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.
A review of “The Air Force’s Black Ceiling” from one of the Air Force’s two black fighter pilot females! Here is the review Christina “Thumper” Hopper:
“I just finished reading this book, and I highly recommend it! It is available on Kindle and Audible. I mostly listened to it on Audible while driving to and from work and finished it in about a week. It was so well researched and an easy read for anyone interested in diversity and inclusion within the Air Force.
5 out of 5 stars
Compelling Answers to a Historic Problem!
“Thompson paints a thorough and compelling landscape of the problem of diversity in the Air Force and provides actionable solutions to move the organization in a more inclusive direction! As a black female fighter pilot, it provided me with answers and data to explain what I have experienced and seen in my last two decades of service to my country. This is a must-read for anyone who is serious about tackling the problem of diversity.
The Air Force’s Black Ceiling
The Air Force’s Black Ceiling
LESSONS FROM THE TUSKEGEE AIRMEN EXPERIMENT
I researched the Tuskegee Airmen with the belief that there had to be elements of their “experiment” that made them successful and that if these elements could be identified; they could be extracted and replicated. If so, these lessons can help the Air Force produce high-caliber minority fighter pilots in large numbers as was done 70 years ago.
It might seem striking to compare Tuskegee Airmen fighter pilot production to Air Force pilot production, because the Tuskegee Airmen were part of the Army Air Corps. It is a key distinction however because the Tuskegee Airmen were given the same standards as the Army Air Corps, but were in effect treated as a separate unit, largely because of segregation. As a result, the Tuskegee Airmen fighter pilot production had a different fighter pilot ecosystem, if you will, than any flying unit in Air Force history.
I believe their different ecosystem though, is the starting place to finding what made the Tuskegee Airmen successful. I do believe I have found several success factors that are still relevant for today’s training of minority pilots in the Air Force. Most of them were anecdotal or seemingly common sense and sat right on the surface to be gleaned. The challenge was taking these hidden-in-plain-sight success principles and finding the empirical explanations to back them up.
For example, it would be fairly easy for me as a black officer to understand why black pilots being trained in a nearly all-black unit with nearly all black mentors and one of the greatest black Air Force heroes as their leader would have more camaraderie and be more successful in flight training than in a setting typical of Air Force pilot training as it existed during my Air Force career. During my career a black officer/pilot would have been in a predominately white unit with very few same race peers, little or no same race mentors, and no senior role models of the same race, in a small town in Mississippi, Oklahoma, or Texas. The challenge that I will undertake in this book is to show empirically from research what is painfully obvious to me as I look at the success that was the Tuskegee Airmen.
These critical success factors are the following:
1. Making an investment in flight training prior to Specialized Undergraduate Pilot Training (SUPT)
2. Creating a more supportive, familiar culture in flight training
3. Having more black role models serving in flying leadership and instructor pilot positions
4. Committing to deliberate development of minority pilots and cultivating an excitement in the black community about becoming an Air Force pilot
Lessons Learned From Training
I believe the way the Tuskegee Airmen were trained is pivotal to understanding their success. Many of the first airmen were given flight training prior to SUPT; a move that I believe significantly bolstered their chances of success. Additionally, their unique ecosystem reduced the impact of negative factors that I will discuss later, such as self-fulfilling prophecy, tokenism, and the potential cultural biases of flight instructors vs. multicultural education.
Civilian Pilot Training Program
I believe one of the great lessons that I have learned from the study of the Tuskegee Airmen was that they benefitted from President Roosevelt’s decision to fund the Civilian Pilot Training Program (CPTP). CPTP was one of the largest federally funded vocational education programs in history (Amazon.com, n.d.). In 1938, President Roosevelt created the CPTP as part of the Civil Aeronautics Act that provided pilot training to 20,000 college students a year (Birch, 2007). CPTP provided 72 hours of ground school and 35 to 50 hours of flight instruction. CPTP graduates included Senator John Glenn, top American WWII ace Major Richard Bong and triple WWII ace Bud Anderson (Birch, 2007). Most notably, the CPTP included Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). As CPTP participants, Tuskegee Institute, Hampton Institute, Virginia State University, and Howard University, helped open the doors for the first black military pilots (Birch, 2007).
I think this one recommendation alone would significantly decrease the Air Force’s washout rate for minorities and non-minorities in undergraduate pilot training, as well as help mitigate the socioeconomic disadvantages minorities have as they are not likely to be exposed in high school to flight training and the academics related to the fundamentals of flight.
