US Military Celebrates Diversity through Segregation

Celebrating “Diversity”…You’re Doing it Wrong.

Documented histories of the Tuskegee Airmen indicate the famed World War II aviators “overcame segregation” to become some of the best combat units of the war, and that their continued excellence in service ultimately contributed to the de-segregation of the US military long before the rest of American society.

In a twist of apparently unintended irony, the US military has repeatedly chosen to celebrate the Tuskegee triumph over segregation by…instituting segregation [emphasis added]:

The aircraft was a C-5M Super Galaxy assigned to the 22nd Airlift Squadron, and its 11-person crew was all African-American. This historic mission was created to honor the heritage of the Tuskegee Airmen…

This flight was historic since it was the first time an all African-American C-5M crew was formed to honor the heritage of the Tuskegee Airmen and highlight the diversity of the Air Force…

“It is important that the Air Force is diverse enough to have an all African-American crew…”

To make the crew work, they needed to de-conflict schedules…“The barriers to making this happen were just coordinating a time when everyone could be available between other training events, leave and other obligations.”

In other words, a US Air Force unit went out of its way to coordinate the schedules of personnel and aircraft to make sure it could man a mission with an entire crew of one particular skin color.

That was 2018, but it continued in 2019 and the trend continues today, with US Air Force units bending schedules and altering crew makeups to make sure an aircraft is crewed only by persons of one race in a practice now being dubbed “heritage flights.” Last week, Fairchild AFB proudly announced it had launched a KC-135 crewed with men and women of only one skin color:

An all African-American KC-135 crew from Fairchild Air Force Base undertook a mission to refuel historic Red Tail Squadron F-16 Fighting Falcons from the 187th Fighter Wing, Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama, Feb. 18, in honor of Black History Month.

While she probably — hopefully — didn’t mean it, Capt Jazmind Roberts had a seemingly disturbing view toward her fellow Airmen who aren’t African-American [emphasis added]:

“We don’t have much [African-American] representation [at Fairchild] right now. This flight is to show we also have representation on [the KC-135]. We’re always with other people and never get the chance to be in a crew where everyone has the same culture and bond.”

It’s not entirely clear what she meant by “other people”, but its reminiscent of a Robert Downey Jr movie bit. And can you imagine the (justifiable) blowback if a white Air Force pilot had implied that a group of fellow Airmen all had the same “culture and bond” only because they were all black?

The Fairchild press release ended with a noble statement [emphasis added]:

The Air Force and Team Fairchild believe black history and diversity of the force makes everyone faster, better and stronger.

If you believe diversity makes everyone better, why would you go out of your way to launch a non-diverse aircrew?

Lest you think this cognitive dissonance is solely the domain of the US Air Force, the US Army did the same thing:

An all African-American crew of Soldiers from Alpha Company, “Task Force Voodoo”, 1st Assault Helicopter Battalion, 244th Aviation Regiment, Louisiana National Guard, manned a UH-60M Black Hawk helicopter on a training mission commemorating Black History Month at Camp Buehring, Kuwait, Feb. 27, 2018.

To deepen the irony, two of those Soldiers are Equal Opportunity officers — representing the very office to whom one would complain if there was an allegation of preference or selection based on race.

This isn’t the first time this has been done, nor has it been confined to skin color. The military has previously published similar stories celebrating single-gender missions (but only when the gender was female, and again in 2019).  And yes, the Army did that, too.

On one level, it is easy to see the innocence of those who are just trying to highlight something they think is “good.” It’s understandable that someone would want to celebrate groups who “look like me” when it comes to military service, particularly when the US military has a poor history in that regard. (In fact, there are examples of the military doing this kind of article “right“, too.) And, to a point, there is value in people encouraging recruitment from people “like them.” But how it is done could be as important as what is done.

More importantly, can the military as an institution claim such innocence or naïveté with regard to tolerance and equal opportunity? It certainly appears that race — more accurately, skin color — was the determining factor in the choice of personnel for these military missions.

In what context is choosing personnel based on skin color consistent with US military policies and a culture of meritocracy?

It seems likely that in any other context military leadership would counsel those troops that “our strength is in our diversity” and that selecting a mission crew based on peoples’ physical appearance was wrong.

Could not a powerful homage to the Tuskegee Airmen have been a photograph of a racially diverse aircrew? Such a picture would have shown the US military now chooses its troops based on merit, skill, and competence — not their physical appearance, the very discrimination with which the Tuskegee Airmen had to contend. That would have been a strong statement on the legacy of the Tuskegee Airmen.

Does anyone really think it would have been a good idea to celebrate a race-based crew selection if the crew had been Caucasian? Would the Air Force publish a story in which a helicopter pilot chose his crew because they were men? Do you think Michael “Mikey” Weinstein would stand idly by if the Air Force published an article about an all-evangelical Christian nuclear bomber crew?

With that in mind, these “heritage” events have not entirely been public relations successes. The Air Force article on the first story above from Travis AFB acknowledged pushback on social media at the idea of an aircrew formed based on skin color.

Diversity is celebrated by demonstrating diversity. Sometimes it seems society — and the military — has forgotten what the word “diversity” even means.  Diversity refers to “variety” or “differences.”  “All of one thing” is not diversity, and diversity does not connote the elevation of a single ethnicity, gender, skin color, or sexual behavior — minority or not.

As in society, the history of race relations in the US military has its shame, and the segregation of World War II is one of those key low points. The Tuskegee Airmen fought under those shameful conditions, but their success ultimately destroyed the foundational lie of segregation.  Their fight formed an “arc of justice,” to use the words of a Tuskegee Airman who noted that it’s “not black historyIt is American history.”

Potentially the most annoying part of this story is that the Air Force doesn’t have to look far for actual diversity. Try the 2019 F-22 Demo Team:

Is this reality insufficiently exciting? Does this picture and its story not honor the Tuskegee legacy?

The Tuskegee Airmen should absolutely be honored, and their legacy should be lauded. They rose through adversity and achieved victory over injustice — and that should be celebrated.

Some might say they would best be honored by celebrating the outcome of their legacy — that is, diversity in the US military — rather than appearing to revive the discrimination that made their struggle necessary.

Read more history on the Army side.