Does the Military Have a Racial Harassment Problem?
The Workplace and Equal Opportunity Survey has been interpreted as providing an unequivocal "yes" but a new look at the data says otherwise.
The 2017 and 2022 Workplace and Equal Opportunity Surveys
Last month, the Department of Defense sent a survey to active duty service members last asking dozens of questions about race relations in the military. The survey was leaked to the media two weeks ago and immediately received wide coverage as a result of its focus on racial harassment and discrimination. The attention to the leaked survey is somewhat surprising; it is essentially the same set of questions posed by DoD in their 2017 Workplace and Equal Opportunity Survey of Active Duty Members.
This post is about how the “Workplace and Equal Opportunity Survey’s” approach to assessing racial harassment and discrimination produces data that are (deliberately or accidentally) amenable to misinterpretation. Without understanding exactly how the survey produces results of this kind, we are doomed to reach the same faulty conclusions in 2022 that we reached in 2017. Given the role that this survey plays in guiding the public’s perception of the military and DoD policy, these faulty conclusions can have catastrophic consequences.
Below, I’m going to talk about how the data from the 2017 “Workplace and Equal Opportunity Survey” were misinterpreted. As I will show: (1) the survey’s measure of harassment and discrimination is likely to leave us with a vastly inflated sense of how much racial harassment and discrimination are going on in the military; (2) even with this inflated sense, there is actually far less racial harassment and racial discrimination in the military than in the rest of American society; and (3) contrary to the implications of most reports on the survey, the group most overrepresented in claims about racial harassment and discrimination is African Americans. Once again, the goal of this discussion is to help us avoid drawing the same faulty conclusions when the 2022 data are analyzed. There is no “right” way to analyze the data but we must be aware of how the choices we make shape the stories we tell.
Reporting on the 2017 “Workplace and Equal Opportunity Survey” Results
How much racial and ethnic harassment and discrimination is going on in the military? In a 2021 article entitled “Long-withheld Pentagon survey shows widespread racial discrimination, harassment,” Reuters describes the results of the 2017 “Workplace and Equal Opportunity Survey” in the following way:
“Nearly a third of Black U.S. military servicemembers reported experiencing racial discrimination, harassment or both during a 12-month period, according to results of a long-withheld Defense Department survey that underscore concerns about racism in the ranks.”
The article focuses exclusively on the experiences of African Americans serving in the military (Latinos and Asian Americans receive only one passing reference) and frames the importance of the issue around anti-black discrimination (e.g. “Concerns about racial discrimination in the military - the largest U.S. employer - have taken on new urgency over the past year, as America undergoes a nationwide reckoning on racism”).
Only a month after the results of the Workplace and Equal Opportunity Survey were reported, Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III ordered commanders and supervisors to take an operational pause for one day to discuss extremism in the ranks with their service members. The memo announcing this “stand-down” alluded to the survey’s results. Specifically, the memo said, “Service members, DoD civilian employees, and all those who support our mission, deserve an environment free of discrimination, hate, and harassment.” The survey’s results were also referenced by other military officials justifying the stand-down. In an article entitled “Deep-rooted racism, discrimination permeate US military,” Pentagon spokesman Major César Santiago claimed that “we know that far too many service members indicate they experience discrimination.” These results, in short, have had a significant impact on the discourse and policymaking surrounding the American military.
Issue #1: How the Survey Inflates Racial Harassment and Discrimination Rates
The Choice to “Lump” Rather than “Split”
Does the report suggest a problem so large that dramatic interventions (e.g. temporary stand-downs) are required? The report describes the survey’s approach to measuring the “racial/ethnic harassment” rate in the following way: “To be included in the Estimated Past Year Racial/Ethnic Harassment Rate, members had to indicate that in the past 12 months they perceived experiencing at least one of the following 12 racial/ethnic workplace behaviors (i.e., the respondent indicated being “uncomfortable, angry or upset” by a behavior) by someone from their military workplace prohibited by EO policy.”
A similar approach was used to determine the “racial/ethnic” discrimination rate. As the report explains, “To be included in the Estimated Past Year Racial/Ethnic Discrimination Rate, members had to indicate that they perceived experiencing at least one type of differential treatment as a result of their race/ethnicity in the past 12 months.”
The first thing to point out is that the survey “lumps” together many different kinds of experiences into the broad categories of “harassment” and “discrimination.” All of the experiences are important but it is not obvious why they need to be “lumped” together and it’s not obvious that the lumping should be done in the way the analysts choose to do it. Let’s take the 12 “harassment” items. The “harassment” number includes behaviors that range from telling a joke and seeing a picture or flag being displayed to physically assaulting someone because of their race or ethnicity. These are clearly very different kinds of experiences. Given their differences, why not just list each item separately and avoid lumping them altogether? If some lumping must be done, why not create separate categories for verbal harassment, visual harassment, and physical harassment?
