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.
I am writing a new book, “The Air Force’s Black Pilot Training Experience,” that focuses on the experiences of black pilots in Air Force pilot training. This book will build on insights gathered for “The Air Force’s Black Ceiling” and include the experiences of black pilots dating from Tuskegee era pilots to the present.
Pilot training falls under the purview of “Air Education and Training Command.” In this bubble, I discuss a multicultural approach to education and training, a concept that has been broadly implemented in the civilian sector as far back as the 1980s. I found no evidence that the Air Force has ever considered that its pilot training curriculum should be tailored to suit a multicultural student population vs. a one-size-fits-all curriculum that has proved to be more successful for non-minorities than for minorities.
Finally, for my new book I intend to research whether black pilots have a greater success rate in civilian pilot training institutions. It is my belief that if the success rate is statistically greater, that it will because the civilian pilot training institutions placed a greater value on one of the key factors outlined in “The Air Force’s Black Ceiling.” Those key factors are culture, role models, cultivating/providing prior flight time, multicultural education, minimizing the effects of tokenism, or increasing the motivation.
The Air Force’s Black Ceiling
Tokenism by definition is the practice of “hiring one minority or female to comply with affirmative action statutes or guidelines” (Delia S. Saenz, 1989). Today many minority pilot candidates face the prospect of being the only one or one of very few in pilot training. Though the low number of pilots is not the result of tokenism by the definition provided, I believe the effects experienced by those pilots are still the same as those felt by tokens. One of the major effects experienced by tokens is that their performance suffers from divided focus and energy in that “awareness of token status diverts their attention from the central group task” (Delia S. Saenz, 1989). Saenz and Lord elaborated that tokens “maybe overly concerned with the image that they project to others, and may shift attention toward self-presentation and away from the ongoing exchange of information” (p. 923). In other words, tokens spend too much time worrying about being evaluated (Delia S. Saenz, 1989).
It is not hard to see that minorities who are present in extremely small numbers in pilot training, could experience the same performance impacts as tokens focusing on the fact that they are the only one of their race or how they are being perceived vs. the complex task of learning how to fly planes. Saenz and Lord’s example may help to illustrate this concept further:
A woman at an otherwise all-male board meeting, for example, may feel that she is under constant scrutiny. As one token noted, every act is “a gesture performed with an audience in mind” (Kanter, 1977, p. 215). She may thus pay more attention to establishing her public identity and dealing with other self-presentational concerns, and pay less attention to the task at hand, the proceedings of the meeting. Subsequently, she may have a hard time remembering what was said and by whom. The other board members, those in the majority, may more easily remember what she said and have no problem in remembering the contributions of majority members. Thus others may benefit but the woman herself may suffer deficits in relation to her normal cognitive ability. She may both be evaluated unfairly and perform below her own capabilities…” (Delia S. Saenz, 1989).
Saenz and Lord go on to say that “tokens feel the social pressure of imagined audience scrutiny, and may do so even when the ‘audience’ of majority group members treats them no differently from nontokens.” In other words, minorities in small groups may experience the same negative performance effects as tokens even if the majority group is not trying to treat them differently. This is an important point in that racism, preferential treatment for members of certain races, does not have to be present for minorities in a group where they are greatly outnumbered to experience negative performance impacts. However this is a best case scenario as research has shown that members of the majority pay more attention to members of the “outgroup”, “remembering more of what the tokens do and say”, and evaluating them in ways that are consistent with the perceiver’ s own stereotypes and prejudices (Duncan, 1976; Hamilton, 1979; Pettigrew,1979; Whitehead, Smith, & Eichhorn, 1982; Jazwinski & Lamwers, 1983; Taylor & Fiske, 1978; Taylor, Fiske, Close, Anderson, & Ruderman, 1977; Delia S. Saenz, 1989). Researchers also have found that “members of a different social category are also evaluated more extremely, and in many cases more negatively (Linville & Jones, 1980; Rooks & Jones, 1978; Taylor, Fiske, & Anderson, 1976; Garcia, Erskine, Hawn, & Casmay, 1981; Delia S. Saenz, 1989).
