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A Turning Point: National events spur Reserve to take a closer look at race relations, diversity, inclusion

  • Published
  • By Bo Joyner

The spring and summer of 2020 will long be remembered as a tumultuous and pivotal time in our nation’s history – a time of civil unrest, protests and demonstrations. The deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and other African Americans inspired thousands to take to the streets to demand an end to racial profiling, discrimination and injustice.

African Americans who have long felt they were unfairly targeted by police officers were joined by people of all kinds and colors demanding immediate change. The social unrest sparked countless conversations around the world about equality, race relations, diversity and inclusion. It also sparked an awakening within the Air Force and Air Force Reserve as senior leaders called for all Airmen to take an introspective look at where they stand on diversity, inclusion and equal treatment, and what they can do to improve race relations within the ranks.

“Our society is imperfect, but each of us can make positive changes within our spheres of influence,” Lt. Gen. Richard Scobee, chief of the Air Force Reserve and commander of Air Force Reserve Command, and Chief Master Sgt. Timothy White, Scobee’s senior enlisted advisor and AFRC command chief master sergeant, said in a recent message to all members of the Reserve team.

“The command chief and I have taken steps every day of our careers to foster an environment where every Reserve Citizen Airman is treated fairly, is valued, and feels their contributions are valued regardless of race, ethnicity, gender or orientation…and we will not stop. But there is more we all can do," Scobee said.

“Chief White and I have already begun exploring ways we can engender a more equitable environment within the Air Force Reserve. We encourage you to begin by taking this opportunity to have those tough conversations about our values and treating everyone with decency, respect and equality, especially with regard to race. Often times it is hard to have these discussions, yet respectful and apolitical conversations have served as a catalyst for change and are the bedrock this country will survive on. It shows you care.”

Lee Floyd, AFRC’s Diversity and Inclusion officer, has been a part of hundreds of these conversations over the years, and he knows they can sometimes be difficult.

“It’s not easy to sit down with people who don’t look like you do and don’t have the same background as you and really open up and share your feelings, your biases and your prejudices,” Floyd said. “But it’s critical that we have these conversations if we are going to get to a point where we truly embrace diversity, treat everyone equally and celebrate the differences that everybody brings to the table.”

If you look strictly at the numbers, the Air Force Reserve does pretty well in the area of diversity. Floyd’s latest numbers show that the Air Force Reserve is about 69% white, 17% black, 11% Hispanic, 4% Asian, 1% Alaskan Native/American Indian and 1% Native Hawaiian/ Pacific Islander. Hispanic is considered an ethnicity, not a racial category, that is registered separately and in addition to the other racial categories. In addition, about 8% of Reservists decline to provide information about their racial or ethnic heritage. About 72% of the Reserve population is male and 28% is female.

When looking at diversity by the numbers, Floyd said AFRC compares favorably to both the Air Force and the Department of Defense.

"But numbers are a tricky thing," he said. "What we are hoping to do is establish a highly effective, efficient and harmoniously diverse work force where everyone is treated fairly based solely on merit, fitness and capability. And you can't do that by simply tracking numbers. The Air Force Reserve is diverse. What we need to work on is the inclusion piece of the puzzle and making sure we include everyone, give everyone the same opportunities and don’t discount what somebody else brings to the fight just because they don’t share your same viewpoints.”

Scobee has repeatedly touted the Reserve’s diversity over the years and said he thinks diversity is one of the Reserve’s greatest strengths.

“The Air Force Reserve is an amazingly diverse organization,” he said. “And, by far, the most diverse aspect of our command is our people. By seeking diversity and respecting individuals with different backgrounds and different perspectives, we are stronger and more effective. Ultimately, our diversity enhances our ability to generate combat power for America.”

Air Force and Reserve senior leaders were quick to speak forcefully about the issue of racial equality following George Floyd’s death in late May.

Then-Chief Master Sgt. of the Air Force Kaleth Wright posted a lengthy message about his experiences as a Black enlisted leader and declared, “I am George Floyd.”

Then-Chief of Staff David Goldfein denounced Floyd’s death during an encounter with Minneapolis police, calling it a national tragedy. Goldfein and Wright then held a virtual town hall online to talk about racial issues in the Air Force.

“This is not a Minneapolis issue, this is an Air Force issue,” Goldfein said. “What goes on in the streets of America, we know is going on to a certain extent in the Air Force.”

