Then-Brig. Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr. has his first star pinned on by family members on Sept. 18, 2009, at Aviano Air Base, Italy. Staff Sgt. Patrick Dixon
Photo Caption & Credits

Leveling the Field

July 1, 2020

Black Airmen advance slower at almost every rank, analysis shows.

Tech. Sgt. Miles Starr began her Air Force career with a lofty goal: She wanted to be the service’s first Black, female fire chief. 

It was a chance to embody change. She tried to climb the ladder, looking for teams to lead and programs to run that would make her a prime candidate for promotion. But she hit a common Catch-22: Each time she sought new opportunities to broaden her experience, she was told she needed more experience to earn those opportunities.

Starr endured other problems. In 2007, a white, male supervisor called her “Aunt Jemima” in front of her peers. Some, she said, perceived her as intimidating, or as an “angry Black woman” who was unqualified for higher posts. When she approached a different, white boss seeking classes she could pursue, hoping not to let a year pass without professional growth, he argued she wasn’t ready. He then chose her white, male colleague to attend a class she had wanted to take. 

“I felt like I was constantly bumping up against a wall, while others are able to move freely into positions that would get them to the top,” she told Air Force Magazine.

Eventually, Starr dropped her dream of being a minority face atop the firefighting field and switched careers. She rose to noncommissioned officer in charge of retention at Hill Air Force Base, Utah. 

“In my new career field, I have opportunities for growth and I’ve been placed in those positions, but there are still some people who make it hard,” she said. “There are enough people at my new job that believe in me and what I bring to the table.”

Racial disparities have persisted in the Air Force’s promotion system, even as the Air Force has tried to level the playing field. Over the past decade, white Airmen were promoted up the ranks more often than Airmen who are Black or members of other minority groups, according to Air Force promotion data provided in response to an Air Force Magazine query. 

Leveling the Field
Enlisted and Officer Promotion Rates Dash Parham/staff

Among officers, average promotion rates for majors and colonels are more than 5 percentage points higher for white Airmen than Black officers, and the gap widens to around 10 percentage points for lieutenant colonels. 

For example, on average over the past decade, the Air Force chose 74.2 percent of white officers for promotion to lieutenant colonel, compared to 64.4 percent of Black or African American Airmen. In 2019 alone, 73.3 percent of white officers and 62.4 percent of Black officers who sought promotion to lieutenant colonel were selected: 857 white officers and 53 Black officers.

These numbers describe “in-the-zone,” or on-time, promotions within the “Line of the Air Force” category, comprising about 90 percent of Active-duty officers. The Air Force did away with that category late last year; beginning with this year’s promotion boards, officers will instead compete within six new categories combining similar career fields. 

Staff Sgt. Hailey Haux

I can’t fix centuries of racism in our country, nor can I fix decades of the discrimination that may have impacted members of our Air Force. … I’m thinking about how I can make improvements personally, professionally, and institutionally.

Gen. Charles Brown, incoming USAF Chief of Staff

Trends are similar in the enlisted force. Slightly over half of white enlisted Airmen eligible for promotion to staff sergeant in 2019 were selected, compared to about 40 percent of eligible Black Airmen. As eligibility pools shrink at higher ranks, however, promotion rates appear to even out: 20.6 percent of white Airmen were promoted to chief master sergeant in 2019 compared to 21.5 percent of Black enlisted.

Cause and Effect

Several factors contribute to the racial gap in promotions: access to professional development opportunities, lack of mentorship, biases that affect an Airman’s record and the people promoting them, and less minority representation in careers that are the fastest track to the upper echelons of Air Force leadership.

Lt. Gen. Brian T. Kelly, Air Force deputy chief of staff for manpower, personnel, and services, said that without instituting quotas (which are illegal), the service’s goal is to reach approximately the same promotion rates across all demographic groups. In other words, if about 70 percent of eligible Airmen are selected for promotion, that figure should be roughly the same for every demographic profile. 

“Our promotion boards, both on the officer and enlisted side, we think do a really good job of picking the most deserving Airmen based on the records and based on the information that comes to the promotion board,” Kelly said. “Everything that happens … prior to the promotion board are the things that we concentrate our work on, because those are the things that influence the record that shows up at the board.”

