For Stephanie Davis, who grew up with little, the military was a path to the American dream, a realm where everyone would receive equal treatment. She joined the service in 1988 after finishing high school in Thomasville, Georgia, a small town said to be named for a soldier who fought in the War of 1812.
Over the course of decades, she steadily advanced, becoming a flight surgeon, commander of flight medicine at Fairchild Air Force Base and, eventually, a lieutenant colonel.
But many of her service colleagues, Davis says, saw her only as a Black woman. Or for the white resident colleagues who gave her the call sign of ABW – it was a joke, they insisted – an “angry black woman,” a classic racist trope.
White subordinates often refused to salute her or seemed uncomfortable taking orders from her, she says. Some patients refused to call her by her proper rank or even acknowledge her. She was attacked with racial slurs. And during her residency, she was the sole Black resident in a program with no Black faculty, staff or ancillary personnel.
“For Blacks and minorities, when we initially experience racism or discrimination in the military, we feel blindsided,” Davis said. “We’re taught to believe that it’s the one place where everybody has a level playing field and that we can make it to the top with work that’s based on merit.”
In interviews with The Associated Press, current and former enlistees and officers in nearly every branch of the armed services described a deep-rooted culture of racism and discrimination that stubbornly festers, despite repeated efforts to eradicate it.
The AP found that the military’s judicial system has no explicit category for hate crimes, making it difficult to quantify crimes motivated by prejudice.
The Defense Department also has no way to track the number of troops ousted for extremist views, despite its repeated pledges to root them out. More than 20 people linked to the Jan. 6 siege of the U.S. Capitol were found to have military ties.
The AP also found that the Uniform Code of Military Justice does not adequately address discriminatory incidents and that rank-and-file people of color commonly face courts-martial panels made up of all-white service members, which some experts argue can lead to harsher outcomes.
And racial discrimination doesn’t exist just within the military rank-and-file. Every year, civilians working in the financial, technical and support sectors of the Army, Air Force and Navy file hundreds of complaints alleging race and skin color discrimination, according to an AP analysis of U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission data.
In the fiscal year 2020 alone, the three services received 900 civilian complaints of racial discrimination and over 350 complaints of discrimination by skin color.
In February, Lloyd J. Austin III – a former Army general who now is secretary of defense, the first Black man to serve in the post – ordered commanders and supervisors to take an operational pause for one day to discuss extremism in the ranks with their service members.
Austin gave commanders the latitude to address the matter as they saw fit, but emphasized that discussions should include the meaning of their oath, acceptable behaviors both in and out of uniform, and how service members can report actual or suspected extremist behavior through their chains of command.
A recent poll from The Military Times showed the stand-down was received with mixed reviews. Some service members said their units went “above and beyond,” but others reported their trainers made disparaging comments that undercut the discussions and that the sessions were short and non-interactive.
The Southern Poverty Law Center sent Austin a letter shortly after his order, applauding him for his decisive action but underscoring that systemic change on all military levels is urgent.
“Those who are indoctrinated into white supremacist ideology present a significant threat to national security and the safety of our communities,” SPLC President Margaret Huang wrote.
The AP reached out to the Defense Department multiple times to learn what proactive measures it was taking to stamp out racism, discrimination and extremism, but did not receive a response by the publication deadline, even though the first outreach was May 5.
When Davis was medically retired by the Air Force in 2019 after more than two decades of service, she felt ground down by overt racism and retaliated against for accusing a superior of sexually assaulting her.
She noted how insidious racism can be to members of the ranks – service members entrust their lives to their fellow troops, and a lack of cohesion in a unit can be deadly.
“It creates a harmful and dangerous work environment,” Davis said. “And a lot of us suffer in silence because we feel like there’s nothing that can be done.”
In the midst of last year’s summer of unrest sparked by police killings of Black Americans across the nation, Army Gen. Mark A. Milley, who is also the Department of Defense’s Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told congressional leaders the military cannot afford racism or discrimination.
“We who wear the cloth of our nation understand that cohesion is a force multiplier,” Milley said. “Divisiveness leads to defeat. As one of our famous presidents said, ‘A house divided does not stand.’”
Austin pledged to rid the ranks of “racists and extremists” during his confirmation hearing before Congress, which came on the heels of the Capitol insurrection.
“The job of the Department of Defense is to keep America safe from our enemies,” he said. “But we can’t do that if some of those enemies lie within our own ranks.”