The "Air Force's Black Ceiling" is a view of diversity in the Air Force from one man's over 28 years in the Air Force. This view begins with his perspectives and insights as an Air Force Academy cadet and continues with his progression through company and field grade ranks. It also includes special insights gained while serving on the Secretary of Defense's Diversity Task Force as the Deputy Director of the Defense Business Practice Implementation Board. The author's view of diversity has been bolstered by face to face interviews with five former African American Air Force four-star generals and numerous current and former African American generals in the Air Force and the Army. The author's views are also influenced by numerous discussions with former graduates of the US Air Force Academy, his work with the Tuskegee Airmen chapters and his own detailed research into the biographies of former Air Force Chiefs of Staff and former Strategic, Tactical and Air Combat Command Commanders. The title might imply that the "Black Ceiling" has been put in place on purpose by senior Air Force leaders... the reader will find out that isn't the case. The reader however will find out that there are very distinct remnants of an intricate system of exclusionary development practices, cultural practices, stereotypes and biases that have served to keep the ceiling in place for African American men throughout the Air Force's existence.
Ivan Thompson is the CEO of Launch Productions. He is a singer/songwriter, actor, author, business consultant, and inventor. Ivan’s books have garnered rave reviews and are available on Amazon as well as all major retailer websites. Ivan has published multiple Christian titles, an exceptional book about diversity in the Air Force, a fitness book and a book to help new writers become published authors. Ivan’s audiobooks are also available on Audible.
Ivan has over 25 years consulting senior military and civilian leaders. He has conducted senior leadership off-sites, strategic planning sessions and served as the Deputy Director of the Defense Business Practice Implementation Board. As the Deputy, he helped facilitate and lead Task Groups for the Secretary of Defense comprised of senior DoD civilians and retired and active Fortune 500 CEOs. As a singer/songwriter, he has performed the National Anthem for the Los Angeles Lakers, Dodgers, LA Kings, St. Louis Rams, LA Sparks, NASCAR, NCAA and was a guest soloist on the Bobby Jones Gospel show and Tom Joyner show. He has performed across the US and Europe as Tour Director of the Air Force’s Tops in Blue traveling entertainment team.
This excerpt goes into the very sensitive area of “reverse discrimination”. In the previous segment of the book, I went into great detail discussing how doors were opened for some of the military’s greatest generals: McArthur, Eisenhower, and Marshall. The purpose was to set up the contrast for a discussion of how door opening is viewed for minority officers. From the majority vantage point often door opening for minorities is often viewed as affirmative action or reverse discrimination, with all the negative related underpinnings, and not related to qualifications, experience or potential. From a minority vantage point when doors are opened for the majority, it is often perceived as “the good ole boy” network and not based on qualifications, experience or potential. These perceptions still exist today and need to be addressed if the Air Force is to continue to strive to stay ahead of the rest of society on issues related to diversity.
The Air Force’s Black Ceiling
Door Opening vs. Reverse Discrimination
I wanted to find a place in this book to talk about how Colin Powell was promoted. Why? It came to me that when we talk about door opening for a black officer it is hard to distinguish it from affirmative action or “reverse discrimination”. It also hit me that depending on who’s looking, that door opening for minorities may always look like affirmative action or reverse discrimination. This is a crucial thing to address because as we will see in the discussion of Colin Powell affirmative action and reverse discrimination both carry the notion of opening the door to someone who is less qualified.