President Harry S. Truman desegregated the armed forces in 1948, nearly two decades before the U.S. enacted its landmark Civil Rights Act in 1964. As of March 2020, Black Air Force personnel made up 15 percent of Active-duty officers and enlisted and about 13 percent of civilian employees. That’s slightly more than the Black or African American population in the U.S., which the U.S. Census Bureau estimates at 13.4 percent.

Seven percent of Americans who are eligible to become Air Force officers are Black, Kelly said, versus 71 percent who are white. In comparison, 6 percent of the USAF officer corps is Black or African American.

Mike Tsukamoto/staff

Our promotion boards, both on the officer and enlisted side, we think do a really good job of picking the most deserving Airmen based on the records and based on the information that comes to the promotion board.

Lt. Gen. Brian Kelly, deputy Air Force chief of staff for manpower, personnel, and services

“You look at it on its face and say, that’s pretty close. But that’s not necessarily the way we like to look at it,” Kelly said. “We ought to be at least 7 percent or better across the entire rank structure. So we might be pretty good at entry level, at lieutenants, but by the time we get to higher rank structures, does it look the same? The simple answer is no.”

For example, Gen. Charles Q. Brown, the only Black four-star Air Force general today, is one of about a dozen four-stars overall. He is also one of 12 Black general officers, the lowest number since at least 2014 and down from 18 in 2018.

Overall, barely 4 percent of the Air Force’s general officers, or those with one to four stars on their shoulders, identify as Black or African American. None are Black women.

One driving factor may be diversity within specific career fields. Pilots have long dominated the service’s leadership. Every chief of staff was a pilot first. Pilot candidates must volunteer; the Air Force does not assign those duties unless candidates first apply. The vast majority of those volunteers are white men. Indeed, fewer than 2 percent of USAF pilots are Black, limiting diversity higher up the ranks. Of those 300 or so Black pilots, less than 20 are women.

Airman 1st Class Ryan Brooks

If we have success … in building a more diverse corps of pilots or any other career field, it will breed more success, because then it won’t be so uncommon to see a person of color or a woman or a Latino.

Lt. Gen. Richard Clark, a bomber pilot and the deputy chief of staff for strategic deterrence and nuclear integration

Lack of exposure is part of the problem. Retired Gen. Larry O. Spencer, a former Air Force Vice Chief of Staff (and a former Air Force Association president) had never set foot in an airport before he flew from his native Washington, D.C., to Texas for Basic Military Training in the early 1970s.

“In my neighborhood … flying an airplane was not on anybody’s radar, not because they didn’t think it was a good thing, or that it would [not] be fun,” he said. “There was nobody there to tell me about it.”

Those hurdles persist in minority communities nationwide. Today, the Air Force offers aviation scholarships to underrepresented communities, reaching young people through the Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps, and pitching air, space, and cyber operations careers at job expos and community events.  The U.S. Air Force Academy now has recruitment goals for each incoming class. In the Class of 2023, 10 percent is African American, up from about 7 percent for the Class of 2020.

Yet the percentage of Black Airmen who choose to become pilots is still small, and Black pilots fight for visibility and acceptance. In his video, Brown, a decorated fighter pilot, recounted “wearing the same flight suit with the same wings on my chest as my peers, and then being questioned by another military member: ‘Are you a pilot?’”

Lt. Gen. Richard M. Clark, a bomber pilot and the deputy chief of staff for strategic deterrence and nuclear integration, said he meets people who are often surprised to see a Black pilot. He tries to turn that into an opportunity for outreach to the next generation.

“I take that opportunity to go, ‘Yeah, do you want to be a pilot?’” Clark said. “If we have success in doing that, in building a more diverse corps of pilots or any other career field, it will breed more success, because then it won’t be so uncommon to see a person of color or a woman or a Latino.”

As long as the Air Force wants pilots to occupy the vast majority of its senior positions, Spencer said, there must be a much greater push to recruit and train minorities and women to fly. Spencer, who was a career finance officer, was one of only four non-pilots to rise to Vice Chief. Building interest in science and technology among minority students earlier in grade school could help, he said, but the service could also do more to woo the families of prospective Airmen to convince them that an Air Force career could be a good choice. He also said that times are changing, and perhaps a future Chief of Staff could hail from a different career path.