White, AFRC’s command chief and a police officer in his home state of California, was one of many police officers who spoke out strongly following Floyd’s death.

“I stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the vast majority of my law enforcement brothers and sisters in blue, of all races, who are equally outraged over this and other incidents where the oath we took to serve and protect was not honored,” he said. “These officers and incidents do not represent us; they disgust us, they dishonor us, they disgrace us.”

Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr., who will become the new Air Force chief of staff in August, posted an emotional video in which he talked about the challenges of being a Black man. He will be the first Black man in U.S. history to serve as chief of staff of a military service.

One of Brown’s first actions was to select Chief Master Sgt. JoAnne Bass as the 19th chief master sergeant of the Air Force. She will be the first woman in history to serve as the highest ranking noncommissioned member of a U.S. military service.

As a result of what has been happening around the country over the past few months, the Air Force has initiated an immediate and comprehensive review of racial disparity within the service.

 The review will be conducted in two phases. Phase one will assess African American racial disparity in uniformed military discipline processes. Phase two will focus on African American racial disparity in leader development systems, including enlisted, civilians and officers.

“We recognize other disparities exist, and these should be reviewed as well,” an Air Force News Service story said in announcing the review. “However, for this immediate effort to be effective and result in lasting and meaningful change, it must be narrowly targeted. The efforts that will be undertaken upon the completion of this review will not be exclusive to a single minority group. We’re confident the lessons we’ll learn and recommendations we’ll provide will benefit all of our Airmen and Space Professionals.”

The Air Force Inspector General team has already begun to gather information contained in a wide array of previous reports, studies and various databases across the Department of the Air Force. Although the data is helpful, the most important information will come directly from Airmen and Space Professionals.

“It is critical that we hear from you because you are a central part of the solution,” the news release said. “We want to make sure our Air and Space Professionals are able to share their experiences and concerns, and we want to empower them to be a part of the solution. Their voices will be heard and captured for the record. We have a tremendous opportunity here, and we will not waste it.”

Enlisted, civilian and officer Airmen and Space professionals across the services are being asked to take an anonymous email survey facilitated by the Air Force Survey Office. This survey will allow all enlisted, civilian and officer members to voluntarily and anonymously share their experiences and thoughts on potential solutions.

Col. Eltressa Spencer, the director of AFRC’s Commander’s Action Group, is one of two AFRC representatives on the Air Force’s racial disparity review team. She raised her hand immediately when the call came out seeking volunteers to serve on the team.

“It was a no-brainer,” she said. “This is an extremely important topic that I am very passionate about and I wanted to be part of the solution. This is an issue that will take some time to solve, understanding we did not get here overnight. This problem is a result of generations of societal injustice and mistreatment of African Americans. I have had many opportunities to progress in my career, and feel very fortunate to have made it to the rank of colonel, especially considering I am prior enlisted. I do realize however, that everyone, particularly other people of color, are not afforded the same opportunities that I have had. We must get to the point that every Airman has the opportunity to grow in the military to their fullest potential, be treated fairly, and of course feel valued.”

Senior Master Sgt. Kenya Jackson, the aircraft armaments functional manager in AFRC's Logistics, Engineering and Force Protection Directorate, is the command's other representative.

She, too, was quick to volunteer when she heard about the Air Force team.

"People talk about change all the time, but I truly want to be part of the change," she said. "Growing up in southern California, I grew up in a true melting pot where there were people from all different races, cultures and backgrounds. In my middle school, there were probably 40 different languages spoken. I'm not saying everybody always got along, but I don't remember anybody having a problem with somebody else just because of the color of their skin. I can't say the same thing about our Air Force. I never truly experienced racism until I joined the military."

Jackson said she is optimistic the Air Force's new racial disparity review team can make a difference.

"It's extremely important that we address this situation now," she said. "I'm honored to have the opportunity to serve on the team and try to make a difference."

As AFRC and the Air Force embark on this renewed effort to ensure equality and promote diversity and inclusion, Scobee encouraged all members of the Reserve team to practice tolerance and embrace diversity.

“Our diversity is our strength,” he said. “Our individual, unique perspectives make us an effective team. What binds our team together is greater than what separates us. I encourage you to remain true to our core values – integrity first, service before self and excellence in all we do.” #ReserveReady #ReserveResilient #ReserveReform