Where Are the Oracles When We Need Them?
“The oracles of Greece and the sibyls of Rome were women chosen by the gods through which divine advice would be spoken through them. They were popular throughout the great empires and pilgrims would make their way from far off places just to ask them a question and receive the answer of a god.”
In Greek mythology, oracles were sought to get answers beyond the grasp of mere human wisdom. In the Air Force’s Racial Disparity Review (RDR), I have found what I have labeled an “unknowable truth.” The writers of the report were unable to grasp the source, the “why” behind the many racial disparities that surfaced in data and surveys. Over and over, the RDR’s writers requested more data and more research time to find answers to the same questions they have been researching for decades.
If only we had the wisdom of the ancient oracles to uncover the “root causes” and “whys” behind the overwhelming number of racial disparities reported in the RDR. Though the RDR’s writers did not have the wisdom to unearth the sources of the disparities, they possessed enough wisdom to say that bias, racism, and discrimination were NOT the root causes.
The quote below is from the first page of the Air Force’s Dec 2020 RDR:
“1 Racism--1: a belief that race is a fundamental determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race; 2: the systemic oppression of a racial group to the social, economic, and political advantage of another. Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/racism. Accessed 9 Nov, 2020
Importantly, this Review was not chartered to determine whether or not racial bias or discrimination is present. Such an examination would require considerable social sciences expertise, a broader look at American society in general, and was outside the defined scope.”
I think it’s fascinating that the report’s writers say from the very beginning that the purpose of an Independent Racial Disparity Review is NOT “to determine whether or not racial bias or discrimination is present.” Why would the Air Force fill pages of a report with numerous graphs, charts, and survey data outlining racial disparities if it wasn’t trying to identify and eliminate them? The answer is found in the very next sentence. The writers say that determining the presence of racial bias or discrimination “requires considerable social sciences expertise” that they evidently lack. Enter the oracle.
The writers go on to say that determining the presence of racial bias or discrimination anywhere in the Air Force would “require a broader look at American society.” I suppose this “look” must be so broad that it is beyond their capabilities. Chalk up another one to take to the oracle. Interestingly enough, I do agree with the RDR writers on their point about American society. I believe that the same biases and prevailing attitudes in “American society” exist inside the Air Force because that’s where the Air Force’s people came from. It can’t be that simple, right? There’s obviously more to it than that; otherwise, we wouldn’t need the help of the oracle. Right?
Finally, the first page says that identifying the presence of racial bias and discrimination was “outside the defined scope.” Tilt. You mean someone actually sat down and said, let’s generate a report called the “Racial Disparity Review,” but let’s define the scope so that identifying racial bias and discrimination falls outside the scope. I can’t make this stuff up. It’s almost hilarious.
It turns out we don’t need the oracle after all if we aren’t going to ask any hard questions. We don’t need the wisdom of the ancients if we are just going to “review” the same types of disparities that have existed in the Air Force for decades. Now the whole exercise is beginning to make sense. Repackage and regurgitate. Most Air Force diversity reports are just a repackaging of what’s been said and recommended before. I’m so glad I didn’t trouble the oracle for that!
Now that we have confirmed that we don’t need the services of the oracle let’s take a closer look at the Air Force’s “review” of racial disparities.
“Finally, please note that the identification of racial disparity does not automatically mean racial bias or racism is present. This Review focused on the existence of racial disparity, but it did not specifically assess racial bias or individual acts of racism within the DAF, which may cumulatively contribute to racial disparity overall. Thousands of black service members and civilians reported experiencing issues ranging from bias to outright racial discrimination. These experiences indicate bias and isolated individual acts of racism may contribute to the racial disparities identified in this report.”
In the quote above, you see the prevailing theme of the RDR, which is just because we have a racial disparity doesn’t “mean racial bias or racism is present.” It begs the question, what does it take to prove that racial bias or racism is present? A smoking gun? A confession? Being caught in the act?
