Just before Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr. was confirmed as Air Force chief of staff in June, he issued an emotional and personal video message about racism in the military. At the time, the country was roiling in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd, and Brown, who is Black, felt compelled to speak out.
On NPR's Morning Edition, he explains why. "It was my own personal experiences but thinking about our two sons and their experiences, [is] actually what got me to do it," Brown says. He was the commander of Pacific Air Forces at the time and was awaiting confirmation as the Air Force's chief of staff.
"I thought it was more important than in some cases confirmation," he says. "If confirmation had been withheld for some reason, I knew in my heart of hearts I did what I thought was the right thing to do. And that's the way I approach life."
Brown made history as the first African American to lead one of the services of the U.S. military. Ret. Gen. Lloyd Austin — President-elect Joe Biden's pick for Secretary of Defense – would also make history if confirmed as the first African American to lead the Pentagon.
Why did you decide to release the video message?
At the time I did that video I was awaiting confirmation. Because of that I was kind of on the fence about what to do, what to say and when to say. I had gotten told that confirmation was going to happen on a particular day, it didn't happen.
I talked to one of our sons. He went to Washington University in St. Louis. His freshman year was Ferguson, and so he experienced that. He lives here in Washington, D.C., and he called us and he was kind of struggling with the things that were going on. And so he asked me in the conversation, 'Hey, Dad, what is Pacific Air Forces going to say?' And as the commander of Pacific Air Forces, that was kind of code to me of: Dad, what are you going to say?
You are now the highest ranking African American in the U.S. military. There are more than 12,000 active duty pilots in the Air Force, according to McClatchy News Service. Only about a dozen are Black women. Do you see that as a problem?
I do. You only aspire to what you've been exposed to. Sometimes we might self-eliminate just because we don't think we're qualified. One of the areas that we as the Air Force are looking at is how do we provide more exposure to young African Americans, women really across the board, that yes, you can do this.
If confirmed, Gen. Austin will join you in making history this year. What will it mean to you and your servicemen to see him sworn into that job?
I think for anyone of a diverse background, when you see someone who rises to a key position you take a bit of pride in it, you appreciate it and it also opens an opportunity where you can now think about your own career path. There's opportunities ahead. I think many of those from diverse backgrounds will be very proud to see that someone from a diverse background is in a key position in our government.
What do you believe to be the greatest threat against the United States right now?
I would say in the near term, when you look at national defense strategy, Russia. Longer term, China. That's why I am focused on not only the near term but I also look at the longer term. The one thing I am concerned about as the chief of staff is our ability to get capabilities in the hands of the airmen and our joint teammates faster. What I see the People's Republic of China doing is they're increasingly their military capability at a pace that is probably a little faster than ours.
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
If retired General Lloyd Austin is confirmed as the next secretary of defense, he'll be the first African American to hold that position. His nomination comes as the U.S. military, like much of the rest of the country, is grappling with issues of race after the killing of George Floyd and the protests that followed - which brings us to another general, Charles Q. Brown. Over the summer, he became the first African American to lead a branch of the U.S. military. He is the chief of staff for the Air Force. As his confirmation hung in the balance, General Brown chose to speak out about George Floyd's death, even if it cost him his promotion. Here's an excerpt from that video message released in July, when he was still Pacific Air Forces commander.
(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)
CHARLES Q BROWN JR: I'm thinking about how full I am with emotion, not just for George Floyd but the many African Americans that have suffered the same fate as George Floyd. I'm thinking about protests in my country, 'tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, the equality expressed in our Declaration of Independence and the Constitution that I've sworn my adult life to support and defend. And thinking about a history of racial issues and my own experiences that didn't always sing of liberty and equality.
MARTIN: I asked General Brown why he needed to deliver that message.
BROWN: I talked to one of our sons, who was - he went to Washington University in St. Louis. And so his freshman year was Ferguson, and so he experienced that. And then he lives here in Washington, D.C., and he called us. And he was - he was kind of struggling with things that were going on. And so he asked me in the conversation, hey, Dad, what is Pacific Air Forces going to say? And as the commander of Pacific Air Forces, that was kind of code to me of Dad, what are you going to say?
