The Air Force turned its attention this week to the persistent problems of racism, discrimination and inequality — both in the United States as a whole, and within the service.
But now comes the hard part, Chief of Staff Gen. Dave Goldfein and Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force Kaleth Wright said Wednesday evening: Not looking away as the news cycle fades, and having hard conversations across cultural divides.
“This is not a Minneapolis issue, this is an Air Force issue,” Chief of Staff Gen. Dave Goldfein said during a virtual town hall on his official Facebook page. “What goes on in the streets of America, we know is going on to a certain extent in the Air Force.”
Goldfein said that the Air Force has to lead the way and take ownership of its own problems with these issues.
“This is about us showing by example how to have a tough, tough dialogue,” Goldfein said. “It’s often easier to avoid it. We can’t walk by this anymore.”
As protests and street clashes sparked by the death of George Floyd during an arrest by police in Minneapolis swelled earlier this week, Wright and then Goldfein became the first senior leaders in the military to speak forcefully about his death and racial injustice. Leaders of the other military services followed suit in the ensuing days, and now all members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff have issued statements on the protests and issues of race.
The flood started when Wright, who is black, posted a passionate essay about the issue of racial inequality and the deaths of black men at the hands of police. Wright at one point declared, “I am George Floyd.”
Goldfein soon followed with his own memo to commanders urging them to encourage discussion and understanding about racial issues and the difficulties black airmen face — but also acknowledged the ways the Air Force has fallen short, particularly in a lack of opportunities for black airmen to advance, and in a military justice system that punishes young black men more frequently than their white counterparts.
Wednesday’s town hall represented Goldfein and Wright’s first attempt to continue this conversation. But Goldfein acknowledged that ultimately, the Air Force will be judged based on what it actually does to improve things, not by words alone.
The service is beginning by re-examining its own justice system, which has been criticized in a series of reports — as recently as last week — for racial disparities. The Air Force’s inspector general will review that system, as well as the issues of racial injustice and opportunities for airmen from all backgrounds to advance, Goldfein said.
And, Wright said, everyone in the Air Force needs to examine their own biases and blind spots, to figure out how the service got to a point where black airmen are punished more frequently than white airmen.
“We didn’t magically get to this point where African American males receive punishment at anywhere from two to three times the amount of their white male counterparts for the same offenses,” Wright said. Air Force leaders need to ask themselves, “Am I giving this person a fair shot, the same I would give another person?”
People are shaped by their backgrounds and environments, Wright said, and the “whole person” should be taken into account when considering things like punishments or promotions.
“This idea that, ‘I don’t see color,’ I think is a mistake that we as leaders make when we decide, everybody is the same,” Wright said, as Goldfein nodded his agreement. “By not seeing color, by not seeing sexual orientation, you could miss some things that might be extremely important. But more than, ‘Do you need to consider the race of the person,’ what you really need to consider is, ‘What are my own biases? What are my own blind spots, that I might not be seeing?’”
Goldfein said that the environments in which he grew up, and rose in the ranks of the Air Force, were quite different from Wright’s — and admitted that’s left him with blind spots. And acknowledging that is the first step necessary to creating the “safe space” in which these discussions can take place, he said.
“Almost every room I’ve ever walked in to [in the Air Force] has been full of people who look like me, people who sound like me,” Goldfein said. “Most of the systems in our Air Force have been designed by people like me, for people like me. I’ve got blinders that are going to keep me from seeing what others with a different life experience and background are going to see. It’s not because I’m not trying to see it; it’s that I can’t see it.”
But, Wright cautioned, commanders should not feel like they need to fix these deep-seated societal problems in their conversations. Sometimes, younger airmen from a different background just want space to talk and be heard.
And, Wright said, sometimes commanders need to hear some hard truths about things that are not working well for minority airmen in their units — or even ways commanders may have unintentionally or unknowingly made things difficult for them.
“Just because you haven’t dealt with something, doesn’t mean it’s not actually happening right under your nose,” Wright said.
And if an airman needs to confront a commander about prejudicial words or actions, Wright recommended sticking to facts and concrete examples to demonstrate why the commander’s behavior or the environment he created was hurtful.
“I don’t know that I can tell someone, ‘Hey, you are biased or you are prejudiced,’” Wright said. “But I can tell you how I feel. When you say this, or when you do this, when you don’t include me, or when you call me this name, or when you discount my opinion in front of others, or when you show these racially-charged cartoons, this is how I feel, and how other airmen feel.’ As a leader, you need to be willing to hear the tough feedback.”
But it’s going to be the responsibility of Air Force leadership to keep the conversation on racial equality and people’s experiences going, even once the immediate crisis fades from the nightly news, Goldfein said. It needs to be normalized, the way the Air Force has worked to normalize conversations about resiliency and suicide prevention, he said.
“This conversation is a hard thing, that we have to do well,” Goldfein said. “And if we’re going to do it well, that means we’re stay committed to it across the Air Force. Every airman. There is no bystanding on this one.”
Stephen Losey is the air warfare reporter for Defense News. He previously covered leadership and personnel issues at Air Force Times, and the Pentagon, special operations and air warfare at Military.com. He has traveled to the Middle East to cover U.S. Air Force operations.