniele Anderson, a Navy veteran who is the chief strategist of the Black Veterans Project advocacy group, quoted by Stewart, pointed out that the statistics were from a survey that asked only about the last twelve months, commented that :”I would hazard a guess that there’s significantly more that have experienced” discrimination over the course of their careers.
Although the military, the nation’s largest employer, is diverse in its lower ranks, it is largely white and male at the top, notwithstanding President Biden’s appointment of a token retired Black general as Secretary of Defense. Whether President Biden’s statement that “more than 40% of our active-duty forces are people of color. It’s long past time that the department’s leadership reflects that diversity” will be followed by action only time will tell. If history and the structure of United States’ institutional racism are indicators, Biden’s words will join the lip service paid to diversity by past U.S. leaders.