This becomes an essential point for how the results are interpreted. Lumping a large number of items together necessarily produces a larger topline number (i.e. the rate is inevitably larger because more items are included and each additional item will expand the number of people experiencing the behavior in question). Larger topline numbers are going to produce more public concern and more pressure for a policy response.
Below is the summary graph guiding most of the reactions to the survey. It is the source of the Reuters claim that “nearly a third of Black U.S. military servicemembers reported experiencing racial harassment.”
Even with this bizarre aggregation, does the report suggest “that minority service members face rampant discrimination” (as Senator Kirsten Gillibrand claimed in response to the survey)? Not exactly. The results show that 29.3% of blacks experienced “harassment” and 11.5% experienced “discrimination.” The results also show that 19.5% of Latinos experienced harassment and 6.5% experienced discrimination. Put differently, the overwhelming majority of blacks and Latinos did not experience a single instance of harassment (71.7% and 8.05%, respectively) or discrimination (88.5% and 93.5%, respectively) during the last year. Framing the issue around those experiencing harassment and discrimination is a choice that colors our understanding of the issue.
Consider what the story might look like, however, if we “split” the overly broad category “harassment” (which aggregates experiences with a large number of very different verbal, visual, and physical behaviors). As the data in the table below shows, there was not a single harassing behavior that was experienced by more than 13% of minority servicemembers. The most commonly experienced forms of harassment were hearing a stereotype, joke, or offensive racial or ethnic term (each experienced by approximately 10% of minority servicemembers over the last year). Being threatened or physically assaulted because of one’s race was reported by a fraction of a percent (.7%) of minority servicemembers.
Without aggregating these individual responses into the broad “harassment” category, the discourse around this issue might be much different. Rather than summarizing the survey’s results for African Americans as Reuters did, the reporting might say something like “18% of Black servicemembers heard a stereotype about their group but fewer than one in 20 were excluded from an activity because of their race.” It would also be possible to point out that less than one in ten Hispanics and Asian Americans reported experiencing nearly every behavior listed.
This is not to say that lumping is necessarily problematic and always inferior to “splitting.” Again, I could imagine differentiating verbal harassment (e.g. insults, jokes, and stereotypes) from physical harassment (e.g. “offensive action,” “exclusion” from activity, physical assault). While we don’t have the data needed to provide a precise estimate of the harassment rates under this alternative categorization, it is very likely that the verbal harassment category would include less than 25% of African Americans and the physical harassment category would include less than 5% of African Americans. To be clear, these numbers are concerning and do require a response. Avoiding overly broad lumping, however, might help the public better contextualize the source and scale of the problem.
The Time Frame Choice
The second thing to point out here is that the “racial/ethnic harassment and discrimination rates” (which receive all of the attention in these discussions) are influenced greatly by the selected time frame of the study. Over a long enough period of time, everyone will feel that they have been harassed or discriminated against in some way. Longer time frames will lead to higher percentages of people reporting that they experienced harassment or discrimination. For example, asking about harassment or discrimination over the last day, week or month would yield much smaller numbers than asking over a year. The point is simply that asking the question in this way returns a much higher number than other ways of asking the question and higher numbers create more pressure for policy interventions.
How “Important” is the Racial Harassment and Discrimination Experienced by Servicemembers?
As the discussion above indicates, the “lumping” of jokes with physical assault within the broader category of “harassment” obscures the fact that verbal harassment is vastly more common than physical harassment (and is, I would argue, of a less significant nature). Fortunately, the survey includes a measure of how “important” servicemembers believe the harassment and discrimination they experienced was. Specifically, the survey asks respondents who experienced harassment or discrimination to “consider the “One Situation” or set of related events or behaviors that was the most offensive or egregious to them.” The results are presented below:
As the results show, 48% of those experiencing harassment or discrimination did not think the behavior was important enough to warrant reporting the situation to DoD authority. Importantly, there were almost no racial differences in perceptions of how “important” the harassment and discrimination was (46% of whites, 46% of African Americans, and 49% of Latinos claimed their experiences were not “important” enough to justify reporting). If we were to reconsider the overall harassment and discrimination rate by filtering out those instances where the victims did not feel the harassment or discrimination was “important,” we would end up with rates that were essentially half of that reported in the media. To be more precise, we would conclude that 15% of African Americans and 10% of Hispanics experienced “important” harassment. Once again, this is unacceptable but paints the problem in a much different light than communicated in most of the media’s reporting.
Issue #2: There’s Far Less Harassment and Discrimination in the Military than Elsewhere
It is difficult to assess these rates of harassment and discrimination in the absence of some baseline of comparison. Obviously, we might hope for a perfect world in which 0% of service members of every race report experiencing harassment or discrimination. Putting this unattainable goal aside for the moment, however, are there any useful comparisons for how often African Americans and Latinos experience harassment and discrimination outside of the military? How many civilians report harassment and discrimination in their workplace?
