"We can do better": Air Force's top enlisted leader speaks out on racial disparity

  • Published
  • By Chief Master of the Sgt. of the Air Force Kaleth Wright
  • Chief Master of the Air Force

[Editor's note: Published as written]

Who am I?

I am a Black man who happens to be the Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force.

I am George Floyd…I am Philando Castile, I am Michael Brown, I am Alton Sterling, I am Tamir Rice. Just like most of the Black Airmen and so many others in our ranks…I am outraged at watching another Black man die on television before our very eyes.

What happens all too often in this country to Black men who are subjected to police brutality that ends in death…could happen to me. As shocking as that may sound to some of you…I hope you realize that racism/discrimination/exclusion does not care much about position, titles or stature….so yes, it could happen to you, or one of your friends, or your Airmen, or your NCOIC, your Flight Chief, your Squadron Commander or even your Wing Commander. This, my friends, is my greatest fear, not that I will be killed by a white police officer (believe me my heart starts racing like most other Black men in America when I see those blue lights behind me)…but that I will wake up to a report that one of our Black Airmen has died at the hands of a white police officer.

As I struggle with the Air Force’s own demons that include the racial disparities in military justice and discipline amongst our youngest Black male Airmen and the clear lack of diversity in our senior officer ranks…I can only look in the mirror for the solution. I, the CMSAF must do better in ensuring every Airmen in our ranks has a fair chance at becoming the best version of themselves. While this is a complicated issue…I, along with every other leader across the force, am responsible for making sure it becomes a reality.

What have I been doing?

Not enough…I have done my share of community service work, been in involved in mentor programs, voted in local, state and national elections, but I’ve come to the conclusion that whatever I have done in the past is just not enough. So, I spent the last week, “plotting, planning, strategizing, organizing and mobilizing” just as Killer Mike, the popular Atlanta rapper and activist encouraged us to do. Twenty-five of my closest friends (White, Black, Asian, enlisted, officer and civilian) and I have an ongoing dialogue where we began by acknowledging our right to be angry about what is happening. We eventually moved beyond the rage and began to think about what’s next? What could or should we be doing as a group and as individuals to stop this from happening in our communities across these United States? We don’t
have all the answers, but we do have some of the most brilliant minds, many, who have first hand experience with this topic and we will continue working towards a solution. While we can’t change the world, we can change the communities we live in and more importantly, those where our Airmen strive to be seen, heard, and treated as human beings.

I have also not done enough as your most senior enlisted leader…while we have made progress in many of the areas that impact our Airmen and families; I believe that we have not made much progress in this area of racial injustice and diversity amongst our ranks. This is why I’m working with General Goldfein first and foremost to have a full and thorough independent review of our military justice system. We will look to uncover where the problem lies, and how we can fix it. We are also working to improve the diversity of our force, especially amongst the senior ranks. I hope this message triggers responses and ideas from each of you on things we can do better.
What should you be doing?

Like me, acknowledge your right to be upset about what’s happening to our nation. But you must then find a way to move beyond the rage and do what you think is right for the country, for your community, for your sons, daughters, friends and colleagues…for every Black man in this country who could end up like George Floyd. Part of my group’s solution involves helping to bridge the communication and understanding gap between law enforcement and young Black men. You decide what works best for
you, where you can have the most meaningful impact and most importantly, what you can stay committed to…we didn’t get here overnight so don’t expect things to change tomorrow…we are in this for the long haul. Vote, protest peacefully, reach out to your local and state officials, to your Air Force leadership and become active in your communities…we need all hands on deck. If you don’t do anything else, I encourage everyone to fight, not just for freedom, justice and equality but to fight for understanding. You might think you know what it’s like to grow up, exist, survive and even thrive in this country as a Black person…but let me tell you, regardless of how many Black friends you have, or how Black your neighborhood was, or if your spouse or in-laws are Black…you don’t know.

You don’t know the anxiety, the despair, the heartache, the fear, the rage and the disappointment that comes with living in this country, OUR country every single day. So, take the time to talk to someone – your brand new Airmen, your NCOIC or your Flight Commander - about their experiences so that you have a better understanding of who they are, where they come from and what drives them. Frankly, you owe this to every Airmen, but I’m asking you specifically to pay attention to the Black Airmen in your ranks during this trying time. Don’t misunderstand me, they don’t need, nor do they want any special treatment…but they deserve to be treated fairly and equally, both by our United States Air Force and these United States of America…this begins with you, and I am asking, no fighting, for your understanding.

Like you, I don’t have all of the answers, but I am committed to seeing a better future for this nation. A future where Black men must no longer suffer needlessly at the hands of White police officers, and where Black Airmen have the same chance to succeed as their White counterparts. Trust me, I understand this is a difficult topic to talk about… 

Difficult…not impossible…

Difficult…but necessary.

Who am I…

I am Kaleth. I am a Black Man who happens to be the Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force and I am committed to making this better.