Mike Tsukamoto/staff

In my neighborhood … flying an airplane was not on anybody’s radar, not because they didn’t think it was a good thing, or that it would [not] be fun. … There was nobody there to tell me about it.

Retired Gen. Larry Spencer, a former Air Force Vice Chief of Staff (and also the former AFA president)

One recent change could also have an impact on the number of minority officers attaining higher ranks in the Air Force. Last year, the Secretary agreed to eliminate “below-the-zone,” or ahead-of-schedule promotions. Historically, up to 2 percent of officers selected for the next grade have been chosen a year or two ahead of others in the same commissioning year group. Candidates who are promoted from that pool have largely been white, Kelly said. 

The Air Force’s six new promotional categories—air operations and special warfare, space operations, nuclear and missile operations, information warfare, combat support, and force modernization—can also be a boon for diversity. 

Under the old system, everyone was judged by the same standards, such as having combat deployments or building a varied portfolio of experience. But those standards worked better for some career fields than others—such as those where staying in the same program for a long time is valuable—leading to lopsided representation among senior staff. The new categories aim to reward the unique career paths for each field.

“When you’re overrepresented in some [Air Force specialties] and underrepresented in others, it gives you an opportunity to not have to develop in the same ways or be compared in the same ways,” Kelly said.

The Burden of Being First

That it took until 2020 for the Air Force to choose a Black officer as its Chief is a testament to a decades-old, complex set of factors that reflect societal challenges and military concerns, as well as specific issues with the way the Air Force recruits and promotes its officers and enlisted leaders. 

“My nomination provides some hope, but also comes with a heavy burden,” Brown said in a June 5 video. “I can’t fix centuries of racism in our country, nor can I fix decades of the discrimination that may have impacted members of our Air Force. … I’m thinking about how I can make improvements personally, professionally, and institutionally.”

High-ranking Black military leaders are still outliers. Normalizing minority achievement depends on developing a consistently deep and diverse talent base. It’s a problem that frustrates Lt. Gen. Anthony J. Cotton, the No. 2 officer at Air Force Global Strike Command.

Cotton was only the second African American officer to run the 341st Missile Wing at Malmstrom Air Force Base, Mont., and the 45th Space Wing at Patrick Air Force Base, Fla.; he was the first Black officer to serve as deputy director of the National Reconnaissance Office, to command the 20th Air Force, to command Air University, and to be a three-star deputy commander at AFGSC. No African American has held any of those posts since, he said.

“What I tell … folks who I mentor is, are you taking advantage of everything that you can take advantage [of] to get in a place where you can have a seat at the table and be an influencer, as opposed to sitting on the sidelines?” Cotton said. “As you do that, then more opportunities will come.”

Senior Airman Taylor Hunter

‘What I tell … folks who I mentor is, are you taking advantage of everything that you can take advantage [of] to get in a place where you can have a seat at the table and be an influencer, as opposed to sitting on the sidelines?’ Cotton said. ‘As you do that, then more opportunities will come.’

—Lt. Gen. Anthony Cotton, AFGSC deputy commander

For minority Airmen, mentors with similar backgrounds can be especially valuable to help them navigate military life and careers. But that’s not always possible, since there are relatively few non-white Airmen serving in senior leadership roles. Airmen of color can also seek out white mentors who can advise and teach them as they rise through the ranks, and then can pay that knowledge forward by sharing their experiences with other minority Airmen in the future.

Many Airmen said they owe their growth and success to mentors, often remaining in touch and considering them family. But finding a mentor in the same career field can be every bit as important as sharing demographic traits. 

When Antoinette Allen, who retired as a major in 2014, asked her white Army colonel boss to be her mentor, he initially told her he didn’t “see anything I recognize … that compels me to pour [effort] into you.” But he took her on anyway and later offered some of the best career advice she ever got.

“He said, … ‘Coming out of [the equal employment opportunity office], you need to have an operational position,’” Allen said. “‘If you don’t have operational expertise, your name is never going to come into the room when we’re doing succession planning.’ How would I have known that? I was just chasing my passion.”

Kelly pointed to the Air Force’s MyVector program, an online mentor-mentee matchmaking tool, as one way the service is trying to address the shortage of minority mentors. But he acknowledged that such programs aren’t bearing as much fruit as the Air Force would like.

