Sen. Eric Schmitt, R-Mo., placed a hold on Air Force Col. Benjamin Jonsson. Schmitt had been blocking the promotions of six officers for their views on DEI policies.

Sen. Eric Schmitt, R-Mo., placed a hold on Air Force Col. Benjamin Jonsson. Schmitt had been blocking the promotions of six officers for their views on DEI policies. Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

Political holds hurt military readiness 

COMMENTARY | A veteran contends that a hold on the promotion of an Air Force colonel who urged his peers to talk about racism and its effects on the military is a step backward.

The situation surrounding Air Force Col. Benjamin Jonsson and Sen. Eric Schmitt's, R-Mo., opposition to Jonsson's views on diversity, equity, and inclusion policies in the military raises crucial questions about the role of these policies in an apolitical institution like the military and the importance of addressing systemic issues such as racism.

Firstly, it's essential to acknowledge the sensitive and complex nature of discussing racism and institutional biases within any organization, especially one as integral to national security as the military. The military, by its very nature, is supposed to be a meritocratic institution where individuals are judged and advanced based on their abilities and achievements rather than their race, gender, or other immutable characteristics. However, this ideal does not exist in a vacuum and must be continually nurtured in an environment that recognizes and addresses systemic biases.

In his letter addressing white colonels in the Air Force, Col. Benjamin Jonsson confronts the deep-rooted issue of racial injustice and the role of white leadership in perpetuating systemic racism. He highlights a pattern of defensiveness and discomfort among white colonels when discussing race, evidenced by their avoidance of the topic and trivialization of serious incidents related to racial tension. Jonsson illustrates this through various instances where conversations about race were either deflected with humor or dismissed, including discussions on the disproportionate disciplining of Black Airmen and the questioning of Black officers' perspectives on racial issues. This behavior not only undermines efforts to address racial disparities but also indicates a larger problem of reluctance to acknowledge and engage with the realities of institutional racism within the military.

U.S. Air Force Col. Benjamin R. Jonsson at an Al Udeid Air Base on July 16, 2018. STAFF SGT. ENJOLI SAUNDERS/U.S. AIR FORCE

Jonsson urges his peers to recognize their responsibility in setting the culture and policies within the Air Force. He argues that without acknowledging their own biases and actively working to understand and address racial disparities, white leaders in the Air Force contribute to the persistence of these issues. He calls for a shift in mindset, advocating for engagement and action rather than passivity or denial. Jonsson emphasizes the importance of education on these matters, recommending resources like "White Fragility" by Robin DiAngelo, and underscores the need for white colonels to actively participate in creating an inclusive and just environment in the Air Force, especially in the wake of George Floyd's murder and the ensuing social upheaval.

Sen. Schmitt's response, framing DEI policies as divisive and contrary to the military's mission, reflects a common misunderstanding of the purpose and impact of such initiatives. Especially for the senator, as he has no military experience whatsoever. DEI policies are not about emphasizing differences for the sake of division; rather, they are about acknowledging and addressing inequalities to ensure that everyone, regardless of their background, has a fair chance to succeed. By dismissing these policies and their advocates, there is a risk of perpetuating the very biases and injustices these policies aim to eradicate.

The hold on Jonsson's promotion, ostensibly due to his advocacy for DEI policies, sets a concerning precedent. It suggests that military officers might face professional setbacks for acknowledging and trying to address systemic issues within the institution. This could discourage open discussion and efforts to tackle these challenges, ultimately harming the military's integrity and effectiveness.

Moreover, the fact that Jonsson's op-ed was met with avoidance and defensiveness by his peers is indicative of the discomfort and resistance often encountered when confronting deep-seated issues like racial injustice. It's imperative for leaders, especially those in a diverse and inclusive institution like the military, to engage in these difficult conversations with openness and a willingness to learn and grow.

The attempt to stifle discussion and action on DEI issues within the military, as exemplified by the block on Col. Jonsson's promotion, is a step backward in the ongoing effort to ensure fairness and justice in all sectors of society, including the military. It undermines the principles of meritocracy and equal opportunity that are foundational to the effectiveness and integrity of the armed forces. The military, as an institution, should not only be open to discussions about systemic biases but should actively engage in them to remain a truly meritocratic and just institution.

Michael Embrich is a veteran, former member of the secretary of Veterans Affairs' Advisory Committee on the Readjustment of Veterans, and former congressional staffer.