The U.S. Air Force should lead the military in building a more diverse service branch or risk losing the opportunity to create meaningful change for its current and prospective airmen, according to the service's top general.
Speaking to audiences via a video conference hosted by the Brookings Institution Wednesday, Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein said if the chance to make things right for all airmen -- such as targeting disparities in the justice system and addressing other structural inequities -- falls by the wayside, it will unequivocally be the Air Force's fault, reminiscent of mistakes made in the past in abandoning reform.
"If we follow history, we'll get a few things going, and then September will arrive and [coronavirus] will return and flu season will start and hurricane season will hit ... and wildfires will begin, and the election will go into high gear -- and we will get distracted," said Goldfein, who will retire on Aug. 6.
"Shame on us if we let that happen," Goldfein said.
Goldfein's enlisted counterpart, Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force Kaleth O. Wright, initiated the call for change and improvement in the service last month as the first member of senior military leadership to speak out publicly following the May 25 death of George Floyd, a black man, at the hands of Minneapolis police officers.
The chief said that the "brutal killing" of Floyd created an opportunity for the Air Force to take significant reforms off the back burner.
"What broke loose is an opportunity for us to make long term, meaningful and lasting change that quite frankly, we should have been doing before -- and I take that completely on me," Goldfein said. "I think we have the opportunity in front of us right now to put on the gas and really move forward in ways that we need to move."
National protests over racial injustice have prompted U.S. military branches to take steps to eliminate racially offensive symbolism, such as the Confederate flag, and begin conversations about renaming bases names for Confederate leaders. The Marine Corps and Navy have already moved to ban the flag from their installations, but the Army and Air Force have yet to follow suit.
Goldfein was not asked about a potential flag ban on Wednesday.
Last month, the Air Force Inspector General launched an independent review into the service's history of disparity in military punishment and developmental opportunities given to African American service members.
The ongoing investigation follows a study from advocacy organization Protect Our Defenders that found that black airmen in junior enlisted ranks are twice as likely to receive discipline as those from other demographics. In their latest 2020 report, which used information obtained through a federal lawsuit, Protect Our Defenders accused the Air Force of trying to conceal materials that show the service has not taken any critical steps to solve the problem over the last three years, and revealed additional data about where issues remain.
An initial IG report on disproportionate disciplinary actions -- which will be composed from surveys given to airmen -- is expected as early as this month, according to Air Force Times.
But the initiative must be broader, Goldfein said, and include recruiting efforts that make all feel welcome while aligning with the Air Force's core missions. He gave the example of a jobs fair in which young people get in line to talk to prospective companies, services or schools that interest them.
"I've got to be a service where the first person in line [at the Air Force table] is a young woman, and she wants to be a pilot who always dreamed of flying," the general said. "Our culture has got to embrace her in ways that she feels completely part of this organization."
During his four-year tenure, Goldfein has made inclusivity his priority as the service's top officer, pushing for redesigned uniforms that fit women better, and ordering that the Air Force's fight song be changed to use gender-neutral pronouns.
Goldfein added he has high hopes for incoming chief of staff Gen. Charles "CQ" Brown, who last month was confirmed in a historic Senate vote as the first African American to serve as the top uniformed officer for a military service branch. The Air Force also announced June 19 that the incoming 19th Chief Master Sergeant will be JoAnne Bass, the first woman to serve as the top-ranking enlisted member of a U.S. military branch.
As essential as those advancements are, the work doesn't end, Goldfein said.
"The measures that we put in place that we're working on are long-term, aggressive measures that [aim to] change the demographic to ensure that we are building a culture of inclusiveness at the squadron level -- which is where it matters most," he said.
Goldfein has consistently described the squadron as "the beating heart of the Air Force," and the lowest level of command where airmen should feel comfortable pushing and discussing their ideas that uphold the service's values.
"We ought to be the very best in the world at diversity and we're not. But we can be," he added.
-- Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at @Oriana0214.