US defense secretary Mark Esper. Picture: REUTERS/YURI GRIPAS
US defense secretary Mark Esper. Picture: REUTERS/YURI GRIPAS

Washington — Army Sgt-Maj Das’Chara Champ couldn’t have known that the answer to her question about racial discrimination survey data was sitting in an office somewhere in the vast defence department bureaucracy.

Few people do.

“Has there been any kind of survey done on the perceived level of racism or racial discrimination in the army,” Champ, who is black, asked in a video played at a Pentagon town hall on September 24.

On the other end of the question were some of the most senior leaders in the US military: then-secretary of defence Mark Esper, army general Mark Milley, the chair of the joint chiefs of staff, and Milley’s senior enlisted adviser, Ramon Colon-Lopez.

Virtual town halls like this have been a way for the Pentagon’s top brass to address concerns in 2020 about racial discrimination in a military — the US’s largest employer — which is diverse in lower ranks but largely white and male at the top.

Apparently unbeknown to Colon-Lopez, who responded only indirectly to Champ, the defence department not only carries out granular surveys about discrimination but has been legally required to do so since the 1990s. The last survey of the active duty force, conducted every four years, was for fiscal year 2017.

However, the department denied repeated requests from Reuters to release the 2017 survey data, including through a Freedom of Information Act request. It has also not released a separate report about the 2017 survey data or clearly explained why the data has been withheld for so long.

Maryland representative Anthony Brown, a retired army reserve colonel and the only member of the Congressional black caucus on the House armed services committee, said the failure to release the data was troubling.

“It concerns me tremendously,” Brown said, adding Congress had established a clear reporting requirement and the public had a right to know.

Champ declined to be interviewed for this article, the army said. Colon-Lopez did not respond for a request for comment.

In its final response to Reuters earlier in December, rejecting the Freedom of Information Act request, the department of defence said the survey data constituted “information of a pre-decisional, deliberative nature”.

If released, the Pentagon asserted it could “reasonably be expected to interfere with the government’s deliberative process”.

Still, the data is already so old that the Pentagon is now in the awkward position of having to start planning for another survey in the ongoing 2021 fiscal year, which ends on September 30.

‘Makes them look bad’

A Pentagon spokesperson said the defence department was nearing completion of its report on the fiscal year 2017 survey data and would provide it to Congress in the coming weeks. The spokesperson did not explain the years-long delay.

Don Christensen, a retired chief prosecutor for the air force who leads the advocacy group Protect Our Defenders, was sceptical of the Pentagon’s motives when denying requests for the data’s release over a period of months.

“What it really means is that whatever you’re asking makes them look bad. And if it made them look good, they’d release it,” said Christensen, whose research has drawn attention to racial discrimination in the military.

A Reuters investigation in 2020 found service members are far less likely than civilian defence department employees to bring forward their concerns about discrimination through formal channels. Equal opportunity complaints, current and former service members say, is often a dead end, resulting in little action, or worse, backfiring on the complainant.

The Pentagon survey, known as the Workplace and Equal Opportunity Survey of Active Duty Members, examines such issues directly.

In the most recent publicly available survey, back in 2013, the data showed that about 16% of minorities in the active duty force experienced harassment, discrimination or both because of their race or ethnicity.

President-elect Joe Biden underscored the importance of diversity at the Pentagon when he announced his pick earlier in December to lead it: retired army general Lloyd Austin, who would be the first black US defence secretary, if approved by Congress.

“More than 40% of our active duty forces are people of colour. It’s long past time that the department’s leadership reflects that diversity,” Biden said.

Brown, who strongly supports Biden’s pick of Austin, said he believed the retired US general would prioritise diversity in the Pentagon — including when addressing the issue to Congress and the public.

“I think with Lloyd Austin, we’re going to get greater transparency than we’ve had in the past,” Brown said.


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