I believe that the Tuskegee Airmen did not experience the effect of tokenism to the same degree as today’s minority pilots because of the large numbers of black pilots that were assembled together for training. I believe that that though many of the Tuskegee Airmen’s initial instructors were white, the fact that there were so many other minorities present in training mitigated many of the effects previously described. I believe that it is one of the success factors of the Tuskegee Airmen that has been overlooked by the Air Force’s current pilot training methods. In the next segment I will highlight an experiment that the Air Force conducted in the 1970s, in which it clustered minority pilots together for training, with a few minority instructor pilots, mirroring to some degree the Tuskegee experiment—with great success.
Culture and Role Models
It is easy to imagine the significant cultural adjustments that would have to be made by minority student pilots, possibly from predominantly minority high schools and colleges, to a pilot training base with few if any minority peers, and few if any minority role models.
In my study of the Tuskegee Airmen it is clear to me that they developed a culture that was conducive to the success of the minority pilots that were part of the program. They had unit leadership that understood black culture and what was needed to make this group of black pilots successful without lowering standards. The Tuskegee Airmen had black leaders with which to readily identify: leaders that served as role models and mentors. Of course, this was all forced by racial segregation and perhaps because of that the Air Force has overlooked the positive aspect of minority student pilots having other minority pilots to emulate and relate to.
The point is that the Air Force has had a one-size fits all pilot culture that is not suited for making everyone successful, particularly black pilot candidates. The research that I did with the Defense Business Board showed that the most successful civilian companies made it their point to understand the impact that their existing corporate culture had on minorities and made sweeping changes to the culture in an attempt to level the playing field.
The Air Force officer population is 85 percent white compared to 75 percent in the general U.S. population. This disparity is even greater in the pilot community where the white male officer population likely exceeds 95 percent. A minority pilot candidate, then in effect, is simultaneously assimilated into two new cultures: military culture and a majority white male culture. Furthermore, if you consider “the fighter pilot community” as a separate culture, it could very well be three cultures.
Lt. Gen. John D. Hopper Jr. former AETC Vice Commander, and retired black three-star general, stated in his interview that the toughest thing for minority pilots was acculturation. He said that pilot training success was largely dependent on group study. Additionally, going to the gatherings, be it the officers club on Friday nights or wherever, was a key factor to being successful in pilot training because it was there that young trainees got together with IPs and other authority figures to pick up the hints, the things that made “the water smoother.” Hopper said that minorities typically miss out on these forums. Lt. Gen Hopper’s view was that black trainees (as a generalization) were not only uncomfortable in group study but also in asking for help.
My research indicates that students from HBCUs/MIs would be at an even greater disadvantage coming from a nearly all minority culture and being thrust into a virtually all-white male culture and being compelled to do group study and ask for help. Conversely, students who were children of military, USAFA grads or who were in some other way given opportunities to experience and learn how to thrive in a majority white male culture would be expected to have an easier time making the transition to this culture and have one less thing to contend with during the rigors of pilot training.
Lt. Gen. Hopper also stated in his interview that when he was an instructor pilot (IP) in the 1970s, the Air Force conducted an experiment in which it clustered minority (IPs) at Vance Air Force Base. It then clustered the minority pilot trainees based on the following construct. Pilot candidates were selected from an AFROTC detachment (at University X) that was noted for its success in producing successful minority pilot candidates and the Air Force Academy (also noted for its success rate). Minority graduates from other institutions were clustered and sequenced so that they could enter training at the same time as the applicants from University X and USAFA. This experiment was conducted for three years. Lt. Gen Hopper’s recollection was that during that time only one candidate was lost and that was due to a disciplinary reason.
I asked Lt. Gen. Hopper if the successful graduation rate was because black IPs looked the other way at discrepancies to help their minority brethren succeed, and he said no. In fact, he said, the black IPs were not matched with the black pilot candidates. His said that the reason the students were successful was that the black IPs served as role models, “faces that look like mine,” and demonstrated to black pilot candidates that it could be done. Hopper said that for minority pilots the black IPs were “somebody you think you can approach to ask a question” and for non-minority IPs “to turn to with their questions on how best to get through to minority students.” He also stated that having black IPs in the “flight meetings,” where they discussed how to help the students that were doing poorly, was part of the success. Lt. Gen Hopper called the experiment a “built-in peer group” to progress through pilot training.
