The Senate on Tuesday confirmed an African American man to serve as a service chief in the US military for the first time, marking a historic moment for the armed forces, which seldom see people of color among the top brass.
Vice President Mike Pence presided over the historic 98-0 vote to confirm Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr. to be chief of staff of the Air Force, a vote that came against the backdrop of a nation simmering with anger and sadness over racial injustice following the death of George Floyd and other black Americans at the hands of police.
A few days before his confirmation vote, Brown, who goes by C.Q., released a moving, deeply personal video, in which he said he was “full with emotion” for “the many African Americans that have suffered the same fate as George Floyd.”
“I’m thinking about a history of racial issues and my own experiences that didn’t always sing of liberty,” he said in the video that was posted on Twitter.
He outlined being one of the only African Americans at his school and often being the only African American in his platoon, and later, in leadership.
“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?'” he said.
“I’m thinking about the pressure I felt to perform error-free, especially for supervisors I perceived had expected less of 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,” he said.
The US military has long been known for the lack of diversity among its leadership. According to the Pentagon’s latest figures, 18.7% of enlisted members of the military are black. But only 8.8% of officers are black, compared to 76.1% who are white.
As the country has been grappling with its complicated racial history, so too has the military. All military service chiefs have in recent days issued statements calling for the need to address the issue of race among the ranks amid the protests triggered by Floyd’s death, and the Army is said to be considering renaming nearly a dozen major bases and installations that bear the names of Confederate military commanders.
Amid his nomination to be the first African American chief of staff, Brown said, “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 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,” he said.
After Brown was approved on a voice vote in the Senate Armed Services Committee, his nomination was put on “hold” by Republican Sen. Dan Sullivan of Alaska who wanted assurances Brown would support basing the KC-46 tanker in his state.
Sullivan’s office did not immediately respond to requests for information about the hold or how it was resolved.
Sullivan spoke on the Senate floor Tuesday, praising Brown’s qualifications for the job and said he did not realize until recently the historic nature of Brown’s nomination.
“I think that’s very important right now,” said Sullivan, who encouraged people to watch Brown’s video.
“Particularly as our country is roiling over the killing of George Floyd and the protests that are taking place peacefully now — which is great — to demand justice for him and his family.”