Presumptive Next Chief of Staff Talks About His Own Experiences With Racism

Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr., the Air Force’s presumptive next Chief of Staff, talked about what’s on his mind as Congress considers his historic nomination to be the first black leader of any military service while racial tensions flare across the country following the Memorial Day death of a black man at the hands of white police officers.

“I’m thinking about how full I am with emotion, not just for George Floyd, but the many African Americans who have suffered the same fate as George Floyd. 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,” said Brown, in the emotional and powerful Facebook video. “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, who currently leads Pacific Air Forces, talks about how he and his sister were the only black students in their elementary school, about being the only African American member of his squadron, and about being the only black senior leader in the room. He talks about feeling ostracized and trying to fit in throughout his life.

“I’m thinking about wearing the same flight suit with the same wings on my chest as my peers, and then being questioned by another military member: ‘Are you a pilot?’” said Brown, a command pilot with more than 2,900 flying hours in the F-16, F-15, and fixed and rotary-wing aircraft, including 130 combat hours. “I’m thinking about how sometimes my comments were perceived to represent the African American perspective, when it’s just my perspective, informed by being an African American.”

Brown recalls being told he wasn’t “black enough” because he didn’t spend as much time with other African Americans as he did with his squadron. He said that throughout his career, he rarely had mentors that looked like him or could relate to his experiences as an African American.

“I’m thinking about the pressure that I felt to perform error free, especially for supervisors that I perceived expected less of me as an African American,” he said. “I’m thinking about having to represent, to work twice as hard, to prove that their perceptions of African Americans were invalid.”

As he prepares to lead the Air Force, Brown said he knows other Airmen have similar experiences and feelings as he does, but there also are Airmen who don’t see racism as a problem because it hasn’t happened to them.

If confirmed, Brown will be the second ever black member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the other being Army Gen. Colin Powell, who served as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs from 1989-1993. Brown said he thinks about the African American military leaders who came before him and made his nomination possible.

“I’m thinking about the immense expectations that come with this historic nomination, and particularly through the lens of current events plaguing our nation,” Brown said. “I’m thinking about how I may have fallen short in my career, and will likely continue falling short of all those expectations. I’m thinking about how my nomination provides some hope but also comes with a heavy 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.

“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.”

His comments come after the current Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein and Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force Kaleth Wright shared their own perspectives, called for a review of race in military justice, and started a discussion on the state of racism within the service.

Brown said he wants to hear from Airmen about their perspectives and their ideas to improve the service.

“I’m thinking that 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. That’s what I’m thinking about.”