August 03, 2020

Black Airmen Speak Out

Lt. Gen. Anthony J. Cotton is tired of being tired. Cotton, the first Black three-star deputy commander of Air Force Global Strike Command, has seen police lights ash in his rearview mirror, has needed to convince people he was a wing commander, and has been told
not to park in his own spot among spaces reserved for base leadership.

He has explained to others, over and over, what it’s like to be Black in America. He wants people to listen. He wants them to get uncomfortable. He wants them to act.

“Here I am as a lieutenant general in the United States Air Force, but … I have a common bond,” he says. “When I see what happened to Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Rayshard Brooks—and the list goes on and on—it’s visceral to me,” he said, running through the recent history of Black Americans killed. “That could be my son. That could be my daughter. That could be me.”

As civil unrest swept the nation following the death of George Floyd in May, a Black man who died after a Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes during an attempted arrest, Black Airmen are wrestling with their own reality in an Air Force that still suffers from its own racial blind spots and systemic discrimination.

A dozen Black Airmen—including current and former officers, enlisted members, and civilians—shared their experience with Air Force Magazine in June, describing how race has influenced their lives and careers, and how the Air Force still needs to evolve.

Being Black in the Air Force, they said, can mean straddling the line between being respected and suspected. They described constantly moderating themselves to meet the expectations of others, and embracing the nation’s needs—despite feeling uncertain the nation they protect embraces them in return.

While some praised understanding and diverse leaders throughout their careers, others said they struggled to find a place among unwelcoming colleagues and commanders. They could feel included at work but face racial slurs and suspicion from their communities and neighbors. Some said they never felt passed over for promotion or otherwise slighted by the Air Force bureaucracy, but most pointed to racist comments, insensitive jokes, and other forms of discrimination as far back as their earliest days in Basic Military Training.

The Airmen interviewed joined the service because they wanted a meaningful job or they grew up in a military family. Some sought educational benefits or travel opportunities. For Master Sgt. Cederic Hill, a space operator at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., it was a chance for change he couldn’t get at home.