Lt. Gen. Anthony J. Cotton is tired of being tired.
Cotton, the first Black three-star deputy commander of Air Force Global Strike Command, has seen police lights flash in his rearview mirror, has needed to convince people he was a wing commander, and has been told not to park in his own spot among spaces reserved for base leadership.
He has explained to others, over and over, what it’s like to be Black in America. He wants people to listen. He wants them to get uncomfortable. He wants them to act.
“Here I am as a lieutenant general in the United States Air Force, but … I have a common bond,” he says. “When I see what happened to Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Rayshard Brooks—and the list goes on and on—it’s visceral to me,” he said, running through the recent history of Black Americans killed. “That could be my son. That could be my daughter. That could be me.”
As civil unrest swept the nation following the death of George Floyd in May, a Black man who died after a Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes, Black Airmen are wrestling with their own reality in an Air Force that still suffers from its own racial blind spots and systemic discrimination.
A dozen Black Airmen—including current and former officers, enlisted members, and civilians—shared their experience with Air Force Magazine in June, describing how race has influenced their lives and careers, and how the Air Force still needs to evolve.
Being Black in the Air Force, they said, can mean straddling the line between being respected and suspected. They described constantly moderating themselves to meet the expectations of others, and embracing the nation’s needs despite feeling uncertain the nation they protect embraces them in return.
While some praised understanding and diverse leaders throughout their careers, others said they struggled to find a place among unwelcoming colleagues and commanders. They could feel included at work but face racial slurs and suspicion from their communities and neighbors. Some said they never felt passed over for promotion or otherwise slighted by the Air Force bureaucracy, but most pointed to racist comments, insensitive jokes, and other forms of discrimination as far back as their earliest days in Basic Military Training.
The Airmen interviewed joined the service because they wanted a meaningful job or they grew up in a military family. Some sought educational benefits or travel opportunities. For Master Sgt. Cederic Hill, a space operator at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., it was a chance for change he couldn’t get at home.
“I’ve been called every name in the book you can think of,” he said of growing up in a mostly white area outside Atlanta. “I’ve had bottles thrown at me as I walked down the street. My next-door neighbor, his uncle … was a Grand Dragon in the [Ku Klux] Klan. … I didn’t feel like I was part of the nation.”
When Hill joined the Air Force, he gained opportunities and a sense of acceptance he hadn’t experienced in Georgia. But he still faced frustrations and fears, often as the only Black man in his workplace. One supervisor dubbed him “Token” and called him “the whitest Black person that he knows,” words that cut at his sense of belonging in his workplace and in the Black community.
Tech. Sgt. Miles Starr, noncommissioned officer in charge of retention at Hill Air Force Base, Utah, said she has been mocked, ignored, and called “Aunt Jemima” at work since joining the Air Force in 2003.
Master Sgt. Michael Feggans, superintendent of the 71st Healthcare Operations Squadron at Vance Air Force Base, Okla., said superiors may demeaningly address Black Airmen as “boy.” One suggested he go back to bagging groceries. Staff Sgt. Phillip Felton, who works in explosive ordnance disposal at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., said he was once told: “I think you’re a [N-word], but it’s not a bad thing.”
Sometimes the speaker doesn’t understand how hurtful such comments can be. Other times, problems are more deeply ingrained.
Black Airmen described being discouraged from applying for jobs where they wouldn’t be welcomed, or repeatedly skipped over for professional opportunities and awards. They spoke of leaving bases that proved to be toxic environments, and of feeling like their chain of command wouldn’t take discrimination reports seriously.
Tech. Sgt. Myeshia Tucker, an intelligence analyst at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii, began basic training with short, natural hair that rolled into tight curls against her scalp. Although she was in line with service dress regulations, a white, male instructor told her it was “unprofessional,” she said, and sent her to the salon to get it straightened. Then, when her natural curls returned in the Texas humidity, Tucker was reprimanded.
Another time, a supervisor told her she received a coveted opportunity only because “they can’t turn down a Black female.” And in still another incident, a colleague joked that the quality of an important briefing she was preparing wouldn’t matter because she was a pretty Black woman.
“Even when I did well, it was so discounted,” she said. “I was told that I got it because I was a Black woman and they needed to diversify. … That’s a trend I noticed early on.”
Some Black Airmen say they face more discrimination when stationed in the United States than when serving overseas. One even said that Black service members deployed overseas sometimes worry more about family back home than they do about their own lives in combat zones.