When I shared this story with a noted Air Force historian a number of years ago, he said that Lt. Gen. Hopper’s recollection of the facts was probably off as the Air Force had never intentionally clustered black pilots together as part of an experiment. As fate would have it, years later, I met retired Air Force Lt. Col. Larry “Jet” Jackson who was actually a part of that experiment. Lt. Col. Jackson and five other black pilots successfully graduated from SUPT. Here’s an article entitled, “Beneficiaries of Affirmative Action” that Lt. Col Jackson wrote detailing his experience and a 30-year reunion letter that he wrote detailing what aircraft each pilot went on to fly and what each pilot is doing now:
Our nation’s current struggle in defining exactly what is Affirmative Action reminds me of the time I entered the United States Air Force thirty years ago. In 1973 I was in a group of six black second lieutenants that entered pilot training Class 75-03 at Vance Air Force Base. Located on the outskirts of Enid, Oklahoma, and a small city in the center of the state, the base is still operational today. Unbeknownst to us when we showed up the first day was the fact that the Air Force had made us a test case to see if grouping minorities together in pilot training would help their success rate.
This was not a “quota” system. And it surely wasn’t a preferential admissions scheme. All six of us had earned the right to be there physically and academically. The Air Force had identified a major problem and put in place a plan to help lower the attrition rate of black student pilots. For example the attrition rate in 1972 was running about 56 percent for blacks compared to the white attrition rate of 26 percent. This was more than just about insuring access and opportunity for black student pilots, but also about efficient use of government dollars. At that time it cost the Air Force roughly a half million dollars to a put student through pilot training. The situation got a lot attention at the Pentagon and at ATC headquarters. They decided on a proactive strategy. The strategy worked. All six of us successfully completed the program and received our wings. Like retired Gen. Colin Powell I can proudly say that yes I am a beneficiary of affirmative action.
We showed up eager to start a flying career in Air Force. We had heard about the rigors of the pilot training and the high attrition rate for black students; 56 percent to be exact in1972. Three came from Historically Black Universities and three came from predominantly white schools. Ray Thomas and Sam Love came out of the AFROTC program at Tuskegee Institute and Sam Robinson was an Officer Training School graduate from North Carolina A&T. Gerald Lewis and Charles Stallworth came out of the Air Force Academy. I was from the AFROTC program at the University of Southern California.
None of us expected to see five other black guys in the class. Charles and Gerald knew each other from the Academy and had some indication that they would be in the same pilot training. The same was probably true for the two Tuskegee grads. Sam Robinson didn’t know anyone. The only person I knew was Gerald who I had met briefly when we attended airborne jump school as cadets at Fort Benning in 1972. Gerald and I are both from Chicago.
Class 75-03 included:
Other Soul Train line notables: Gen John Hopper—then a T-37 instructor pilot at Vance AFB; students from other classes on base—SWA Capt. Don Buford, AA Capts. Ron Stanley and Greg Boggs and US Airways Capt. Bob Farris.
Lt. Col. Jackson went on to become a Distinguished Graduate of UPT and later became an F-15 pilot. This “test case” illustrates how elements of the Tuskegee Airmen experiment could be replicated today. These six men appear to have created their own mini-culture within the culture of their UPT class at Vance AFB, OK. This test case shows that when some of the cultural impacts (such as tokenism, lack of same race peers, lack of same race role models) are mitigated that the success could be astonishing. All six black pilots in UPT class 75-03 graduated, a 100 percent graduation rate at a time when black pilots were washing out at a rate of 56 percent. The pilots came from all the commissioning sources: USAFA, ROTC-Historically Black College, ROTC-large mainstream university and OTS. In the face of such success, why didn’t the Air Force continue to produce minority pilots this way? My answer? I don’t believe the Air Force of the 1970s was ready for an influx of black pilots, especially fighter pilots. That sounds like a harsh answer, but I will share why I came to that conclusion later when I discuss the “Creech system” and how minority pilots fared under it in the 1970s.
Most of the diversity research that I have seen focuses on putting a better student in the pipeline, based on a false notion of the “cream always rises to the top” paradigm that I will address later in this book. The “cream rises” philosophy puts all the responsibility for success on the student.