Exposure to the fundamentals of flight is a significant factor in how well pilot candidates perform on the Air Force Officer Qualification Test (AFOQT). The AFOQT measures a pilot candidate’s existing knowledge of the fundamentals of flight. A typical AFOQT has 12 sections of roughly 220 questions, of which 40 questions are on a plane’s instrument comprehension and the terminology of aviation (BaseOps.net, n.d.). Since the AFOQT is taken relatively early in pilot candidate’s college career, students who have had little to no exposure to these principles in high school will be significantly less prepared. Unfortunately, since pilot slots in Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) detachments and Officer Training School (OTS) are scarce and therefore competitive, selection to become a pilot heavily favors those students with higher AFOQT scores.
Base Ops.net, a website dedicated to helping young pilot candidates do well on the AFOQT, recommends studying aviation principles prior to testing and suggests some resources for preparation. The site also suggests obtaining a mentor, preferably a pilot to help you prepare for the exam. All of these recommendations would be helpful to pilot candidates that had little to no prior exposure to flight instruments and fundamentals of flight. This is likely the case for many minority students. However, the best preparation for the test would be completion of ground school and some actual flight hours. It is easy to see that a person who had actually completed ground school and flew in high school would do better on these segments of the test than someone who brushed up on these concepts in a book or in a conversation with a mentor.
A study was conducted interviewing 38 people, consisting of 14 ROTC and Air Force Academy recruiters and 24 instructor and student pilots from Laughlin and Luke Air Force bases and from Delaware State University. The group’s ethnic demographics included 31 African Americans, five Hispanics, one Asian and one Caucasian. The instructor pilots in this group confirmed the premise that “minorities’ lack of flying experience could be linked to performance on the flying-related portions of the AFOQT” and they suggested that “a person who had previous flying hours would score better on that test than someone without that additional experience” (Jerry M. Barucky, 1998). The report went on to say that “fewer of the minority candidates would have the resources to pay for those additional flying hours that might make the difference in their selection scores…and that some non-selected candidates might have been more competitive in the selection process and would have actually made successful pilots if they had the resources to obtain the training for selection (Jerry M. Barucky, 1998).
So, it is clear that lower AFOQT scores for minorities lower their likelihood to become pilots. Additionally, it is equally clear that lower scores for minorities is due in some part to the lack of exposure to the fundamentals of flight in high school.
It makes sense on a surface level that students who had flight instruction prior to SUPT would have greater success in SUPT. That’s just as true today as it was for the Tuskegee Airmen. Prior flying experience should directly correlate to greater success in SUPT.
It also stands to reason that cadets who have been afforded opportunities to fly would return from the experience with increased levels of motivation. The increased levels of motivation would likely be expressed in their military and academic performance — both selection factors for SUPT. Finally, increased experience prior to pilot training will also make the student pilots more comfortable while in training at SUPT and better able to absorb instruction from the instructor pilot. In the previously mentioned study that interviewed instructor and student pilots from Laughlin and Luke Air Force Bases, it was pointed out that “a large percentage of minorities entered SUPT with less flying experience than their non-minority counterparts” and these pilots felt that “this translated into less confidence and greater stress” (Jerry M. Barucky, 1998).
Could a CPTP-like program be constructed for today’s cadets in ROTC? Absolutely. While conducting the Defense Business Board study in 2003, I learned of a CPTP-like program called Flight Awareness Summer Training (FAST). The FAST program, administered by the Small and Disadvantaged Business Office (SAF/SB), was originally designed as a 10-week program to provide FAA pilot licensing flight training to rising senior AFROTC cadets under the sponsorship of Historically Black Colleges and Universities and other Minority Institutions. FAST was originally conceived to address the washout rates of minorities. However, FAST was funded primarily “out of hide” from SAF/SB and its end-of-year dollars and never funded by the Air Force Corporate Structure. This lack of funding resulted in the program being trimmed to three weeks of training and greatly reducing its potential impact. FAST also conflicted with Air Force Reserve Officer Training Corps (AFROTC) training activities that included field training and Initial Flight Training (IFT). Since senior Air Force leadership never embraced FAST, there was never a forcing function to resolve the conflict with IFT. FAST training had a significantly lower cost per student than IFT and FAST graduates would likely not need IFT. When I spoke to AFROTC officials, I learned that since so few AFROTC cadets become pilots, there wasn’t room in the program to “make room” for something like FAST. This would have been an issue for the AETC/CC and possibly CSAF to resolve if FAST had been recognized for what it was—an inexpensive way to provide additional flight training to minority cadets with the end goal of reducing the SUPT washout rate.
