CMSAF Kaleth Wright’s passionate post on his personal Facebook page sparked a new call for open discussion of race issues in the Air Force. Photo illustration: Airman Dennis Spain
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Wright, Race, and USAF’s Demons

Weeks Before Retirement, CMSAF Speaks Out, Shakes Up Status Quo

June 6, 2020—

It was a lightning bolt that exploded across the Air Force and resonated throughout the Armed Forces: Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force Kaleth Wright’s emotionally charged response to the killing of George Floyd, a black man whose death while in police custody in Minneapolis on May 25 set off a wave of protests and violence across the country.

“I am outraged at watching another black man die on television before our very eyes,” Wright wrote. “I hope you realize that racism/discrimination/exclusion does not care much about position, titles, or stature, … so yes, it could happen to you, or one of your friends, or your Airmen, or your NCOIC, your flight chief, your squadron commander, or even your wing commander. This, my friends, is my greatest fear, not that I will be killed by a white police officer … but that I will wake up to a report that one of our black Airmen has died at the hands of a white police officer.”

Wright then opened a debate about “the Air Force’s own demons,” including “racial disparities in military justice and discipline among our youngest black male Airmen, and the clear lack of diversity in our senior officer ranks”—challenging topics not usually broached in public by military leaders, let alone by an enlisted member. In the days that followed, Wright and Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein engaged in a sometimes uncomfortable video conversation and a Facebook virtual town hall.

Wright’s open letter, in which he wrote of “plotting, planning, strategizing, organizing, and mobilizing” 25 white, black, Asian, enlisted, officer, and civilian friends and trying to move “beyond the rage,” had a stunning and immediate impact. Joined by Goldfein, the topic took center stage at a virtual Corona gathering of the service’s top officers, with detailed briefings from the Top Judge Advocate General, Lt. Gen. Jeffrey Rockwell, and the service’s personnel chief, Lt. Gen. Brian Kelly.

Among the facts shared at that briefing, according to a June 3 memo from Rockwell to all JAG Corps staff, were three slides showing disciplinary and legal actions. “The statistics show that black male Airmen under the age of 25 and with less than five years of service receive [non-judicial punishment] and courts-martial actions at a higher rate than similarly situated white male Airmen,” Rockwell wrote.

Goldfein said the Air Force needs to sustain the “uncomfortable, but important” discussion about how different life experiences lead to very different understandings about the world we live in. In the two-hour virtual town hall June 3, he and Wright took a range of questions about racial bias in the service and the nation, even as protesters continued to march and police and National Guard troops girded for violence in cities all across the country.

“We’ve got to have the difficult conversations that produce a greater understanding of each other inside our Air Force, where we are a profession of arms, where everybody matters, everybody’s valued, and everybody’s background is important,” Goldfein said. He related a story about his early days as a squadron commander where a senior NCO took him aside to ask if he could point out why many Airmen are bothered by a standard box of bandages. Presented with the box, Goldfein recalled, he couldn’t fathom what the issue was, until the NCO pointed to a description on its cover: “flesh-colored.”

“I just didn’t see it,” he said—until it was pointed out.

Goldfein promised in a letter to the force that the service “will not shy away” from racial discussions, saying that the same challenges that plague civilian society also affect the Air Force. “Sometimes it’s explicit, sometimes it’s subtle, but we are not immune to the spectrum of racial prejudice, systemic discrimination, or unconscious bias,” he wrote. He cited “apparent inequity in our application of military justice”  and said the Air Force Office of Special Investigations will conduct a review of the military justice system.

But the central message of the entire discussion was the need to ensure that commanders create an environment where Airmen are comfortable talking about such differences and the raw emotions that can be unleashed when they do. “Prepare for anger, some sadness, some rage,” Wright said. “Don’t be thrown off by the emotions that this might dig up, that you may not see coming. Allow people to express themselves.”

Airmen called in to ask about resources, recruiting, and how to deal with colleagues who do not appear open to their points of view. “For some, this won’t be enough to change their opinion,” Wright said. “But I think with constant education and persevering through it and having some grace, people can change.”

Goldfein emphasized the need for a deeper, more extensive commitment to change as opposed to quick fixes. “If we tried doing one or two things, and think we’re going to get better, I don’t think we’re taking this seriously,” he said. “This is a commitment to a campaign, a long-term focused effort on better understanding each other, a better understanding of what some of our teammates have been living with their entire lives, and ensuring that we make the meaningful change that we have to as a profession of arms.”

