Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. CQ Brown, Jr. answers questions after delivering his “Accelerate Change to Empowered Airmen” speech during the 2021 Air Force Association Air, Space and Cyber Conference in National Harbor, Md., Sept. 20, 2021.

Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. CQ Brown, Jr. answers questions after delivering his “Accelerate Change to Empowered Airmen” speech during the 2021 Air Force Association Air, Space and Cyber Conference in National Harbor, Md., Sept. 20, 2021. U.S. Air Force photo by Eric Dietrich

Inside the Air Force Chief’s Mission for Racial Equity

“There's still a lot to do,’ said Gen. C.Q. Brown, ‘...we didn't get here overnight, we're not gonna get out of here overnight.”

Days after George Floyd was murdered by a Minneapolis police officer in May 2020 and protests flared around the world, Air Force Gen. C.Q. Brown, Jr., looked into a camera to talk about the death and the racism questions it raised, in an emotional video titled “Here’s what I’m thinking about.” 

“I'm thinking about my 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. 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?’ ”

A little over two months after Floyd was killed, Brown was sworn in as Air Force chief of staff, becoming the first Black American to lead any U.S. military branch. 

In the time since, the Air Force has conducted deep and sometimes uncomfortable dives into its own history of racial disparity among servicemember disciplinary actions and promotions, and has been part of the Pentagon-wide review on racial and gender based policies as the entire Defense Department reviewed racial inequality in the military.  

“There's still a lot to do, because this is a cultural shift,” Brown said in an interview Thursday with Defense One. “This isn't something that you can get done in just a couple of years. And if you go back to the video I did, you know, basically, we didn't get here overnight, we're not gonna get out of here overnight.”  

This week Air Force Materiel Command announced the latest service change, a new process for evaluating airmen for performance awards. The new policy requires that an airman’s name, race, ethnicity, gender-specific language and photos are redacted in an awards nomination packet, and that the board members reviewing those applications reflect the diversity of the organization giving the award. 

Ten years ago, Brown was tapped by former Air Force Secretary Michael Donley and former Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz to run an action group on diversity. A diversity and inclusivity expert briefed them, and left the group with a blunt assessment. 

“We walked out in the hallway, and he goes, ‘You guys aren’t serious,’” Brown said. “He was right. We beat around the bush, we talked about it.”

“But now we're serious.” 

Since Floyd’s death, the Air Force has released two major reviews on disparity in its ranks, and is still issuing updates as needed. In December 2020, the Air Force inspector general identified 16 areas where Black or African American airmen, and Guardians in the Space Force, faced unequal circumstances, ranging from how commanders dedicate resources to investigate sexual harassment complaints, to how fewer Black or African American candidates are  selected for development schools, and statistical underrepresenation in enlisted and officer leadership ranks.  

In September, the Air Force released the results of a survey with more than 100,500 responses from airmen and Guardians on their own experiences of racial inequality in the service. In the survey, 43 percent of racial and ethnic minority members said they had to conform to behave more like non-minority members to be successful in the Air Force; another 41 percent said they had to work harder than their white peers to prove they were competent at their job.

Brown now leads a monthly inclusion council that’s become a place to “ask some really hard questions,” he said. The council’s questions have led to policy changes, such as how someone qualifies for pilot training, he said.  

“In order to go to pilot training, there was a way to bump your score to be competitive for pilot training by having prior pilot time. So if you’re economically disadvantaged, and you can’t afford to go get pilot training, you are already ‘x’ number of points in the hole,” Brown said.  

Only about 2 percent of the Air Force’s pilots identify as Black or African American, compared to about 89 percent who identify as white, according to Air Education and Training Command. Five percent identify as Hispanic. It’s a racial disparity that will affect the future senior leadership of the Air Force, as that pool of pilots progresses up the service ranks.  Historically, many job fields that have the highest promotion rates – like pilots, navigators, air battle managers, combat systems officers, and flight surgeons – can have the lowest minority participation, a 2015 RAND study found. 

“When we look at where the overwhelming percentage of our leaders come from, they come from these rated career fields,” Air Force Under Secretary Gina Ortiz Jones told Defense One. “And so when we look at diversifying our pipeline, not only to the Department of the Air Force, but in today's rated career fields, in particular, we have to understand, you know, the impact of that.” 

In September, the Air Force issued a new policy that it would only count up to 60 hours of prior flight lessons or flying time as part of the Pilot Candidate Selection Method, a policy change that Air Force Education and Training Command said would have resulted in an additional 69 Hispanic and 26 more Black or African-American qualified applicants over the past 12 years. 

“So what we did was, you still get a little bit of credit for your time, but not as much as it used to be,” Brown said. “Some of our airmen have talent, they just don't have the financial means to boost their score.” 

The Air Force’s efforts and the Pentagon-wide efforts to address racism and diversity have been repeatedly targeted by Republican lawmakers and far-right media personalities who say it’s evidence that the military is “too woke,” including on Tucker Carlson Tonight, the highest-rated show on the highest-rated cable network in America. 

This week Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Jim Inhofe, R-Okla, released a letter from Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Mark Milley that reported the Pentagon had spent about 6 million hours and $1 million in funding to address racism and extremism in the ranks since Floyd’s death. Milley said that accounted for only about two hours of training per service member. 

“We face real threats across the world, yet the Biden administration is more focused on promoting its leftist social agenda in the military instead of countering China, Russia and Iran,” Inhofe and a dozen other Republican senators said in a statement this week. 

Brown said the issues must be addressed if the military is going to be able to attract men and women to fight those wars. 

“If we don't think about this, we're not going to have anybody who is going to join our service to go fight China or Russia,” Brown said. “And you’ve got to look at the demographics of our country, how it's changing. If you have that approach [of opposing inclusivity efforts] you're gonna have very few people that come serve.”

Jones said the service’s effort to address diversity issues raised in the survey will continue, for example, in a follow-up on female representation in certain career fields. Jones requested a drill-down into the data because while the numbers of women in rated career fields has risen, most of those women were also white. 

The survey “was really a call to action,” Jones said. “I actually call it the trust report, because people trusted us with their feedback. And now they trust us to act.”

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