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George Floyd Marches Spur Conversations About Racism In Air and Space Forces

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Courtesy U.S. Air Force
Col. Devin Pepper commands the 460th Space Wing at Buckley Air Force Base in Aurora.

"It could have been me on the ground begging for my life."

Those are the words of Col. Devin Pepper of the 460th Space Wing at Buckley Air Force Base in Aurora. He wrote them last week, as protests against the death of George Floyd triggered a movement that has swept the globe.

For Pepper, the moment was as much about police accountability as being black and his career in the military. He wrote that he was angry at seeing the video showing Floyd's life ending under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer. Pepper wrote that what happened to Floyd could have happened to him "with no regard for the fact that I am a Wing Commander or served over 31 years in the Air Force."

"Racism and discrimination does not care about my character, nor does it care about who I am as an officer, a husband or a father," Pepper wrote. "Racism just sees the color of my skin and proscribes to it certain attributes of who it thinks I am as a person."

Pepper wasn't the only one in the military to speak out. Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr. shared his thoughts in a video last week, noting that he'd been nominated to become the first African American chief of staff for the Air Force.

"I'm thinking about how full I am with emotion, not just for George Floyd, but for the many African Americans who have suffered the same fate as George Floyd," Brown said. "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 support and defend. I'm thinking about a history of racial issues and my own experiences that didn't always sing of liberty and equality."

Yesterday, Brown was confirmed as chief of staff, a job he said provides hope as well as a heavy burden to work to change the culture in the Air Force so everyone can reach their full potential.

The numbers tell the story. Racial and ethnic diversity has increased overall in the military in recent years. In the Air Force, for instance, it almost mirrors the U.S. population in some cases. Yet top-ranking leaders are overwhelmingly white. Air Force data from four years ago showed that of 276 generals, just 15 were African-American, three were Hispanic and two Asian American.

Top-ranking black officers say that trend hasn't changed. Pepper noted that he is one of just a few black wing commanders in an interview with KUNC. He said he is encouraged by military leaders who have voiced support for change.

"I think everyone is coming together to say that we need to make change," Pepper said.

The Space Force, created late last year, is part of the picture, too. Central parts of it are linked to air bases in Colorado and the Air Force is central to a transition. As peaceful marches grew in Denver and across the country last week, Chief of Space Operations Gen. John "Jay" Raymond issued a letter to troops. He described racism as an enemy "of everything we know that is fair, right and just."

Raymond also acknowledged racism exists in the service, even in subtle ways.

"Every one of us must own this problem," he wrote in the letter, which was also signed by Space Force Senior Enlisted Advisor Roger Towberman. "It is not enough to assume that the issue is not there because you do not witness direct evidence. We all have blind spots, and we all know biases show up in subtle ways but have significant impacts. I urge you to look deeper; ask hard questions, have uncomfortable conversations, observe daily routines from a new perspective. It is there. In some cases, it is just below the surface in our offices and workspaces."

Raymond added that the service "must build diversity and inclusion into our 'cultural DNA.'"

There weren't specifics in the letter on how that would happen, but the Space Force's Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer Carrie Baker told KUNC it is already a priority. She said there is "zero tolerance for racism" in the service.

"We know that there's a lot of tension out there across our nation with this subject," Baker said. "We're not oblivious to that. As a result, we continue to practice having an open dialogue on this subject. We believe that it's critical to help our people within our organization to understand and support each other."

The Space Force is in the process of filling about 6,000 positions and has received about 8,500 applications, Baker said.

The service hasn't published any race and ethnicity statistics of its troops publicly, but provided data when KUNC requested it. Of space operators, 16% are Hispanic (18% of the U.S. population is Hispanic, according to Census data); 12% are African American (vs. 13% of population); 5% are Asian American (vs. 6% of population).

So far, the command has filled two senior leadership positions: Raymond and Towberman.

Pepper's troops in the 460th Space Wing at Buckley fall under both the Air and Space Forces. The wing provides critical homeland defense, including scouring the skies for missiles. Pepper said he's seen progress toward equality during his career and praised diversity and inclusion programs. He also noted the younger generation is eager to see and, in some regards, leading change. He praised Raymond for his letter and said the path to ending racism and reaching equality is one that will require hard work from everyone.

"We're not there yet and there's acknowledgement from whites and blacks that we need to come together to make sure that we get the best from all of our population," Pepper said. "This is not something that's going to happen overnight."

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