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Air Force’s top black general offers emotional take on racial unrest over Floyd killing

By WYATT OLSON | STARS AND STRIPES Published: June 5, 2020

FORT SHAFTER, Hawaii — The general nominated to become the Air Force’s first African American chief of staff weighed in on the racial unrest roiling the country in a poignant video describing his personal and professional experiences navigating the “two worlds” of black and white lives.

“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 current events surrounding the tragic death of George Floyd,” Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr. said in the opening moments of the 5-minute video posted to Facebook on Friday.

“I’m thinking about living in two worlds, each with their own perspective and views,” he said of the divide many African Americans feel during lives and careers spent encountering — and often accommodating — the worldview of white America.

Other high-ranking U.S. military officials issued statements and videos earlier this week on protests and riots sparked by Floyd’s death on May 25. The 46-year-old African American died as a Minneapolis police officer pressed his knee into his neck for nearly 9 minutes while he was handcuffed and lying on the pavement.

Chief Master Sgt. of the Air Force Kaleth O. Wright, who is also African American, expressed solidarity with protesters Monday by saying, “I am George Floyd.” He and Gen. David Goldfein, the sitting chief of staff, held a virtual town hall on Wednesday discussing the matter.

Brown — in a speech that at times seemed to barely contain his rage — said he was filled with emotion “not just for George Floyd, but for the many African Americans who have suffered the same fate as George Floyd.”

He noted that the ideals of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution “that I’ve sworn my adult life to support and defend” have not always delivered “liberty and equality” to all.

He and his sister were the only African Americans in their elementary school, where they tried their best to fit in, Brown said. Roughly half the students in his high school were African American, but the sense of trying to fit in remained.

In the Air Force, he was often the only African American in his squadron and, as a senior officer, “the only African American in the room,” he said.

“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 some of the incidents and comments made without awareness by others,” he said. “I’m thinking about being a captain at the [officers] 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.”

His nomination to the Joint Chiefs of Staff has brought to him both a feeling of hope and burden, Brown said.

“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,” he said. “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.”

Brown said he does not have “clear-cut answers” for creating such an environment across the Air Force.

“I just want to have the wisdom and knowledge to lead during difficult times like these,” he said. “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 make our Air Force better.”

olson.wyatt@stripes.com
Twitter: @WyattWOlson

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