What the Air Force Can Teach the Country About Trust and Inclusion
On June 1, as President Donald Trump threatened to deploy the U.S. military to “quickly solve the problem” if cities and states did not respond to protests, the highest-ranking enlisted member in the U.S. Air Force, Kaleth Wright, tweeted “Who am I?” His answer went viral. “I am a Black man who happens to be the Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force. I am George Floyd … I am Philando Castile, I am Michael Brown, I am Alton Sterling, I am Tamir Rice.”
This tweet was the preamble to a powerful conversation about race in America between Chief Wright and his white, male boss, then the senior ranking officer in the Air Force, Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein. The two of them sat down together the following day in front of a camera. If you haven’t watched the video yet, I recommend that you do. It’s remarkable. Wright demonstrates how to lead a conversation about race, and Goldfein shows how to be a white ally. Their conversation doesn’t just set an example of how to talk about race for the military. It’s a model of how to have a productive conversation about race for the nation and of how listening can build trust and inclusion. In order to unpack these lessons, it’s useful to see how this is unfolding in the Air Force. Goldfein’s recommendation to the force was to listen, but not every leader has interpreted this expectation in the same way.
Since then white, male, three-star generals have followed their lead. They’ve begun sitting down with black airmen to talk about race. The results are stunning. At their best, they humanize the issue of race in the military in a way that is poignant and genuine. Still, these conversations are risky from a public affairs perspective. Sometimes, the power dynamic at work in the conversations makes them awkward and uncomfortable. What becomes visible through watching these videos is that there are two different ways in which military leaders are talking about diversity. The first approach is what we could call “listening as inclusion” and the second, “listening as strategic imperative.” These two approaches should be seen as distinct. While not wholly incompatible, approaching listening as a strategic imperative without first doing the work of inclusion — by hearing out black airmen for no other reason than to make them feel valued — is likely to further exacerbate the feelings of marginalization and exclusion that Goldfein’s instruction was meant to overcome.
One way to parse these two approaches is by focusing on how these leaders answer the central question: Why does diversity matter? From the first perspective, in which listening is about creating a sense of belonging and inclusion, the purpose of talking about diversity is to foster a culture in which all airmen feel recognized and valued. This approach centers the American values of equality and liberty, and the experiences of airmen — listening creates a sense of belonging by making airmen feel heard and acknowledged. It provides a salve for one of the consistent themes that emerges from these conversations about race: the problem of black airmen feeling singled out and devalued, and otherwise experiencing a sense of exclusion based on who they are.
Take, for example, Maj. Dan Walker’s conversation with Lt. Gen. Marshall B. Webb. In the closing moments of their conversation Walker expresses genuine surprise at the position he finds himself in, on camera with the commander of Air Education and Training Command who is not only listening to but acknowledging his experiences. Walker has brought along a list of anonymous statements from other black airman in which they express their feelings of being devalued within their Air Force community. “My fighter [pilot] experience was the most demoralizing experience in my life and I’ve been homeless,” one says. Another comments, “To be yourself and to thrive in a fighter squadron as a black man is an oxymoron. Either conform or fail.” Yet another offers, “I’ve hated being a fighter pilot more days than I have liked it. You couldn’t pay me enough money to do it again.” For perspective, consider the fact although some 43 percent of the 1.3 million men and women on active duty in the United States military are people of color, in the Air Force, where pilots typically hold the highest status positions, only 1.7 percent of pilots are African–American or black.
Walker goes on to describe how the response to George Floyd’s death has changed their perception. “[W]e are all fairly shocked by the response we are seeing both in the Air Force and outside it. Wait a minute, people are actually listening to us,” he says. “We’re here on a fairly ad hoc Facebook live telling stories that we were pretty sure we were just going to have to write books about once we got out. This is the start of something different, and you ask about optimism, there’s certainly optimism in the room.” The fact that Webb has invited a subordinate to sit down and talk with the sole purpose of listening and learning is a way to build trust and create a sense of belonging. It is a first step toward making a difference.
As much as these conversations are about creating inclusion among black and other minority servicemembers, they are also about modeling interactions for all servicemembers. They are setting expectations for current and future leaders. “[I]n the long-term we won’t have leaders that are non-empathetic,” Webb predicts:
I think if the Air Force can rightly navigate this path with respect to diversity and inclusion and by the way belonging … it will be a fundamental part of our character, who we are, a core value if you will. That’s a vision, it’s an “I have a dream” piece, but it’s got to start somewhere … it is starting with this is the expectation of a leader, a leader intuitively does this has got to be something that we set.
By sitting down and having an open conversation about race, Webb is signaling that it is important for leaders to be able to do this. He is modeling empathetic behavior.