“We certainly emphasize at all levels that it’s a responsibility of leaders to be mentors and coaches to the people around them,” Kelly said. “It may not always be comfortable mentoring somebody who doesn’t come from your background or doesn’t look like you, but it’s really important. And so I’m not yet convinced that we’re getting everything out of our mentoring and coaching that we need to.”

Black Airmen who spoke to Air Force Magazine said they have to fight the stereotypes and expectations they encounter in their majority-white workplaces. 

Tech. Sgt. Myeshia Tucker, an intelligence analyst with the 324th Intelligence Squadron at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii, consciously tried smiling more so her colleagues wouldn’t assume she was perpetually angry.

“A lot of people were like … ‘You’re much funnier than I thought,’ or like, ‘So much nicer than I thought,’ and a lot of times, it would be people that I’ve actually never really met before then,” Tucker said. The interactions left her wondering: “Why did you think I wasn’t funny? … We’ve never spoken before.”

Unconscious bias is part of everyone’s daily lives, and the Air Force is developing training through professional military education to address that, Kelly said.

“It’s not getting to all the right places, so there will be lots of people who are potentially writing evaluations as supervisors in places who haven’t had that training,” Kelly said. “We’re trying to figure out the best way to scale that, make it effective, and go forward.”

Bias is often insidious, planting seeds of doubt about prowess and worth. Clark has wondered why he’s missed out on certain opportunities, or why others who seemed well-qualified were passed over. Was it because of their race? Because they were women? Were other unknown factors at play?

“The problem with this unconscious bias is you don’t know,” Clark said. “It leaves a question in your mind, especially when there’s not a lot of people that look like them that get those opportunities.” 

Until Brown’s ascent to CSAF, Clark was the only Black general officer in Air Staff senior leadership. “Building a solid cadre of a diverse group of people across the board, it really helps us … to encourage others, but it also helps us to relate to others and provide the opportunities that we all need to have,” he said.

Bias plays a role in potential discharges as well. Early in his Air Force career, then-Airman Basic Mike Feggans was sent before an advisory board at Sheppard Air Force Base, Texas, after struggling in an aerospace ground equipment mechanic course, he recalled. Once before the board, the questions weren’t just about his job performance. The board asked why an African American had red hair, he said, and told him he’d be going “back to the ’hood to bag groceries.’”

Selected for discharge, Feggans fought the decision and convinced his commander to help him find a new assignment in the medical field. Success followed: Now Feggans is a master sergeant, and superintendent of the 71st Healthcare Operations Squadron at Vance Air Force Base, Okla.

“I had no issues, no disciplinary issues, anything like that,” Feggans said. “I felt like I had to work three times as hard just to stay in.”

Sarayuth Pinthong/USAF

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.

Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force Kaleth Wright

In an impassioned social media post that sparked conversations across the military about being Black in today’s America, Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force Kaleth O. Wright highlighted racial disparities in the military justice system and the lack of diversity among the service’s officer ranks. He added that a diverse group of 25 friends is mulling ways to address racial disparities and discrimination.

In June, the Air Force Inspector General opened an investigation into racism in military justice and the promotion system, digging into racial disparities and the cultural and policy factors behind them. The IG will then issue recommendations for “impactful and lasting change,” the service said. 

Shortly after the Air Force announced its own review, Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper announced a new Defense Board on Diversity and Inclusion in the Military to consider ways to increase diversity and opportunities across all ranks, create an independent “Defense Advisory Committee on Diversity and Inclusion in the Armed Services” to guide the Pentagon, and gather immediately actionable ideas from civilian and uniformed military leadership.

As national outrage about the killings of black Americans has snowballed, particularly after George Floyd died at the hands of Minneapolis police in May, hard conversations about systemic racism have rippled through the Air Force and the rest of the armed forces. Those discussions are not just for minorities, but for people of all backgrounds. It will take effort on everyone’s part to achieve a lasting impact and for the military to be more representative of the people it serves.

“At every level … there needs to be periodic training to, if nothing else, understand what women and people of color, what their challenges are,” Spencer said. “I don’t know of anyone that wants a handout or wants something that they have not earned. … All folks want is an equal chance.” 

Editor’s Note: This story was updated at 12:05 p.m. on July 21 to correct a statement related to the number of Black officers on the Air Staff.