However, in the field of education, there has been a shift from the philosophy that the student is failing because of his or her low socioeconomic or “at risk” status to a more balanced view that calls for a review of the contribution of the teacher’s instruction, the teacher’s expectations, the teacher’s ability to relate to students from ethnic backgrounds different than their own and the school’s culture. This is a crucial point as Air Force pilot training and its culture have historically been a one-size-fits-all, sink-or-swim culture situation. Have there ever been any attempts by the Air Force to evaluate the instructor pilots “ability to relate to students from ethnic backgrounds”? When the Air Force looks at the historically higher washout rates for minority pilots, do they ever consider multicultural impacts that are now commonplace consideration in academia?
The challengers of theories that placed most of the failure on the student rejected what came to be termed deficit explanations. They offered a competing view, sometimes called a differences explanation, which attributed minority underachievement to discontinuities between home and school cultures, for example, language, values, behavioral expectations, and so forth—not to deficiencies in the child (Baratz & Baratz, 1970; Valentine 1971). Over the next decades, substantial literature accumulated for several U.S. communities, including African American, Native Americans, Latinos, and native Hawaiians, identifying discontinuities between various aspects of home and school cultures. Researchers and educators hypothesized that these discontinuities were at least partly, if not largely, responsible for widespread underachievement among many ethnic minority children. The central idea was that there were substantial differences between norms of behavior, language usage, cognitive styles, and other aspects of personal and interpersonal functioning that children learned at home and what was then expected at school. These differences—which researchers stressed were not deficiencies in children—interfered with children’s learning in school. A logical conclusion, therefore, was that ethnic minority children’s achievement could be improved if schools identified these differences (or discontinuities) and designed instruction and curriculum that were more compatible with children’s home cultures (Cazden 1986; Erickson, 1986; Tharp 1989).
Numerous studies indicate that cultural patterns (e.g., behavior or language use) that are markedly different from school norms and expectations can interfere with the creation of optimal learning environments for some children (Au & Mason, 1981–1982; Valdés, 1996). Most recently, the preeminent theorist of school reform, Michael Fullan, introduced the concept of reculturation, that is, how to change the norms, behaviors, language, expectations, and modes of interaction among the people who work in schools (Banks, 1993; Fullan, 1993, 2000).
I have chosen to compare education and training principles from private sector to the Air Force’s training approaches with the assertion that the same principles that hold true for the education of minorities in the private sector are pertinent to the training of minority pilots today. Unlike the private sector however, Air Force pilot training cadre likely are not being trained on how to incorporate the cultural differences of their students into their instruction and ultimately into the evaluation of their students.
The premise of multicultural education is this: “to reform the school and other educational institutions so that students from diverse racial, ethnic, and social-class groups will…experience educational success and mobility” (Banks, 1993). Multicultural education has content integration, knowledge construction, prejudice reduction, equity and school culture aspects.
Content integration “deals with the extent to which teachers use examples, data, and information from a variety of cultures and groups to illustrate key concepts, principles, generalizations, and theories in their subject area or discipline” (Banks, 1993).
Knowledge construction deals with “how implicit cultural assumptions, frames of reference, perspectives, and biases within a discipline influence the ways that knowledge is constructed within it” (Berger & Luckman, 1996; Gould 1981; Harding, 1991; Kuhn 1970).
Equity exists “when teachers use techniques and methods that facilitate the academic achievement of students from diverse racial, ethnic and social-class groups” (Banks, 1993).
Finally, the empowering school culture consists of “restructuring the culture and organization of the school” based on an examination of “grouping practices, labeling practices, the social climate of the school, and staff expectations for student achievement ((Braddock, 1990; Oakes, 1985; Brookover, Beady, Flood, Schweitzer, & Wisenbaker, 1979; Mercer, 1989).
The studies referenced briefly above are not new to the field of education and training; they are in fact many decades old. However, the Air Force does not seem to have taken these types of findings into consideration as they have developed their flying training and education. I believe it is impossible to state that the “differences in cultural frames of reference and interpersonal functioning, implicit cultural assumptions, or even the differences between the social culture” found in SUPT and in minority culture are not key contributing factors for the higher washout rates for minorities in SUPT. This seems to be borne out in the success of the Tuskegee Airmen experiment, where the near homogeneous ethnic ecosystem likely dramatically reduced all of these factors.
As an educator, I can see how non-minority educators are being trained to consider cultural impacts as a part of how they approach instruction. It’s a common practice in education. It’s common for Air Force members to learn about cultural considerations when working with foreign cultures. But is the Air Force willing to throw out the cookie cutter and modify its training approaches for the improved success of minority pilots who make up so few of its student population?