The second perspective puts a different spin on why it is important to listen, holding that diversity matters insofar as it provides a warfighting advantage — listening becomes a strategic act. As one Air Force officer explained it to me, listening is a way for leadership to leverage marginalized voices to improve mission effectiveness. While it makes a lot of sense to talk about how and why diversity improves mission effectiveness — studies have shown, for instance, that diversity improves group performance — reducing listening to a strategic act runs the risk of further marginalizing the populations that conversations about diversity are meant to include. If you start from the position that the value of diversity is mission effectiveness, it becomes possible not only to decenter but also, as some have argued, to actively exclude the topic of inclusion from the conversation. Once you divorce conversations about diversity from the values of belonging and inclusion, those conversations can quickly become unproductive — especially when, rather than fostering a culture of belonging, leaders approach those conversations as a way to find out what they can leverage for their own ends. It can rapidly shut down open and honest conversation.
One of the problems with separating discussions of diversity from listening as an act of inclusion is that this produces a “curio cabinet” dynamic in which leaders assess their success in diversity initiatives by pointing to all of the individuals in their commands from historically marginalized groups. Instead of assessing whether or not there is a culture of inclusion, they can claim that they are “good” on diversity because they hired the first female or picked up an overlooked black officer for command. But objectifying people by labeling them as “diverse” is its own form of exclusion. It can add insult to injury by reinscribing the power dynamics that conversations about diversity are meant to overcome. Rather than humanizing airmen of color and other minorities, this approach can create a dynamic in which minorities are seen, but never really heard — where they feel used by a power structure seeking to legitimate itself, rather than acknowledged and included.
People sometimes justify separating the goal of diversity from the value of inclusion by arguing that culture is too difficult to change from the top down. They say that leaders cannot simply tell people to be inclusive because it is the right thing to do. That, they claim, will alienate the white, male majority, who are more persuaded by arguments about what diversity can do for them as leaders than what it can do for their airmen. Moreover, I’ve heard white, male officers go on to argue that when resources are scarce it is not fair to the rest of the people in a squadron or a unit if a leader has to spend so much time getting one minority officer from an underprivileged background up to speed. Rather than seeing the problem as located in a culture of exclusion, or recognizing that black airmen face challenges that their white mentors may not even perceive, much less know how to handle well themselves, these officers view the issue through a lens that is itself colored by their own assumptions about minorities. They view minorities as needing to “catch up” rather than understanding and sympathizing with the fact that minorities face challenges that are different from those of their white, male colleagues. This is the flip side of justifying diversity on the basis of what leaders can leverage for a warfighting advantage. The commitment to diversity only lasts as long as it, and the “diverse” individuals in question, are viewed as an asset rather than an inconvenience.
Those who think that you can, and should, talk about diversity as separate from inclusion are out of step with their Air Force leadership. In August, Gen. C. Q. Brown became the nation’s first black service chief when he succeeded Goldfein. Brown’s approach is anchored in the American values that he has sworn his adult life to uphold. “I’m thinking about the protests in the country ‘tis of thee sweet land of liberty.” Brown tells viewers in a video from last June. “The equality expressed in our Declaration of Independence and our Constitution that I have sworn my adult life to protect and defend. I’m thinking about a history of racial issues and my own experiences that didn’t always sing of liberty and equality.”
The anecdotes that Brown shares highlight the same theme of seeking a sense of belonging and inclusion that arises in the conversations with other black airmen. He talks about his own experience of success as being accompanied by a sense of dislocation, a life lived between two worlds, never fully fitting into either his black community or his white community. He reports having his status as a pilot questioned despite wearing the same pilot wings as his peers, but also having his blackness questioned by other African-American officers because he spent too much time with his (white) squadron. What Brown describes is a lived experience fundamentally different from his white colleagues. It is an experience of having challenges unique to his identity as a black airman, an experience of learning how to code-switch and move between worlds while never fully feeling as if he belonged in either.
The direction coming out of the new chief of staff’s office is not only focused on inclusion, but also adds the theme of belonging. His goal is to change the culture long-term. Key and important, Brown emphasized in a recent address, “is developing and permitting sustainable diversity, inclusion, belonging programs across everything we do for Airmen and families. This cannot be a flash in the pan. It can’t be something that fades away after a couple years. It’s something we’ve got to sustain for the long haul.”
It has been more than 70 years since President Harry S. Truman signed an executive order desegregating the U.S. military. As much as things have changed, they have stayed the same. Yet, there is something that feels different and hopeful about this moment. The Air Force has responded at multiple levels by creating forums for talking about race and diversity, but there is a lot of work yet to be done. Starting with listening as an act of inclusion gives every airman an experience of belonging. When you ask an airman whose Air Force it is, their answer should not be “my Air Force” or “their Air Force,” but “our Air Force.” America’s Air Force.
Anne I. Harrington, Ph.D., is an associate professor at Cardiff University and a military spouse. She previously worked for the U.S. Congress as an American Political Science Association Congressional Fellow, first as a National Security Fellow in the office of Sen. Kirstin Gillibrand and then at the Congressional Research Service. Her publications have appeared in, among other places, The New York Times, The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, Foreign Policy, and Task & Purpose.