The Air Force Risks Missing Its Moment to Make Lasting Change for Racial Equity

Pacific Air Chiefs Symposium Honor Cordon on Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii
U.S. Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David L. Goldfein and Gen. CQ Brown, Jr., Pacific Air Forces commander, walk through the 2019 Pacific Air Chiefs Symposium Honor Cordon on Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii, Dec. 5, 2019. (U.S. Air Force photo/Mikaley Kline)

Captain James L. Anderson is an active duty Air Force staff intelligence officer. He is also a NextGen National Security Fellow with the Center for a New American Security. Follow him on Twitter at @JimmyLAnderson

The first African American Air Force Chief of Staff, Gen. Charles "CQ" Brown, recently released a sobering video describing his career as a black man "living in two worlds." The video gave me hope that he understands the issues we face -- and I do remain hopeful.

But my one caution is that short-term fixes are not the solution. We have long-term issues to deal with. We must not forget that our service culture gives us a competitive advantage when it comes to making lasting change for racial equity. And I say equity rather than equality: racial equality in its ideal type provides equal opportunities to people of all races, defined by equal treatment under the law, but it fails to evaluate the structures that influence outcomes for people of color.

Small groups within Air Force Squadrons and Commands are having open conversations on police brutality, racial inequity and discrimination. A white female airman chimed in during one of my recent group sessions with a profound thought: that "the Air Force should engage diversity the way we approach innovation."

When it comes to the F-35 program, pilot retention or "open architecture," the long-term plan is a priority for the Air Force. Service leaders are quick to place current discussions in the context of what the future might hold.

But on diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI), the Air Force's strategy is unclear. To be fair, senior U.S. Air Force leaders have shown solidarity, but we need an enduring strategy to address issues that impact airmen of color.

Examining the Air Force's racial disparities within the military justice system is a good first step. But moves like the decision to extend shaving waivers to make grooming policies more equitable for Black airmen, although positive, do not bring about long-term change. Surveys may capture the racial experiences of our airmen, but our airmen also need to be a part of the solution.

The Air Force has a window of opportunity to influence the Pentagon's approach to diversity, equity and inclusion in the Armed Services. We cannot let it pass us by. Our service culture is the best weapon to combat anti-black racism in the military, and inequities in both the justice and promotion systems.

A Storied History

Historically, changes in societal norms involving race have led to reform in the armed services. We see this play out from the service of the legendary Tuskegee Airmen and the brutal assault of Isaac Woodard that led to the desegregation of the armed forces, to Thurgood Marshall's review of 32 courts-martial of Black soldiers during the Korean war and the Vietnam protests that led to the creation of the Pentagon's Equal Opportunity office structure.

The murder of George Floyd can spur our generation's change towards racial equity in the Pentagon.

Change starts with our service culture. Air Force service culture focuses on the following: education, technology, strategic analysis and "people first." We are driven by technological innovation, grassroots ideas and a slight ambivalence to military doctrine. And we have a strong relationship with the private sector.

But how can Air Force service culture reform the infrastructure of diversity, equity and inclusion?

The current diversity and inclusion effort is an "orphan" mission in the Pentagon. We can rebrand and rebuild the DEI effort in these ways.

Strategic Communications

The Air Force's diversity and inclusion statement is outdated. A top-down directive from Air Force leadership that provides guidance to subordinate units on what's currently happening and what the future holds is necessary. Air Force leadership (SECAF and CSAF) should adopt a model similar to that used by the Obama Administration to address the lack of diversity in the national security workforce.

I am aware that a task force is currently working on diversity and inclusion efforts, but the rest of the force is unaware. We need to use directives, op-eds from senior leaders and public affairs materials to communicate to our airmen that work is underway. Compiling a video recounting the experiences of Black airmen, similar to video that highlighted female pilots, may better illustrate the challenges our airmen face.

Bureaucratic Restructuring

Transition the diversity and inclusion effort from an "orphan mission" with no influence in the Pentagon to a place of influence. A chairperson of diversity, equity and inclusion should report directly to the service secretary. We also need to bring in a private-sector partner to conduct an objective analysis of the racial inequities in the promotion and training systems. Disrupt the Air Force's traditional staff structure. And then create a demographically diverse standing council (enlisted and officer) to act as a watchdog on the Air Force's DEI efforts.

People First

Every professional military education course should devote a significant amount of time to diversity, equity and inclusion. Our future leaders need to understand that more racially diverse teams can lead to greater productivity and more innovative thinking. Airmen should be aware of the invisible labor clause, inclusion tax, unconscious biases, racial conflict management and the overall experiences of Black members. Authors like Dr. Tsedale Melaku should be as recognizable as Clausewitz or Jomini. We need to eliminate the normative "barrier" on race and educate our future leaders.

Lastly, the Air Force should invest significant resources into the Minority Air Force Officers (MAFO) effort that has gained significant traction on social media sites.


Grassroots innovation is what the Air Force does better than the other services. We understand that our airmen source the best ideas. But currently no forum exists for airmen to offer ideas to address the problems we face around DEI issues. Leveraging innovation incubators, such as the AFWERX's Spark Tank, could solve this problem.

Private companies have used virtual reality technology to conduct diversity, equity and inclusion training. We need to use our private sector partners and forums to address DEI through innovation.

Don't Miss the Moment

The Air Force needs to bring its service culture to bear to rebuild and rebrand the diversity, equity and inclusion effort. We are uniquely equipped for this moment.

I am a Black man. I am a father. I am an Air Force Officer. And I cannot help but think, what happens when the fervor dampens and normalcy resumes?

Long after the protests wind down, I want to be able to say the Air Force is making lasting change towards racial equity. If we can do that, the murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Tamir Rice and Philando Castile will not be in vain.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are the views of the author alone. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Air Force, the Department of Defense, or any other entity within the U.S. Government; and the author is not authorized to provide any official position of these entities.

-- The opinions expressed in this op-ed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of If you would like to submit your own commentary, please send your article to for consideration.

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