When a young Chicagoan named Chris joined the Air Force in 2015, he thought he was entering an environment where racism was mostly under control.
"I still expected there to be some outliers, where people had their prejudices," said Chris, who asked that his last name be withheld to avoid damaging his career prospects. "But I didn't really think it would affect careers on a big basis. I thought when it happened, that it would be squashed at that level."
But he said that during his Air Force initiation, some of his Black non-commissioned officers warned about a dangerous double standard.
"They were telling me things like, 'You know, you as a Black man, you have to watch your back and you have to work harder. You can't mess up the same way that white airmen mess up because you'll be looked at differently,'" he said.
As Chris' career progressed, he said he noticed racial lines forming among his immediate superiors. He said he felt more and more scrutiny in his environment, and even small transgressions came with mountains of disciplinary paperwork.
But he said white airmen were usually given more leeway and guidance when they made the same mistakes.
"I remember a guy who came in hungover from Oktoberfest. Instead of giving him paperwork because he was late and hungover, the NCO said, 'It's not a big deal. Just sit in the back and sober up.'" Chris said. "But then, when a Black airman comes in, and he's a couple of minutes late, it's automatic paperwork because you're late - like it's the biggest deal."
Chris blamed that disparity for ultimately ending his Air Force career. He said he was drummed out for drunk and disorderly conduct and for unauthorized charges on a government travel card - which he blamed on a scammer. In both cases, he said, his superiors refused to hear evidence that would have exonerated him.
Commander is judge and jury
Racial differences in day-to-day punishments are not uncommon in the Air Force, according to Don Christensen, a retired Air Force prosecutor and head of the advocacy group Protect Our Defenders. He said non-commissioned officers and commanders decide punishments and hold a lot of sway over the Air Force judicial process.
"Being predominantly white, I think that they have a tendency - whether it's consciously or unconsciously - to have a bias which gives a benefit of doubt to their white service members that they might have a closer relationship with than the Black service members," said Christensen.
Protect Our Defenders analyzed Air Force data and found that between 2005 and 2016, Black airmen were about 70% more likely than their white counterparts to be court-martialed or brought up on Article 15 charges. Article 15 is a form of administrative punishment in which the commander essentially serves as judge and jury.
Black airmen also suffer lower promotion rates and are vastly underrepresented in the officer corps.
Even with that, the Air Force is still missing large chunks of data about race and punishment. The service doesn't track most low-level infractions - like lateness - which can affect an airman's career progress. That's where Christensen said most discrimination takes place.
"Probably the vast majority of reprimands don't involve the legal office in any way," Christensen said. "There's just no process right now where you have a good fidelity of what's going on."
Air Force officials have acknowledged the need for more data on nonjudicial punishments like reprimands, counseling, administrative demotions, and involuntary discharges.
"One of the approaches we must take is to develop more data left of Article 15," the Air Force Judge Advocate, Lt. Gen. Jeffrey Rockwell, told the House Armed Services Committee in June. "We don't have that data. We kind of know that's where the problem is. What we don't know and what we can't answer for sure is, 'Are we mentoring everybody the same?'"
Lt. Gen. Brian Kelly, the Air Force's Deputy Chief of Staff for Manpower, Personnel and Services, has been looking at bias in the context of promotion and recruitment. He conceded that minority airmen may have trouble assimilating and can accumulate small punishments that hurt their chances of promotion.
"Some folks get mentored and coached in a more successful manner. And some folks get mentored and coached in a less successful manner. Certainly, the backgrounds and experiences of those coaches and mentors matter, in terms of how they relate to those individuals," he said.
"Somebody who's not assimilating, in the same way, may run afoul of rules or processes that causes them to start getting disciplinary actions at low levels, which can build over time."
'There's no denying it from our part'
Christensen, the Protect Our Defenders advocate, is also calling on the Air Force to strengthen the appeals process - putting the onus on commanders to justify the punishments they dole out. He'd like to see an independent, well-staffed review board put in place.
When Chris appealed his discharge before the Air Force Board for the Correction of Military Records, he was told he'd failed to demonstrate material prejudice on the part of his commander. The Board suggested that he submit statements from those targeting him. It indicated that his command's potential "failure to comply with procedural provisions" would not invalidate his punishment.
Christensen said the deck is stacked against junior airmen who try to appeal punishments they think are discriminatory. They aren't given access to unredacted reports of investigation, nor told about the kinds of legal advice their commanders have been given.
"They're fighting without any kind of weapons," Christensen said. "Then that's held against them."
For now, Air Force officials said they will hone their training on bias and cultural sensitivity and look for ways to bring more Black airmen into the service. They have also launched an investigation into how the service's promotions, recruitment, and judicial processes treat airmen of color.
Lt. Gen. Kelly acknowledged that racism is a broad issue that the Air Force hasn't fully contended with.
"There's no denying it from our part," he said. "We accept that there's bias in our system and likely racism in our ranks, and we've got to work through to eradicate it."
This story was produced by the American Homefront Project, a public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans. Funding comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
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