I was amazed that a small office such as the Air Force Small Business office could build a program like FAST. It selected Historically Black Colleges and Hispanic Institutions with AFROTC units, with locations near airfields, worked out cross town arrangements for ground school instruction, built logistic support agreements, came up with funding and actually started putting minority students in the air. Unfortunately, the Corporate Air Force could not find funding for such a small program and SAF/SB finally ran out of its ability to fund FAST in April 2006. When the director of SAF/SB left, the program ended and there was no official tracking done by the Air Force on FAST graduates to see if they indeed had a statistically lower washout rate. It was as if the program never existed.
Self-Fulfilling Prophecy and Stereotype Threat
As I alluded to earlier, I believe that one of the things that made the Tuskegee Airmen experiment successful in addition to their prior flying training is that their unique ecosystem of a large concentrated group of minority pilots reduced the impact of negative factors, such as self-fulfilling prophecy, tokenism, unfavorable culture/lack of same race role models and the cultural biases of flight instructors.
One of the biggest things that the Tuskegee Airmen overcame was the notion that black men could not fly. They overcame the prevailing racist stereotypes of that era that black men did not have the aptitude to achieve such a complex task as completing flight training and becoming military aviators. They overcame stereotypes and conceptions about their abilities and their character that people of my generation and certainly successive generations could never comprehend. It is important to replay some of these horrendous stereotypes briefly to underscore what the Tuskegee Airmen overcame in order to emphasize that their unique ecosystem is part of the reason that they overcame it. This is also important because some similar, though less degrading and pointed, stereotypes have subtly resurfaced and need to be overcome the same way that the Tuskegee Airmen overcame them. In 1925, a report was provided to the Army Chief of Staff by Major Gen. H. E. Fly, Commandant of the Army War College. Maj. Gen. Fly held strong opposition to the “negro” man being in combat: “His [black male] mental inferiority and the inherent weaknesses of his character are factors that must be considered with greatest care in preparation for his employment in war.” He went on to say that the “negro” as a fighter lacked necessary combat ability, even when being led by a white officer. In the report Maj. Gen. Fly expounded on his viewpoints about black men:
• Inherently weak in character failed in the World War
• Believes himself to be inferior to the white
• Cannot control himself in the fear of danger to the extent the white man can
• Has not the initiative and resourcefulness of the white man
• Has not developed leadership qualities
Maj. Gen. Fly was against black men in combat, and also made this statement: “Neither the white man or the negro should be given tasks that they are not qualified to perform. However, the plan for the use of the man power of the United States in war should be fair to both races” (The Army War College, Office of the Commandant).
The report from the Army War College shows that one of the greatest challenges that the Tuskegee Airmen had to overcome was the horrific and debasing characterizations of their character, abilities and courage that existed in American society during that time. It would be hard for many not to ingest the poison of these disgusting stereotypes and not be affected in their self-image in some way. It is easy to see that there could be a residue, an in internal impact that resulted from living in a world that saw you as inferior as a man in every conceivable way. One of those internal impacts is called self-fulfilling prophecy. It is the notion that you can become all of the things that people expected you to become, positive or negative. In fact, “psychologists have theorized that stereotypes can be a self-fulfilling prophecy, that people internalize stereotype messages, living up — or down — to those expectations (Marks, 2009).
In a recent study published in the journal Experimental Aging Research, “psychologists at North Carolina State University in Raleigh tested the theory, using the stereotype that older people have faulty memories. Seniors ages 60 to 82 were given a recall test. Triggering the stereotype, half the group was told the test would examine the effect of aging on memory. The other half was assured that age-related bias had been removed from the test. Those in the first group performed significantly lower, fulfilling the negative expectations of the stereotype. Stanford psychologist Claude Steele calls this phenomenon “stereotype threat.” Numerous studies have shown that when a message purporting to define who and what we are is repeated, we internalize and come to believe it, whether or not it is true. The phenomenon affects widely diverse groups from African Americans to jocks to teenage girls (Marks, 2009).
