Political Editors / June 10, 2020

Wise Words From an Accomplished Black Leader

Air Force General Charles Q. Brown Jr. shares thoughts on his own experience.

Less than four years after the first black president left office after two terms, the Senate on Tuesday confirmed the first black American to lead a branch of the U.S. military. Air Force General Charles Q. Brown Jr. was confirmed as chief of staff for the Air Force. (As The Wall Street Journal notes, “Colin Powell was chairman of the joint chiefs but didn’t run a military service.”) Brown is an accomplished F-16 pilot with 3,000 hours and he has held command positions in the Middle East, Asia, and the Pacific.

There’s plenty of work to do on race relations in this country — obviously — but let’s not allow achievements like this to become drowned out by the rioters and race-baiters.

Brown recently shared some incredibly wise words about his own experience and work:

As the commander of Pacific Air Forces, a senior leader in our Air Force, and an African-American, many of you may be wondering what I’m thinking about the current events surrounding the tragic death of George Floyd. Here’s what I’m thinking about.

I’m thinking about how full I am with emotion, not just for George Floyd, but the many African Americans that 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 support and defend.

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 perspective and views. I’m thinking about my sister and I being the only African Americans in our entire elementary school and trying to fit in. I’m thinking about then going to a high school where roughly half the students were African American — and trying to fit in.

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?” I’m thinking about how I sometimes felt my comments were perceived to represent the African American perspective, when it’s just my perspective, informed by being African American. I’m thinking about some of the insensitive comments made without awareness by others. I’m thinking about being a captain at the O Club with my squadron and being told by other African Americans that I wasn’t black enough since I was spending more time with my squadron than with them.

I’m thinking about my mentors, and how rarely I had a mentor that looked like me. I’m thinking about the sound advice that has led to my success, and even so, most of my mentors cannot relate to my experience as an African American. I’m thinking about the pressure I felt to perform error-free, especially for supervisors I perceived had expected less from me as an African American. I’m thinking about having to represent by working twice as hard to prove their expectations and perceptions of African Americans were invalid.

I’m thinking about the airmen that have lived through similar experiences and feelings as mine, or who were, either consciously or unconsciously, unfairly treated. Conversely, I’m thinking about the airmen who don’t have a life similar to mine, and don’t have to navigate through two worlds. I’m thinking about how these airmen view racism — whether they don’t see it as a problem since it doesn’t happen to them, or whether they’re empathetic.

I’m thinking about our two sons, and how we had to prepare them to live in two worlds. I’m thinking about the frank and emotional conversations that my wife and I have had with them just this past week, as we discuss the situations that have led to the protests around our country.

Finally, I’m thinking about my historic nomination to be the first African American to serve as the Air Force chief of staff. I’m thinking about the African Americans that went before me to make this opportunity possible. I’m thinking about the immense expectations that come with this historic nomination, particularly through the lens of current events plaguing our nation.

I’m thinking about how I may have fallen short in my career, and will likely continue falling short living up to all of 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 impacted members of our Air Force. I’m thinking about how I can 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.

I’m thinking I don’t have all the answers on how to create such an environment, whether here in PACAF [Pacific Air Forces] or across our Air Force. I’m thinking about, without clear-cut answers, I just want to have the wisdom and knowledge to lead during difficult times like these. I want the wisdom and knowledge to lead, participate in and listen to necessary conversations on racism, diversity, and inclusion. I want the wisdom and knowledge to lead those willing to take committed and sustained action to make our Air Force better.

That’s what I’m thinking about. I wonder what you’re thinking about. I want to hear what you’re thinking about and how, together, we can make a difference.

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