U.S. Army to stop using photos on officer promotion packets to combat potential racial bias

(Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

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The U.S. Army will discontinue the use of photographs in officer promotion packets in order to eliminate unconscious racial bias in the selection process, though the service did not provide any evidence indicating that it has a problem.

The Army noted that the decision comes as part of an initiative called “Project Inclusion,” which officials said aims to curb potential racial disparities within the country’s biggest service branch.

Officials said that the elimination of photos in officer packets presented to selection boards will begin in August. The service also said it was actively weighing whether to drop photos from warrant officer packets as well as those for non-commissioned officers.

“The Army is taking substantive actions to ensure that promotion and selection boards are as fair and impartial as possible,” Secretary of the Army Ryan McCarthy said, Fox News reported. “We’ll be initiating listening sessions to encourage the open dialogue that is critical to helping understand and support each other.”

The move comes after Defense Secretary Mark Esper made the recommendation, Military.com added.

“The strength of our Army comes from our diversity,” said a memo signed Wednesday by McCarthy and Chief of Staff Gen. James McConville.

“Developing and maintaining qualified and demographically diverse leadership is critical for mission effectiveness and is essential to national security,” the memo said.

Photos accompanying officer promotion packets are designed to show military bearing, overall fitness, and attention to detail and proper wear when it comes to the uniform. But not all service branches include photos in officer packets; the Air Force and the Coast Guard do not.

“Those who oppose use of the photos argue that they favor white men and disadvantage anyone who looks different from the stereotypical image of a military leader,” Military.com reported, without providing any context or corroboration that racism is preventing otherwise qualified minorities from being promoted.

Army Reserve Maj. Gen. Tammy Smith, the military assistant to the assistant secretary of the Army (Manpower and Reserve Affairs) for Quality of Life, tweeted, “Nothing in a photo reveals talent or potential,” the military website reported.

Army Reserve Maj. Jim Perkins, who is with the Army Reserve’s 75th Innovation Command, a vocal opponent of photos in promotion packets, said that pictures are “at best a weak proxy” for other qualities like fitness that can be determined and quantified elsewhere in packets, such as with physical training scores.

“What doesn’t a picture show? It doesn’t show academic achievement — you can get a badge for two weeks of training with helicopters, but not for a Ph.D. — or technical certifications and language proficiency. It also shows nothing about a person’s recent performance,” Perkins said, the military website reported.

“What do a Ranger tab and Combat Infantryman Badge from more than 10 years prior as a lieutenant matter to a board evaluating a major in acquisitions for promotion to lieutenant colonel? They don’t, but they reinforce preferences for white men over all others,” he claimed without evidence. “Military bearing is simply code for conformity to demographic norms.”

The military has actually led the way towards full integration of American society. In July 1948, President Harry S. Truman signed Executive Order 9981, which abolished discrimination “on the basis of race, color, religion, or national origin.”

And that tradition was noted by Esper in a statement, though he went onto claim that “unintentional” bias may still exist.

“We have led on these issues throughout our history but know that we as a military are also susceptible to the forces of bias and prejudice, whether seen or unseen, deliberate or unintentional,” he said.



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