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.