And so on Tuesday, when I - the confirmation didn't come through, I was committed then to just go ahead and do the video. And so it was, you know, my own personal experiences but, you know, thinking about our two sons and their experiences. And so that actually was what got me to do it.
MARTIN: Did you tell your superiors?
BROWN: No (laughter). And I felt like, you know - I got to a point where, because of talking to my son, I thought it was the right thing to do.
MARTIN: You are now the highest-ranking African American in the U.S. military. How do you use that position to make it so the younger version of yourself isn't the only one in the room? How do you increase opportunities for airmen and women of color?
BROWN: Rachel, I think it's about being a role model. It's about how I carry myself on a day-to-day basis so that those that are more junior to me can look up and see somebody they want to aspire to be like ideally.
MARTIN: So what actions will be necessary? I mean, it's one thing to be an example, to be a role model. And that's important. But what changes, what policy changes do you think need to be made? I mean, as I understand it, there was an inspector general report looking into how racism could affect promotions in the Air Force. And hundreds of thousands of airmen and women were also surveyed about diversity issues. What actions do those results point to?
BROWN: The data actually shows that, you know, there are areas where, based on what career fields airmen go into, may either help or hurt their opportunity to rise to more senior ranks. And so it's how we pay attention to recruiting and placing airmen of diverse backgrounds in specific career fields. It's also looking at some of the requirements we have a career fields, to understand, do they have some type of barrier that we've not paid attention to because that's the way it's always been?
The other thing we're also looking to do is, how do we work and closely manage those of a diverse backgrounds? And what I mean by that is, just really take a look at the opportunities to prepare them for those positions, to consider them for positions and not make it just a situation we hope it all works out. But it takes purposeful leadership and engagement to ensure that we are actually bringing the best for all of our airmen.
MARTIN: There are more than 12,000 active-duty pilots in the Air Force, according to data compiled by McClatchy News Service. Only about a dozen of them are Black women. Do you see that as a problem?
BROWN: I do. You only aspire to what you've been exposed to. You know, sometimes we might self-eliminate just because we don't think we're qualified. So one of the areas that we as an Air Force are looking at is, how do we provide more exposure to young African Americans, women really across the board, that, yes, you can do this. And here's what it takes to get there. I often say is, we all need to ask what we want to be able to do. The worst the Air Force can do is tell you no. But if you don't ask, we can't say yes. And so we want to put those that want to be part of our Air Force in a position where we can say yes.
MARTIN: Let me ask you about this current moment in our political history in this country. The transition between one administration and another is actually critical to the national security. Are you convinced that the current civilian leadership at the Pentagon is committed to a smooth and responsible transfer of power?
BROWN: I think we're all working to a smooth transition of power, both civilian and military. And the - you know, our job is to maintain our national security and no matter who - which administration or commander in chief we have. And that's my job as a service chief, as a joint chief. And our goal is to make sure that we don't a - any type of security incident in a peaceful transition of power like we've done throughout our history.
MARTIN: Do you have any concerns that there would be? I mean, is it going to plan right now, the transition, from your perspective?
BROWN: I think our national security is in - is not being threatened right now. But realize that - also, that we don't always - we have one side of the boat. And the other side of the boat is our adversaries. And that's something as a service chief and the Joint Chiefs, I pay close attention to with the other Joint Chiefs to ensure that we have a good sense of what's going on around the world, as well.
MARTIN: Let me ask about the man who could become the next secretary of defense, retired Army General Lloyd Austin. I assume you've come across one another once or twice. What's he like as a leader?
BROWN: He's a strong leader. I think he's decisive. I mean, I enjoyed working for him. And he listens, which I think is an important aspect as a leader. And he's willing to take input from those around him.
MARTIN: If confirmed, General Austin will join you in making history this year by becoming the first African American to lead the Department of Defense. What will it mean to you and your servicemen to see him sworn into that job?
BROWN: Well, I think for anyone of a diverse background, when you see someone who rises to a key position, you take a bit of pride in it. You appreciate it. And it also opens an opportunity that - where you can now think about your own career path, that there's opportunities ahead.
MARTIN: Chief of Staff of the Air Force General Charles Brown Jr. Thank you so much for taking the time, General. We appreciate it.
BROWN: Thanks, Rachel.
(SOUNDBITE OF SENSE'S "TASTE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.