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Why the U.S. military hasn’t made more progress on overcoming racism

George Floyd's death and ensuing mass protests over police treatment of black Americans have sparked new calls to improve race relations within the U.S. military, as well. On Tuesday, the U.S. Air Force made history by confirming the first African American chief of a military service. Nick Schifrin reports and talks to retired Major General Dana Pittard and retired Brigadier General Remo Butler.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    George Floyd's death has ignited new calls within the U.S. military to improve race relations.

    Today, the U.S. Air Force made history, when the new chief of staff, General Charles Brown, was confirmed. Brown is the first African-American to become a chief of a military service.

    Nick Schifrin has the story.

  • Woman:

    The nomination of Charles Q. Brown Jr. to be chief of staff and general of the United States Air Force.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    For the first time in the republic's 244-year history, the Senate confirmed a black officer, General Charles Brown, as a military service chief.

  • Gen. Charles Q. Brown:

    And thinking about a history of racial issues and my own experiences that didn't always sing of liberty and equality.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Last week, Brown posted an emotional video about what he was thinking about: racism in the military.

  • Gen. Charles Q. Brown:

    I'm thinking about the pressure I felt to perform error-free, especially for supervisors I perceived had expected less from me as an African-American.

    I'm thinking about wearing the same flight suit with the same wings on my chest as my peers, and then being questioned by another military member, "Are you a pilot?"

    I'm thinking about my mentors, and how rarely I had a mentor who looked like me.

  • Protesters:

    Black lives matter!

  • Nick Schifrin:

    In this moment of national disquiet, the military is a crucible of race relations.

  • Chief Master Sgt. Kaleth Wright:

    Really, you have to — I think, more than talk about it, you got to be willing to listen.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And it sparked admissions like these between outgoing Air Force Chief of Staff David Goldfein and top Air Force enlisted leader Chief Master Sergeant Kaleth Wright.

  • Gen. David Goldfein:

    We probably don't completely understand it, because you and I have had different life experiences growing up.

  • Chief Master Sgt. Kaleth Wright:

    The fear I have when I'm driving down with this the Beltway or any street and I see blue lights, because I think it doesn't matter if I'm the chief or whomever.

    And my greatest fear is not for myself. It's that I wake up one day and one of our airmen will be George Floyd.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And to talk about race in the U.S. military, I'm joined by retired Major General Dana Pittard, who had a 34-year career in the Army, including overseeing the training of the Iraqi military, and retired Brigadier General Remo Butler, who had a 29-year career mostly in the Green Berets or Army Special Forces.

    Gentleman, thank you very much. Welcome to the "NewsHour."

    Major General Pittard, let me start with you.

    What's the significance of General Brown becoming the first black service chief today?

  • Maj. Gen. Dana Pittard:

    Well, thank you, Nick.

    Today was a — really a great day in the history of our republic. General C.Q. Brown, who I have known over the years, is an excellent choice as the chief of staff for the Air Force.

    It is just too bad it's taken 244 years to have an African-American in charge of one of our services. But it's a great day either way.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Brigadier General Butler, the percentage of officers who are black decreases with seniority.

    And, at the same time, the percentage of enlisted who serve under the officers, the enlisted who are black increases with seniority. Back in '97, you wrote an article called "Why Black Officers Fail."

    Have things changed in the last 23 years?

  • Brig. Gen. Remo Butler:

    Not very much.

    The black officers get about promoted at about the same rate to the rank of captain. Once they make captain and move to the major, lieutenant colonel (AUDIO GAP) they dramatically drop off.

    So, the weeding-out process starts then. And, in the military, by the time you're a major, you probably have already had a couple of mentors. If you're a minority officer, many times, you don't have a mentor.

    One, we're under the mistaken opinion a lot of times is that a mentor has to look like me. I have never had a black mentor in Special Forces, because they weren't there. But I have had some great white mentors in Special Forces.

    Throughout the military, for many, many years, there are a lot of officers who feel that, if you're a black general, they did it because of affirmative action and you aren't smart enough.

    I remember, when I first became a brigadier, they used to have this thing — and I don't know if they still do it — it was called a peer reading from the general.