Space Force Chief of Space Operations Gen. Jay Raymond and Senior Enlisted Adviser Chief Master Sgt. Roger Towberman also sent a letter to members of the Space Force on June 2, saying that Floyd’s death is a “stark reminder that racism and unequal treatment is a reality for many and a travesty for all.”

Because the Space Force is new, they wrote, there is “an opportunity to get this right from the beginning,” by making diversity and inclusion “one of the bedrock strengths” of the Space Force. “Racism is an enemy,” they said. “It is an enemy of everything we know that is fair, right, and just. It is an enemy of our service; it is an enemy of our readiness; it is an enemy of our core values; it is an enemy of our most precious resource, America’s sons and daughters; and it is an enemy that we must defeat.”

Wings and commands across the Air Force held their own discussions.

Addressing Floyd’s death in a June 3 virtual town hall, the commander of the 52nd Fighter Wing at Spangdahlem AB, Germany, Col. David Epperson, called the situation sad and maddening. “Each one of us is going to deal with and process this in a different way,” he said, promising to hold small-group working sessions “throughout the wing” to “work toward a better culture of inclusion and equality.”

As of June 4, there were about 32,000 Guardsmen, mostly Army National Guard but including some 2,400 ANG, in 32 states and Washington, D.C., deployed to assist law enforcement with the civil unrest. National Guard Bureau Chief USAF Gen. Joseph Lengyel, in a June 3 letter titled “We Must Do Better,” urged members to “listen,” “learn,” and “be better.” 

Lengyel acknowledged the “anger and outrage” that is “spilling out into the streets all across America,” but said “everyone who wears the uniform of our country takes an oath to uphold the Constitution and everything for which it stands. If we are to fulfill our obligation as service members, as Americans, and as decent human beings, we have to take our oath seriously.”

Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr., the incoming Chief of Staff and the first-ever African American officer to lead a military service branch, added his voice to the mix with a video address to Airmen. “Here’s what I’m thinking about,” he said, his intensity rising as he spoke. “I’m thinking about protests in ‘my country ’tis of thee, sweet land of liberty,’ the equality expressed in our Declaration of Independence, and the Constitution that I’ve sworn my adult life to protect and defend. I’m thinking about a history of racial issues, and my own experiences that didn’t always sing of liberty and equality. I’m thinking about living in two worlds, each with their own perspectives and views.”

Brown described his experience trying to fit in as one of the only African Americans in his grade school, and later in his Air Force career, “where I was often the only African American in my squadron, or as a senior officer, the only African American in the room.” He talked about “wearing the same flight suit with the same wings on my chest as my peers,” but then being asked by another military member: ‘Are you a pilot?’”

Brown, a command pilot with more than 2,900 flying hours, said he had felt pressure over the course of his career “to perform error free, especially for supervisors that I perceived expected less of me as an African American,” and about the challenge of making those who don’t see racism as a problem “because it hasn’t happened to them” understand it.

He acknowledged that his historic nomination provides hope, but also a weighty burden. “I can’t fix centuries of racism in our country, nor can I fix decades of discrimination that may have affected members of our Air Force” alone, he said. “I’m thinking about how to make improvements, personally, professionally, and institutionally so that all Airmen, both today and tomorrow, appreciate the value of diversity and can serve in an environment where they can reach their full potential. … Without clear-cut answers, I just want to have the wisdom and knowledge to lead during difficult times like these … to participate in necessary conversations on racism, diversity, and inclusion,” Brown said. “I want the wisdom and knowledge to lead those willing to stay committed and sustain action to make our Air Force better.”

The Air Force Association also issued a statement decrying racial injustice. “Racial injustice remains wrong for our military and our society—a source of daunting leadership challenges for every Airman and Space Force professional,” said AFA President Lt. Gen. (Ret.) Bruce “Orville” Wright. “We stand with Air Force and Space Force leaders in support of their efforts to rid the services of every trace of racist behavior. The time is right for a thorough review of the military legal system and for careful self-examination to ensure the fairness of this great meritocracy. There is no room for division in the world’s best and most effective fighting forces.”

AFA Chairman CMSAF (Ret.) Gerald Murray, one of Wright’s predecessors as the Air Force’s top enlisted leader, agreed. “In the 72 years since President Truman desegregated our Armed Forces, America has made great strides,” he said, adding that USAF still has far to go. “Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force Kaleth Wright has helped force a critical reckoning,” he said. “Discrimination and injustice undermine good order and discipline as well as combat effectiveness. It must be stamped out.”