When affirmative action works, its critics deny its essential nature. For affirmative action to do anything, it must involve advancing people who are slightly less qualified. Not, one hopes, unqualified, but less qualified, under otherwise prevailing standards, than people who get passed over. It is necessarily a sloppy process that injects another arbitrary standard into an already arbitrary decision-making process. But the Army shows the process can work, and can help. (Foer, 1997)
In the current Newsweek, Thernstrom amplifies: Yes, Colin Powell benefited from affirmative action. But the military has a good kind of affirmative action, which expands equal opportunity without making racial preferences. She offers as an example Powell’s promotion to brigadier general by President Carter’s Secretary of the Army Clifford Alexander. When originally sent an all-white list of candidates for the position, Alexander rejected it, demanding a list that included some blacks. From the revised list, Alexander chose Powell... (Foer, 1997)
Colin Powell would not have been on that year’s list of brigadier generals if the Secretary of the Army hadn’t said something to the effect of “Really? There are no black colonels in the United States Army that are qualified enough to be considered to become brigadier generals?” We know in hindsight that not only was he qualified but that Colin Powell had enormous potential--potential enough to be one of the most polished and capable Chairmen of the Joint Chiefs that we have had in recent memory, a leader who served well during the September 11th attack, one of the nation’s most demanding times of crisis. The issue is not whether he was qualified; the issue is why didn’t the “system” recognize his leadership potential? In fairness to the Army’s promotion system the following quote is offered from the same article:
Thernstrom’s anecdote about how Powell became brigadier general is ambiguous on its face. The boss asked for a list that included blacks and then chose a black off the list. Equal opportunity or reverse discrimination? A little more information resolves the ambiguity. One reason Powell wasn’t on the original list is that he was, at 42, below the age normally considered eligible for promotion to brigadier general. An exception was made in order to give Secretary Alexander a black as he had requested. Powell, who has always been forthright in his defense of affirmative action, says himself that he wouldn’t have appeared on the second list or been made the youngest general in the Army if it had not been for preferential treatment. (Foer, 1997)
If Colin Powell had been white would anyone have blinked an eye in hindsight as to his “preferential” selection to brigadier general? No one questions the meteoric rise in rank of MacArthur, Eisenhower, or General George Marshall. We look back at what they did and history judges their performance in their roles, in their specific cases, as five-star generals. Each of them, as I have already shown, benefitted from a helping hand, from a general officer parent or a general officer mentor. No one questions that the help they received allowed them to leapfrog other officers at certain points in their careers. No one questions their promotions because history proudly displays their leadership potential in retrospect. The same is true for General Colin Powell and for General Daniel Chappie James and General Benjamin O. Davis.
Black Generals Through the Back Door
Gen. Benjamin O. Davis Jr., famed commander of the Tuskegee Airmen, became the Air Force’s first black lieutenant/three-star general. Gen. Daniel “Chappie” James became the Air Force’s first black four-star. Tactical Air Command (TAC) was established on March 21, 1946 (Air Force Historical Research Agency, 2008). A review of both generals’ biographies shows that each of them had to find promotion to general officer outside of TAC. Two of the Air Force’s greatest black fighter pilot generals were never entrusted with a command leadership position within TAC. Further, Gen. Davis had one “commander” job as Commander 13th Air Force in the Philippines and was placed in vice/deputy and “DO” jobs along the way. (HQ USAF Biographies, 2002) Gen. James was never more than a vice commander until he became the four-star Commander of NORAD/ ADCOM. Gen. James was only able to survive and advance in rank by going outside the Creech system and move into DoD’s Public Affairs office. Similarly, Gen. Davis had to retire, go around the Air Force system and wait 50 years for President Clinton to award him a fourth star (HQ USAF , 1998). Why do we need to know the paths that Benjamin O. Davis Jr. and Daniel “Chappie” James took to make general?
The reason the path is significant is to highlight the fact that the black generals mentioned, had to have an unusual door opened or created to promote them to a level where they could demonstrate their potential to its fullest measure, which was four stars in the cases of these three generals. What is wrong with the system that it can’t see their leadership potential?
Part of the answer goes back to the first quote from the article “less qualified, under otherwise prevailing standards”. In the military our prevailing standards feature job history, scope of responsibility/ titles and level of endorsements. As previously mentioned non-minorities, especially under the Creech system, were provided top cover, more rapid and varied assignments via targeted development and higher level endorsements than their minority peers. To the degree that this type of disparity has continued beyond the Creech era then selecting a person from the non-developed minority group will always look like reverse discrimination and affirmative action. Unfortunately, this is the case even in retrospect when history shows that many minority officers who have been promoted through an unusual or new door performed exceptionally well at the level that to which they were promoted.