By Col. Brian A. Hill, 92nd Air Refueling Wing vice commander
/ Published March 02, 2015
FAIRCHILD AIR FORCE BASE, Wash. -- Before Brown v. Board of Education declared school segregation illegal in 1954; before the Civil Rights Act of 1964 eradicated lawful discrimination in public accommodations; and before the Voting Rights Act of 1965 doubled down on the Constitution's 15th Amendment by guaranteeing no one would be denied the right to vote based on race, the U.S. military was our nation's leading example on how to do the right thing for the right reasons when it came to race relations.
In 1915, few Americans would have predicted any of the racial milestones achieved after World War II. Industrialization and urbanization ignited hostility among white Americans towards racial integration as the paths of employment and social interaction across white and black communities began to converge.
Seizing an opportunity to advance its racist agenda, the Ku Klux Klan was resurgent in 1917 as 370,000 African-Americans served in America's four-million-member segregated Army in WWI. Unfortunately, the prevailing attitude across the country was that blacks were inferior in tangible (mental and physical) and intangible (moral and spiritual) ways to whites.
War Department studies analyzed physical, mental, moral, and psychological qualities of black Americans which reinforced racist attitudes in the civilian world. Shared attitudes between military and civilian leaders in the United States put racial relations at what many historians consider their lowest: blacks were firmly entrenched 'in their places' with no impetus in circles of power to change.
However, military necessity eventually helped drive epic shifts in America's racial landscape as segregation proved inefficient in conducting military operations. The world wars reset the diplomatic, military and economic global order and also served as catalysts for America's flight to equality and justice.
Following victory overseas in WWII, President Harry S. Truman leveraged the armed forces to focus the nation's attention on America's landmark 20th century domestic policy issue - civil rights. In October 1947, a little more than one month after the Air Force was created, President Truman's Committee on Civil Rights condemned segregation "wherever it exists ... specifically segregation in the armed forces." Additionally, the report recommended action "to end immediately all discrimination and segregation based on race, color, creed or national origin in ... all branches of the Armed Services."
While many leaders inside and outside the national military establishment criticized the recommendations as a foray into social experimentation with the armed forces, it is clear the committee's research correctly identified the military's segregation policies as detriments to readiness which weakened combat effectiveness. In July 1948, President Truman signed Executive Order 9981 stating, "...there shall be equality of treatment and opportunity for all persons in the armed services without regard to race, color, religion, or national origin."
It is amazing to think that the events recounted above occurred before more than 95% of our active duty service members were born! In my 23-plus years on active duty, whether leading a flight, deployment, squadron, or joint organization, conversations with Airmen, Soldiers, Sailors, Marines and Coast Guardsmen of all ranks centered on capability, mission readiness and ways to get better at what we do and how we do it as opposed to who was or was not qualified to serve based on gender, race, and sexual orientation. Progress over the last 67 years in removing barriers to service and implementing a culture that values inclusion across career specialties, while commendable, should not lead us to conclude that diversity and equal access to opportunities are foregone conclusions in 2015.
Leaders in and out of uniform call for Americas' military to resemble the population it serves. Demographic data illustrates the need to increase African-American representation in the officer corps. U.S. Census Bureau estimates in 2013 showed blacks comprised 14 percent of the population. In 2012, the DOD reported 16.4 percent of the USAF enlisted corps as African-American, but only 5.9 percent of the officer corps. Furthermore, African Americans have yet to reach 4 percent as a historical percentage of total USAF pilots.
African American Airmen are essential to mission effectiveness across the spectrum of Air Force operations, enriching the legacy of what is undoubtedly the DOD's best educated and most capable enlisted force. The issue lies in numbers of black Air Force officers - more than eight points below the U.S. population percentage. In real numbers, this means that if the officer corps more closely resembled the U.S. population we would have approximately 5,000 more African Americans in our 65,000-plus member officer corps.
The shortage of qualified candidates for Air Force commissions is alarming. In 2013, 17 percent of African American men over the age of 25 held bachelor's degrees compared to 30 percent for all men in America. Education shortfalls in the black community negatively impact the abilities of candidates to compete for these slots.
First Lady Michelle Obama recently called education "the civil rights issue of the 21st century," and current data substantiate her claim. Attending school must be a priority for all students; however, that is not the case in all communities. In regards to Air Force officer accessions, making post-secondary education a priority for high school graduates can be a force multiplier for increasing the pool of qualified African American officer candidates.
Diversity and inclusion are cornerstone principles of Air Force culture. According to the USAF Diversity Strategic Roadmap, every Airman has a role to play. It states, "All personnel should understand the importance of diversity, including mutual respect, thereby helping to promote and strengthen an Air Force culture that values inclusion throughout the total force and views diversity throughout the workforce as a force multiplier in accomplishing the Air Force mission."
Incorporating this guidance into everyday operations may seem like a difficult task, but it is not. Airmen throughout our ranks should ensure groups, committees, and other teams include personnel with diverse points of view and problem solving approaches. One example of this was February's successful Black History Month celebration of "A Century of Black Life, History, and Culture" at Fairchild AFB led by Black History Month Committee lead, Capt. Jordan Ornelas of the 92nd Air Refueling Squadron.
As volunteers wearing the cloth of our nation, it is instructive to reflect on events of the past 100 years that shaped America's civil rights accomplishments. The U.S. military has been a trailblazer modeling equality and fairness for our nation on this journey.
Education philosopher John Dewey said, "Achievements of the past provide the only means at command for understanding the present."
With this in mind, we should accept our responsibility to shape the next century of American life, history, and culture as leaders for our nation. We can do this by embracing and implementing diversity to facilitate mission success and ultimately safeguard the values of freedom and liberty each of us is sworn to defend. Diversity's reach is broad and applies to all Airmen who appreciate the benefits of operating in this manner to "Fly, Fight, and Win" for our nation.