The RDR writers marry the phrase “thousands of black service members and civilians reported experiencing” “bias” and “outright racial discrimination” with “isolated individual acts of racism.” To me, as a black man, it feels like the RDR writers are taking the experiences of “thousands” of black active duty Air Force members and civilians and diminishing or even dismissing them by re-categorizing them as “isolated” and “individual acts of racism.”
This subtle recategorization steers us away from looking at the “acts of racism” in a cumulative way. Further, it allows the writers to move away from a definitive root cause connection between widespread racial disparities and racism/bias to a watered-down “may contribute.”
Imagine the CDC reporting that thousands of people in a city had been impacted by a new disease, but it wasn’t a crisis because the infections were isolated individual infections. Or imagine this argument for a defense attorney. “Your honor, though the fingerprints of my clients, bias and discrimination, have been found in thousands of places, we must not conclude that they are the causes of any of the harm/disparities, experienced by the people who reported them.”
One of the quotes on the first page of the RDR says, “Root cause analyses of the disparities found during the Review were not conducted as that would have taken considerably more time.” Sound reasonable until you put it side by side with the following RDR quotes. I have underlined key words/sentences that specifically relate to root cause analysis requiring “considerably more time.”
“History – What we’ve known, what we’ve done, what has worked, what has not? – The Review Team examined 23 previous reports and studies related to diversity and racial disparities dating back to 1973. The findings of these studies and associated proposed recommendations often did not identify root causes, often did not compel follow-through, often lacked mechanisms to measure effectiveness over time, and broadly lacked accountability for progress.”
“Conclusion on Military Justice Data
As early as 1974, the DAF identified racial disparity in military justice actions. AFJAG is aware of the racial disparity in Article 15 actions and courts-martial and informs leadership at all levels of this disparity. Also, AFJAG analyzed the military judicial process to address the potential of racial bias. In 2016, the DAF determined there was no evidence of selective prosecution in courts-martial based on a review of courts-martial records under the guidelines set in the Supreme Court case Batson v. Kentucky. The DAF also found no disparity among conviction rates between black and white service members. Based on the available data, this Review found no instances of intentional racial bias or discrimination after an accused entered the court-martial process.
While the DAF has taken some action to address potential bias in the judicial process, it has not answered that next-level question of ‘why’ racial disparity exists in military justice actions. AFJAG provides training to commanders highlighting that racial disparity exists; however, no training is provided on what causes the racial disparity and how to address the disparity. For more subjective cases such as AWOL or dereliction of duty, where the commander has discretion to impose disciplinary action and the severity of that disciplinary action, the DAF has not analyzed why racial disparity is present. This Review included interviews with members of the Disciplinary Actions Analysis Team (DAAT), which was established in 2017 to address racial disparity in military justice actions. These interviews revealed the DAAT, after meeting more than three years, was unable to ascertain the reason for such disparity. For more objective cases, such as marijuana drug use cases arising from random testing, this Review determined behavioral disparity accounts for at least some disparity indicated. However, the DAF must conduct further review to understand why there may be behavioral disparity among racial groups and how to address that behavioral disparity. Multiple studies show certain racial and age groups view marijuana use differently resulting in disparate use among those groups. (Ex 57) As of this Review, it appears the DAF has not examined these studies and considered how this behavioral disparity among its youngest enlisted members might be addressed.”
My first thought after reading these RDR excerpts was, “You’ve been studying this since 1974, and you still haven’t figured out what causes the disparities? Many of the people impacted by the disparities are retired or possibly even dead by now. How much more time do you need?
On the first page, or what I’ll call the disclaimer page, the RDR writers say they don’t have the expertise or time to prove that the many racial disparities that were uncovered were caused by bias or racism. The RDR writers assert that more time and expertise is needed to prove the existence of bias and racism. Oddly enough, it doesn’t seem that more time is needed to prove that they do not.