Unfortunately, the items used in the Workplace and Equal Opportunity Survey to measure harassment are idiosyncratic to the report and have not been used by other organizations. There is, however, a survey conducted in 2020 by the Kaiser Family Foundation that provides a useful reference point for thinking about discrimination. The Kaiser Family Foundation survey asked respondents whether “there was a time in the last 12 months where they felt they were treated unfairly in the following places because of their race: in a store where they were shopping, their place of work, in dealings with the policy or while getting health care for themselves or a family member.” These questions share a time frame with the Workplace and Equal Opportunity Survey (the last 12 months) and, more importantly, include a question that covers workplace discrimination (providing a perfect comparison for the military).
As the results of the Kaiser Family Foundation survey, show that 28% of African Americans and 17% of Latinos reported being treated unfairly in their workplace. This means that African Americans and Latinos were approximately 2.5 times as likely to report discrimination in the civilian workplace than African Americans and Latinos in the military. The military is apparently far better at managing race relations than the rest of society. Once again, the numbers should be brought down. The military, however, should be lauded, not criticized, for the less harassing and less discriminatory work environment they’ve managed to create.
Issue #3: The Surprising Sources of Harassment and Discrimination
Most of the reporting on the Workplace and Equal Opportunity survey is framed around white supremacy and anti-black harassment and discrimination coming from whites in the military. For example, the previously mentioned AP news report entitled “Deep-rooted racism, discrimination permeate US military,” focuses entirely on instances of anti-black harassment and discrimination. Is this an accurate depiction of harassment and discrimination based on the data?
The Workplace and Equal Opportunity survey attempts to identify who the initiators of harassment are. The 2017 report states that whites are 55.9% of the total DoD population. Blacks are 14.6%. Hispanics are 17.7%. Asian are 4.5%.
Who is overrepresented among the offenders/initiators of racial harassment and discrimination? The question can be answered by comparing the overall percentage of whites, blacks, Latinos, and Asians in the military with the percentage of whites, blacks, Latinos, and Asians that were identified as initiating the harassment or discrimination. Subtracting the percentage who were identified as an initiator from the percentage of the overall force gives us a measure of overrepresentation:
As the data above shows, whites were overrepresented as an offender for every group but their own. While they are 55.9% of servicemembers, they accounted for 68% of the cases of harassment against blacks, 67% of the cases against Hispanics and 64% of the cases against Asians. This means they were overrepresented by 9-13% in interacting with out-groups. A similar degree of overrepresentation with respect to outgroups held for Latinos and Asians. Hispanics were overrepresented by 6%-12% and Asians were overrepresented by 7%-9%.
African Americans, however, were significantly more likely to initiate harassment and discrimination against outgroup members. Blacks are 14.6% of servicemembers but were identified as the offender in 60% of cases of harassment against whites, 35% of cases against Hispanics, and 38% of cases against Asians. This means they were overrepresented by 20%-45%.
The Future? Thinking Ahead to the 2022 Results
The Ever-Evolving Nature of Offense: The “Latinx” Cautionary Tale
Harassment and discrimination are, to some degree, in the eye of the beholder. As Eric Kaufmann has argued, “racism contains an important socially constructed component.” Indeed, there are large differences in perceptions of discrimination based on ideology (with liberals far more likely than conservatives to report being discriminated against) and social media use (with those reporting high levels of social media use much more likely to report being discriminated against). As ideas about race and ethnicity evolve, so too will the number of people who feel offended or aggrieved by certain kinds of interactions. Even the exact same set of behaviors, measured at two different times, can produce vastly different levels of reported harassment and discrimination.
It is very likely that more servicemembers will report experiencing harassment and discrimination in 2022 than in 2017. Sensitivity to mistreatment on racial and ethnic grounds has increased dramatically during the last five years. Even attempts to become more sensitive to racial or ethnic harassment can backfire. Consider, for example, the use of the term “Latinx.” Originally conceived as a way of being more “inclusive,” the term is now understood to be offensive to significant segments of the Hispanic community. For example, only 2 percent of Hispanics polled in 2021 reported referring to themselves as “Latinx.” More importantly, 40% said the term “Latinx” bothers or offends them to some degree.
This attempt at inclusivity, however, could produce a massive spike in the harassment rate the 2022 Workplace and Equal Opportunity Survey finds among Hispanics. For example, President Biden (commander-in-chief) has repeatedly used the term “Latinx” when referring to Hispanics. Similarly, Secretary of the Navy Carlos Del Toro has used the term in his public communications:
If every Latino servicemember heard Biden’s rhetoric or read the tweet from the Secretary of the Navy, approximately 40% might report that they were exposed to “an offensive racial or ethnic term.” Exposure to a single speech by Biden or a single tweet from the Secretary of the Navy could give the appearance of high (and rapidly increasing) levels of racial or ethnic harassment (coming from the military’s leadership no less). There are certainly many other examples of jokes, stereotypes, and racial or ethnic terms that could inflate the numbers in a way that might give a misleading perception of how much harassment and discrimination is occurring in the military.
Once again, these are serious issues that need serious attention. Misinterpreting what the data tell us, however, is likely to lead to bad and potentially harmful policy choices. Let’s hope we learn from the lessons of the 2017 survey.