Washington – The U.S. Senate confirmed Gen. Charles Brown on Tuesday as the first African-American military service chief, voting unanimously to make him chief of staff of the Air Force as the armed forces — and the country as a whole — grapple with questions about racial inequality.
The vote was 98-0, as Vice President Mike Pence made an unusual appearance presiding over the Republican-led chamber.
Brown, 58, is currently commander of the Pacific Air Forces.
There have been waves of protests across the United States and other countries over the past two weeks sparked by the May 25 death of George Floyd, a black man killed while in Minneapolis police custody after an allegation that he had used a counterfeit $20 bill to buy cigarettes.
Floyd’s funeral was taking place in Houston on Tuesday.
The military has been doing a mixture of damage control and soul-searching on race amid the protests, as Republican President Donald Trump sent in the National Guard to control demonstrations and threatened to deploy active-duty troops against U.S. citizens.
In response, service chiefs have issued poignant statements on race relations.
Brown recounted his experiences in an emotional video, speaking of how during his Air Force career he was “often the only African American in my squadron or, as a senior officer, the only African American in the room” and of wearing the same flight suit with wings pinned on his chest as his squadron yet being asked if he was a pilot.
He expressed hope that his confirmation would make a positive difference after centuries of racism in the United States.
“I am thinking about how I can make improvements, personally, professionally and institutionally so that all airmen, both today and tomorrow, appreciate the value of diversity and can serve in an environment where they can reach their full potential,” Brown said.
Brown has served in a variety of positions at the squadron and wing levels, and commanded a fighter squadron and two fighter wings. He also was an F-16 instructor at the U.S. Air Force Weapons School.
The only African American military officer to have served previously on the Joint Chiefs of Staff was Colin Powell, who was Joint Chiefs chairman during the administration of President George Bush. Powell, however, was commander of Army Forces Command prior to being picked as chairman and never led one of the armed service branches.
The military, with African Americans making up a little over 17 percent of its active-duty ranks, is more racially diverse than the country, which is 13 percent African American, according to 2019 Census estimates. The Army is the most diverse with more than 21 percent African Americans, while the Marine Corp is the least, with 10 percent. Blacks make up about 17 percent of the Navy and less than 15 percent of the Air Force.
But there is a much greater racial divide within the active-duty military based on rank.
Nineteen percent of active-duty enlisted troops are black, but they make up only 9 percent of the officer corps. Of those, there are just 71 who are general or flag officers, wearing one to four stars, including only two who have attained the top four-star rank.