    I didn't know that many general officers, but I got a lot of comments that said, not smart enough, not smart enough. And I went to a Latin general, and I said, what the heck is this? He says, don't worry about it. He said, I don't even read those things. He said, that's what a lot of people want to say. We aren't smart enough.

    But we are smart enough. And the enlisted ranks have always been the worker bees. They're the ones that perform the labor, get the troops in line, get the troops on time, get them to the mess hall, get them back.

    They have always been working for white officers on many occasions. The enlisted folks have been accepted because they aren't under the officers. They're not officers. They're enlisted. They're lower caste, basically.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Major General Pittard, I wonder if you could comment on that, about the not only implicit racism that military leaders right now are admitting to, but also the explicit racism perhaps that you experienced as well.

  • Maj. Gen. Dana Pittard:

    Oh, sure.

    I mean, there's still a legacy of systematic racism in our country. And the U.S. military, specifically the U.S. Army, is only a reflection of a society that it serves. They're no better or worse as far as racism.

    And one would hope that it would actually be better, because there are some things that the Army has done in the past that have actually been in front of society, like the integration of units. The executive order by President Truman, I believe, back in 1948 was well ahead of Brown vs. Board of Education in 1956.

    So, there has been some good things there. But there's still this legacy of systematic racism, implicit bias that we see in units. And, yes, we had those peer ratings with general officers that General Butler mentioned. And, sometimes, they would hurt your feelings as far as some things that were said. And you just have to scratch your head on that.

    It is a plus today that General Brown was nominated and confirmed as the chief of staff of the Air Force. So, absolutely congratulations to him.

    But also we have some other things that we can be proud of. The superintendent of the United States Military Academy at West Point is African-American, General Darryl Williams. That's a big plus and a great role model.

    But throughout — I know, throughout my career, from second lieutenant all the way through general officer, I experienced different aspects of racism in some ways.

    But, again, we're not here to be victims. And General Butler, who I have got great respect for, who was the senior most African-American drill officer in the Special Forces when he retired, is a great example of a person who has overcome obstacles and challenges and who has risen to the occasion, like so many of us have had to do.

    But it's too bad that, in many ways, we have to do double the work, double the effort just to get the same kind of recognition as our peers.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Brigadier General Butler, I wonder if you could comment on where we are today.

    We have seen so many senior military officials talk about the importance of changing the culture in the military. And we even saw the Marine commandant recently banning the display of the Confederate Flag.

    But, at the same time, the Army just said it would consider renaming bases for Confederate generals. How fast is the military moving forward on this issue? And is it moving with one voice?

  • Brig. Gen. Remo Butler:

    I can't tell you if it's moving with one voice or not.

    These are just my opinions, Remo Butler. Number one, I'm not really interested in the names of the bases. I mean, I understand it. A.P. Hill, Bragg, I understand. They were Confederate generals. I understand that.

    I would rather the military work at the systemic problems, i.e., promotions and command selections for minority officers. That's where the problem is. If you don't have the right command, you're not going far. You will go up.

    And if you look at the systemic thing, 1997, I wrote a paper, "Why Black Officers Fail." 2010, Lieutenant Colonel Smith wrote a paper, "Why Black Boxes Continue To Fail," or something to that.

    2020, there's another one written by another War College person. And he goes into the history of why there is systemic issues in the military.

    So, I think we have made some progress, but not a lot of progress. People don't see the problem until it affects them. The people in power, it's not affecting them.

    You look at the George Floyd thing, people never saw this before, because they — everybody didn't have videos. Now we have video. Now people can see things that are happening. That's why you're getting more protesters, because now they feel the effects of it.

    And I think that the military is a great organization. The Army is great. I enjoyed my time in it. But I think that more could be done.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And those military leaders who are in charge right now do say and admit that more needs to be done, and they say that they are going to do more in the future.

    Gentlemen, we will have to leave it there.

    Brigadier General Butler, Major General Pittard, thank you very much to you both.

  • Maj. Gen. Dana Pittard:

    Great. Thank you.

  • Brig. Gen. Remo Butler:

    My pleasure.

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