The greatest danger is not that we don’t have enough black fighter pilots. The greatest danger is that we are moving backwards toward the perception that black people don’t have the ability (intellectual, cultural, social, or instincts) to fly, specifically to fly fighter aircraft. For the length of my time in a blue uniform, nearly 30 years, my white classmates have not seen black people becoming pilots in significant numbers, certainly not fighter pilots. So when we talk about the impact of self-fulfilling prophecy and perceptions that have existed for at least 30 years, we are not only talking about the impact of these perceptions residing with the instructor pilot. We also must also consider the multiplied impact of these perceptions and stereotypes existing for an even longer period of time with the flight commander, the squadron commander, the Operations Group Commander, the Wing and even numbered Air Force commander, and every level of leadership in the chain. Everyone in that chain has some degree of impact and some degree of say so as to whether this person makes it through pilot training and whether this person gets selected for fighters.
Imagine a scenario with an instructor pilot or even with the squadron commander in undergraduate flight training dealing with a black pilot candidate who is struggling. When they are deciding if he can cut it and they discuss it up the leadership chain, what would the more senior leader say? That senior leader has grown up in an Air Force where it seems to be true that “black people can’t fly” or “they usually don’t make it to fighters”. Would the senior leader be able to evaluate the black pilot candidate objectively or having not seen black fighter pilots, would he default to a self-fulfilling prophecy? The notion that black people can’t fly could easily become, if it has not already, a prevalent stereotype and lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy.
The classic study on self-fulfilling prophecy is Rosenthal and Jacobson’s “academic spurters” study, in which the experimenters told teachers that certain ones of their students had been identified as “academic spurters,” who had lots of potential for learning and growth. The truth was that the students were chosen randomly, and there should have been no difference in the increase in their IQ relative to the other students’ over the course of the year. However, the teachers’ expectations for and beliefs about those students induced them to treat them differently, providing better and more feedback, asking them more questions, different sorts of praise, etc. And the “academic spurters” did end up having a significantly greater IQ increase than the other students in their class. We also see lots of examples of this in studies on race and discrimination. Too often, teachers and employers hold (implicit or explicit) biases against certain races (or genders), which results in different treatment, which results in differences in performance -- either because minorities were given less valuable feedback, or because minorities noticed that they were being treated differently, which activated anxiety that led to underperformance (Glasrud, 2011).
The chain of command in the previous fictional scenario needs to become familiar with any kind of facts that would counter the stereotype that is and has been so prevalent. I have not seen any research where the Air Force has studied the impact of self-fulfilling prophecy on its pilot training practices. What has the Air Force done to mitigate the effects of perceptions, though quietly held, have likely existed for decades? All the studies I have ever read on minority underperformance in pilot training has always focused on the student and his qualifications and never the perceptions and underlying expectations and stereotypes held by the instructor or other leaders in the evaluation chain of command.
I retired from the Air Force never knowing that Chappie James was the Vice Wing Commander of one of the most famous fighter squadrons in Vietnam under Robin Olds. They were known as “Blackman and Robin” an awesome leadership team, the perfect example of fighter combat leadership nearly 30 years after the Tuskegee Airmen experiment and WWII. If there is a question about African Americans and what kind of combat pilots they would make, what kind of leaders they would be, we have an answer in Gen. James, and we have an answer in Col. McGee the only fighter pilot to fly 100 or more combat flying missions in WWII, Korea, and Vietnam, 409 total.
What about the impact of “stereotype threat” on the black pilot candidate? A potential black fighter pilot, while trying to build his confidence to get through a very rigorous training program, sees few if any same race role models. He has also become aware that black people in general, or historically have not fared well in pilot training. Yes, he has heard of the Tuskegee legacy, but can he really identify with and connect to his great-grandfather’s generation for encouragement today? How does this black pilot candidate deal with the unspoken, palpable message in his midst that “black people can’t fly”? How does he avoid ingesting the prevailing stereotype? One of the significant things that I have found in research about stereotypes is the fact that they can also be internalized with significant negative impacts, previously referred to as stereotype threat:
“We call this predicament stereotype threat and argue that it is experienced, essentially, as a self-evaluative threat. In form, it is a predicament that can beset the members of any group about whom negative stereotypes exist. Consider the stereotypes elicited by the terms yuppie, feminist, liberal, or White male. Their prevalence in society raises the possibility for potential targets that the stereotype is true of them and, also, that other people will see them that way. When the allegations of the stereotype are importantly negative, this predicament may be self-threatening enough to have disruptive effects of its own (Claude M. Steele, 1995).
