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.
Today, I have the distinct honor of being part of an online forum whose topic is diversity in the military and the airlines. One of the questions that popped up to me was how much progress the Air Force had made since I published the book, “The Air Force’s Black Ceiling” in 2015? Specifically, as of the date of the book’s publishing, the Air Force hadn’t had a black fighter wing commander since 1993 and had never had a black commander of any of what I refer to as it’s “premier” wings. The reason that is significant is that there is most definitely a path to success in the Air Force. Most officers that achieve the Air Force’s most prestigious positions, specifically four-star command of flying forces and Air Force Chief of Staff, have one thing in common, command of a prestigious fighter wing in the CONUS. This book bubble gives a peek at the Air Force’s history in that regard. For those not familiar with my books, I do not downgrade the significance of three and four-star leadership of support commands. I only attempt to highlight what the Air Force highlights in the selection of its senior-most leaders.
The Air Force’s Black Ceiling
What Wing Do You Command?
I posed the following question on several social media sites: “how many black, active duty, CONUS fighter wing commanders have there been in the Air Force? I prefaced the question by saying that I had only known of one, General Lloyd “Fig” Newton back in 1993. The answer to the question had historical significance as it pertains to diversity. In Col McGee’s biography it stated that “stateside commands were not available to black officers in 1954. Chappie James broke the color barrier with a command at Otis Air Base near Boston in 1956”. (Smith, 2008) The Gen James reference pertained to command of a fighter squadron but I felt I had to point it out to identify whether there was any lingering relevance in 2016. The answer to the question is also a pivotal one because I believe it points to why the Air Force has had such as a scant number of black fighter and bomber Numbered Air Force Commanders. I could find no one who knew of any black fighter wing commanders in the CONUS since Gen Newton. The answer to the black CONUS fighter wing commander question led me to do some research. Specifically I wanted to see if I missed any black fighter wing commanders and to see if there was indeed a connection between serving as a fighter wing commander and being selected to become a fighter NAF commander. I decided to research the careers of all the Wing Commanders of the 1st, 4th and 20th Fighter Wings from about 1975 to the present. I chose these wings because they are some of the wings that I have previously referred to as “premier wings”. They have this distinction from me because of their support of combat operations in Iraq (under AFCENT/9th Air Force). I have also given them this distinction because of the success that the commanders of these wings have achieved.
From 1975 to 2016, eleven of the commanders from these three bases have gone on to achieve four-star rank and eighteen have achieved three-star rank—many of them NAF Commanders. The number of four-stars may grow as several of the three-stars are junior enough to be promoted. From 1st fighter wing alone have come seven four-stars (1 Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, 1 Air Force Chief of Staff, 1 Commander of SAC, 2 Commanders of USAFE, 1 AFMC and 1 AETC Commander) and four three-stars 1 NAF CC, 2 HQ USAF Directors of Operations and 1 HQ USAF Inspector General. The 4th wing has produced three four-stars (including 2 TAC/ACC Commanders, I US Joint Forces Command Commander) and seven three-stars (including 5 NAF CCs). The 20th fighter wing has produced a four-star Air Force Chief of Staff and seven three-3 stars (including 3 NAF CCs).
There is no secret to greater diversity in the senior fighter pilot ranks of the Air Force. The path to success lies in plain view in the resumes of its most successful leaders. The Air Force does not have more black fighter pilot four-stars because of its dearth in black fighter pilot three-stars. It does not have more black fighter pilot three-stars because it does not have more black, one-star commanders of its premier fighter wings. It does not have more one-star commanders of its premier fighter wings because it has not done the work needed to identify and develop high-potential black senior captains and majors. I will show in great detail what this type of early identification and development this looks like for non-minority officers in the next segment entitled “Go Find Me a Major”.