The RDR says, “As early as 1974, the DAF identified racial disparity in military justice actions” and that “leadership at all levels” have been “informed of this disparity.” But then goes on to say there “was no evidence of selective prosecution in courts-martial” and “no disparity among conviction rates between black and white service members” Disparity in the criminal justice system exists but doesn’t exist? Hopefully, the oracle is still nearby. Whatever the mystery disparity is, though, the RDR writers say they found “no instances of intentional racial bias or discrimination after an accused entered the court-martial process.”
The RDR then pairs the disparities with the phrase “potential bias.” But even with a lower level problem called potential bias, the Air Force, according to the RDR, still “has not answered that next-level question of ‘why’ racial disparity exists in military justice actions.” Resubmit the request for the services of the oracle.
I thought this quote was particularly funny. “AFJAG provides training to commanders highlighting that racial disparity exists; however, no training is provided on what causes the racial disparity and how to address the disparity.” Can you imagine being a commander in a mandatory training class where the instructor says we have been studying racial disparity in the Air Force’s criminal justice system since 1974, but we can’t tell you what causes it or how to address it? I wonder what the rest of the slides in the class say. No wonder many people think training classes are a waste of time. The sad underlying, unspoken assumption is that racial disparities are not caused by bias or racism.
A similar dilemma in identifying causes exists when the RDR addresses disparities in black officer promotions:
“AF/A1 is aware of the racial disparities in officer promotions and assesses that the officer promotion boards appropriately score records. In 2014, RAND published a study on Improving Officer Diversity, which supported AF/A1’s position. The study found “no evidence of differential promotion outcomes, suggesting that systematic bias is not present the Air Force’s [officer] promotion system.” (Ex 21:40) However, the study found unexplained gaps in the “Definitely Promote” (DP) and selection for black line officers’ promotion as shown in the figure below. RAND’s model for this gap analysis did not include other essential factors, such as stratification given to officers by their senior rater, enthusiastic endorsements for future positions or PME opportunities in performance reports, or positional opportunities and advantages such as working directly for a General Officer. Accordingly, RAND could not infer that DP and select gaps for minority groups were indicators of discriminatory practices.
Again the reader is presented with an oracle-level complex problem with an answer that can’t be known. The racial disparities in the Air Force’s officer promotions can be clearly identified in the data, but there is “no evidence” to even “suggest that systemic bias” exists. And though there are “unexplained gaps” in the “Definitely Promote” (DP) and selection for black line officers’” the reader is not allowed to even “infer” that “discriminatory practices” could be the cause. Even though we can prove that there are statistically significant differences between the two groups (black and white officers), we can’t tell you what the cause is. We can only tell you what it isn’t—“systemic bias.”
The RDR goes on to say that “Bias training alone will not reduce promotion disparities. More research is needed to understand the disparities in DP allocation and promotion rates.” One way of looking at this is that bias training won’t have a great impact on reducing promotion disparities because we’ve already determined that bias isn’t a significant causal factor. Well, what is the root cause? Final answer: We will we need more time to ascertain that.
That actually sounds pretty shrewd from the vantage point of the group getting paid to produce the studies. It kind of sounds like long-term diversity study job security. Pay us more so we can keep telling you that we need more research into what causes racial disparity.
We need the oracle to settle this once and for all, to tell us the root causes of widespread racial disparities against a particular group. That way, we can stop conducting these studies and save the poor people in these training classes, the unfortunate readers of these reports, and the Air Force some time and money.
I think if we were successful at getting time on the oracle’s calendar to answer the “unknowable truths” underlying racial disparities, we’d also be told one of two things is true of the RDR:
- It was predisposed to fail because it was not allowed to conclude that racism, bias, or discrimination actually existed anywhere in the Air Force
o Racism, bias, and discrimination were not allowed to be considered as root causes in any case, as it was determined upfront these outcomes were beyond the RDR writer’s scope and expertise
- It was an attempt to put out the fire of George Floyd before it spread to the Air Force
o It was an attempt to appease, delay, and put a band-aid on race relations until things cooled off until the answers that have been served up since 1974 in the previous 23 diversity studies would be accepted again
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