The race-relations chasm between military and civilian life can seem just as wide. Hill said there’s more accountability and teamwork on the military than in a civilian community, which helps ensure people are treated fairly.
Feggans said carrying a military ID card can provide a level of protection that a driver’s license does not.
“My military ID has helped get me out of many incidents that never should have happened,” he said, such as “getting pulled over with me and my friends, being told that you’re in the wrong neighborhood, being accused of having guns and drugs in your vehicle, asking, ‘How can you afford such a nice luxury car?’ … It’s almost like my background and everything changes as soon as they see my military ID.”
In both the military and civilian worlds, Black Airmen moderate themselves to fit others’ expectations. They are told, in words and in actions, to be as loud or as quiet as the people around them, to smile so as not to be threatening, to speak a certain way. Lt. Col. Ja Rai Williams, assistant executive officer to the Air Force’s Judge Advocate General, said her true feelings are covered by a mask that she only feels comfortable dropping around trusted family and friends.
Added Feggans: “It’s a duality of serving in the military and serving as African Americans. You’re used to looking at yourself from the outside as, ‘How is my hair gonna be perceived? How’s my accent going to be perceived?’ The mannerisms—am I going to come off as the angry Black woman or the angry Black man? So it’s a constant battle with yourself of trying to find a way to appease and to lead.”
From the start, many Black Airmen feel the need to excel to prove they belong, knowing others are scrutinizing their progress.
“You’re in a fishbowl,” said A.G. Hatcher, the Air Force’s acting deputy chief information officer who retired from Active duty as a colonel. “You’ve always got to be on your … A-game. You’ve always got to show up. You’ve just got to produce, because you have to overdeliver.”
Growing up in the Deep South, in Selma, Ala., Hatcher said he learned early on that “one, life wasn’t fair, and two, if you’re Black, you’ve got to be better.” It also instilled in him a sense that everyone should get an equal shot at success.
As a company-grade Air Force officer years ago, Hatcher noticed he wasn’t being offered the same opportunities as some of his peers. So he started nominating himself instead, hoping to pave his own way up the ranks. Once in leadership positions, he mentored others and diversified a staff of all white men to include more women and people of color.
Having a diverse array of mentors matters. Mentors of any race can show Black Airmen a path to leadership they may not have known existed, while building a cadre of Black leaders who can help others in the future. Taking on Black mentees, and putting more Black Airmen in leadership positions, helps build a more inclusive wing culture.
Sometimes an invitation declined can be misinterpreted, Cotton said. If a white flight commander invites newly arrived Airmen to come out for a weekend of elk hunting, a “young Airman who just came from the inner city or from an urban environment, who’s never picked up a rifle in their life, might say, ‘Yeah, I think I might pass,’” Cotton said. “That person could then get assessed by that flight chief: ‘He’s not a team player. … I did my part, I asked them to join us.’” Meanwhile, that Airman might only feel more isolated.
Value of Diversity
Diverse workplaces can inspire and uplift people of all colors and offer a support structure when Airmen are struggling and need someone to talk to. That could be a matter of confronting a neighbor over a child using a racial slur or upset over constant news coverage of shootings and protests. Especially now, Black Airmen said they feel nervous, numb, exhausted, and sometimes silenced by their uniform.
“Because emotions are heightened, I’ve had to police myself,” Hill said. “I still have a job to do. I still have to project a professional image, but I also have to deal with the emotions that come from people within our community yelling and saying that, ‘We’re being shot, we’re being killed.’”
At one point during a shift at the Combined Space Operations Center shortly after Floyd’s death, Hill struggled to regain his composure when thinking about his family and current events. A friend online helped him calm down; he worried about being perceived as a stereotypical “angry Black man” in the workplace. He said his supervisor supported him by talking through those feelings during every shift.
Antoinette Allen, a former Active-duty Airman who later served in the National Guard until 2014, said it’s been heartbreaking to watch people’s reactions to the thousands of Guardsmen who were deployed to support local law enforcement at protests around the country. She recalled a video of Black protesters taunting a Black Guardsman, telling him to drop his weapon and join the protests. The Guard is there to protect, not suppress, she said: “These are not two opposite sides.”
Black Airmen are heartened by the conversations about their longstanding challenges taking place across the service. But the experience of being Black in America, particularly for those who are the only Black person in their units, is still isolating.
“When I talk to them about the anxiety I have with my husband leaving the house every day and possibly not making it home, they’re not going to be able to relate,” Tucker said. “They’ll listen to me and I know they will, but there’s so much value to being able to relate to someone. So it’s very, extremely lonely for me right now.”
