The United States Senate on Tuesday confirmed the first African American to be chief of a U.S. military service, as America and its military both wrestle with painful questions about racial justice.
The vote to make Gen. Charles Brown, commander of Pacific Air Forces, the 22nd Air Force chief of staff was 98-0, with Vice President Mike Pence making a rare appearance to preside over the Senate at the historic moment.
While 43 percent of active-duty military personnel are people of colour, Brown is one of only two African Americans among the 41 four-star general officers, The New York Times reported last month.
The committees in Congress that oversee the armed services are likewise overwhelmingly white. Maryland Democratic Rep. Anthony G. Brown is the only black lawmaker on the Armed Services panels in either the House or Senate. And there are no African Americans on either chamber’s defense appropriations panels.
“Our military brings together brave men and women from across this nation to serve, and those leading our service members should reflect the power of this diversity,” Rep. Brown told CQ Roll Call in a statement.
“While minorities are overrepresented in our enlisted personnel, those same groups are severely underrepresented in our officer corps, and even more so among our flag officers. The historic nature of the first African American service chief should not go overlooked. This is a positive step forward for our military and country.”
The only African American military officer to have served previously on the Joint Chiefs of Staff was Colin Powell, who was Joint Chiefs chairman during the administration of George H. W. Bush. But Powell was commander of Army Forces Command prior to being tapped as chairman and never led one of the armed services.
Brown’s confirmation comes during a period of racial turmoil in the United States — and within its military.
Brown himself released a video on June 5 to reveal his personal story of being black in the U.S. armed forces. The video was released just as protests were growing in U.S. cities over the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police.
“I’m thinking about protests in ‘my country ’tis of thee, sweet land of liberty,’ the equality expressed in our Declaration of Independence and the Constitution that I’ve sworn my adult life to defend,” Brown said on the video, his voice cracking with emotion.
“I’m thinking about a history of racial issues and my own experiences that didn’t always sing of liberty and equality.”