Sometimes friends and family ask: Why are you serving a country that doesn’t care about you? It’s a question Tucker can’t answer. “I don’t know what I’m going to do at the end of my contract. … If I do not stay, it won’t be because I didn’t do well,” the Hawaii-based Airman said. “Right now, I don’t feel valued. … If my contract was up next year, I know I would not renew.”
At Edwards Air Force Base, Felton said he’s proud to have a job in uniform where he can help people, but that it’s hard to justify the actions of the country he serves.
“I’m asked, ‘How can you work for a military who has conducted injustices in the past?’” he said. “That makes it difficult to accept those situations or to speak on them, but does that make it harder for me to do my job? No.”
Lt. Gen. Richard M. Clark, the Air Force’s deputy chief of staff for strategic deterrence and nuclear integration, knows those voices are out there.
Clark is dealing with America’s recent turmoil both as a high-ranking military officer and as a father. His 18-year-old son took off on his bike one night for a Black Lives Matter protest in Washington, D.C., proud of his history and hungry for change. Tens of thousands of Airmen may feel the same way, Clark said.
“There’s probably an anger that we don’t even know about, that some of these Airmen who don’t have someone to talk about it with, or someone to help guide them through this,” Clark said. “But I am encouraged by what my kids saw: That this is everyone’s solution, and that there are a lot of people who are angered by this, not just Black people, but a lot of people who want to do something about it.”
He and other Air Force leaders said they are heartened by the service’s decision to thoroughly study racial disparities in promotions and the military justice system, along with other factors that may block Black Airmen from feeling heard and from rising through the ranks.
The military justice issue hits home for Brandon Glover, a former Airman who left the service in 2009 amid a law enforcement mixup. Glover said he was accused of a crime off-base he didn’t commit, then discharged from his post in Japan within days, despite officials realizing he wasn’t at fault. Now a civilian intelligence employee with the Army, Glover argues the Air Force needs more impartial oversight of its military justice processes.
“I think the process of putting people out should have a certain time requirement as far as research, investigating, getting all the details,” he added.
Others agree the first step toward understanding what Black Airmen face is allowing difficult conversations to take place. That was part of the aim of Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force Kaleth O. Wright’s public statements on race, as well as his live discussions on the topic with Chief of Staff Gen. David L. Goldfein.
Felton said one supervisor “wasn’t aware of how bad the situation was, just because he wasn’t exposed to it.” The discussion helped open his eyes, he said. “He was having a moment of reflection in his life,” Felton continued. “I see that as a step in the right direction, because three years ago, I don’t think that would have happened.”
Others suggest support groups or open forums can help air feelings and problems in work and home life. Some units are creating task forces and distributing educational materials. While the Marine Corps is banning the Confederate flag and related imagery, the Air Force, so far, has not said if it will follow suit.
Retired Gen. Larry O. Spencer, the former Air Force Vice Chief of Staff and Air Force Association president, recalled the Air Force’s race relations courses in the 1970s. “They were very intense, very emotional,” he said. “Nobody liked it, and they … did away with it.”
But there’s broad agreement on the need for periodic training at all levels to increase understanding of the lived experiences of women and people of color.
The new Space Force has a chance to build diversity and inclusion into its culture from the beginning. The space career field skews white, much like pilots and intelligence.
Hill wants to see the Space Force do a better job of celebrating Black history. He said he’s never seen a base celebrate Juneteenth, the annual commemoration of the end of slavery observed on June 19. He’s also tried—and failed—to highlight the achievements of prominent African Americans like music icon James Brown or political activist Malcolm X.
“When you are told you can’t discuss or showcase influential and celebrity figures that played a significant part [in] our struggle, it is very discouraging,” Hill said. “If we genuinely believe in diversity, we should take time to address it at different times of the year, not just the ‘traditional’ one or two times it is mandated.”
Black Americans see the tide of public opinion turning, and some are cautiously optimistic that concrete action will follow. They stress that healing the divisions is a call for everyone—all Airmen, not just the Black community—to advocate for representation and fair treatment.
Cotton hopes the U.S. can reach a point where he doesn’t have to talk to his adult children about how to stay safe every week.
“I am cautiously optimistic that we’ll get after this … not necessarily only from a Department of the Air Force perspective,” he said. “It’s time for our nation to really dive into this and get after it once and for all. And hopefully, you know, I don’t have to have those conversations with my kids.”