It is my assertion that the Tuskegee Airmen overcame the effects of stereotype threat and its own harmful effect on their identity. Ultimately, the Tuskegee Airmen achieved success as military aviators because they had the assistance, the camaraderie of significant numbers of fellow black pilots in flight training and a dynamic role model leader in Col. Benjamin O. Davis Jr.
The minority pilots of today do not have the kind of numbers and role models in place to allow them to collectively feed off of each other and fend off the type of stereotypes that, though not as pungent and base as those of the 1930s, still exist today. When I refer to the stereotypes of today, I am not only referencing the unspoken but tangible assertion that black people don’t do well in pilot training or that they really aren’t cut out to be fighter pilots. I am also underlining the kind of characterizations that are being published now that are similar to those found in the 1925 Army War College report.
Dr. Daniel Haulman, a historian employed by the Air Force’s own Historical Research Agency has seemingly made it his career ambition to systematically dismantle every significant achievement of the Tuskegee Airman’s legacy. In his most recent report “Misconceptions About the Tuskegee Airmen” he lists 43 “misconceptions” that take aim at every significant achievement of the Tuskegee Airmen with the goal of proving that the Airmen were neither “superior” or “inferior” but “that they were equal to the other fighter pilots with whom they served” (Haulman, 2015).
Dr. Haulman starts out this report with a quote from the famed Commander of Tuskegee Army Air Field Noel Parrish:
Each establishment of a ‘Negro unit’ project was finally covered with a smoke screen of praise, which clouded the issues and obscured the facts.” In another part of the same thesis, Parrish noted that the black units “gathered more than necessary praise,” and that “military men showed an overwhelming tendency to believe, repeat, and exaggerate all the stories.” He commented, “Such a situation [segregation] leads to an exaggeration of both the honors and the defamations.” Philosophically, he wrote, “When it is difficult to tell which praise is merited, it is certainly difficult to determine what blame is deserved.”
Dr. Haulman concludes his 104 pages of “misconceptions” by mirroring his opening comments:
Whoever dispenses with the misconceptions that have come to circulate around the Tuskegee Airmen in the many decades since World War II emerges with a greater appreciation for what they actually accomplished. If you read the entire report you come to understand that what Dr. Haulman really seems to say is that “whoever dispenses with the” 43 misconceptions that I have uncovered, “misconceptions that have come to circulate” for decades “will have a greater appreciation for what they actually accomplished”. (Haulman, MISCONCEPTIONS ABOUT THE TUSKEGEE AIRMEN , 2015)
4. The misconception of being first to shoot down German jets
5. The misconception that the Tuskegee Airmen sank a German destroyer
6. The misconception of the “Great Train Robbery”
7. The misconception of superiority
8. The misconception that the Tuskegee Airmen units were all black
9. The misconception that all Tuskegee Airmen were fighter pilots who flew red-tailed P-51s to escort bombers
10. The misconception that after a flight with a black pilot at Tuskegee, Eleanor Roosevelt persuaded the President to establish a black flying unit in the Army Air Corps
Although Dr. Haulman says that black and white fighter pilots “were equal” in terms of their WWII performance, he systematically dismantles every significant accomplishment of the greatest black pilots that ever lived, and in doing so, directly contributes to the stereotypes that exist in 2016. Consequently, if the best black fighter pilots that ever lived, the people Haulman calls “the cream of the crop” were average and most of their highly touted successes were “misconceptions” and inaccuracies, what is the black pilot of today supposed to believe about himself and what he can be become in the Air Force?
The issue is not if Dr. Haulman’s misconceptions can be verified as facts, but the tone and attitude in which those “facts” are presented. In the opening paragraph of his 43 misconceptions paper, Dr. Haulman highlighted a quote from Noel Parrish that said, “military men showed an overwhelming tendency to believe, repeat, and exaggerate all the stories” (Haulman, “Misconceptions About the Tuskegee Airmen”, 2015). However, I would think this phenomenon, if it were true, would be true of all military men, black, white or otherwise. This would be similar to the notion that all men exaggerate their accomplishments. However, Dr. Haulman seems to imply that only the Tuskegee airmen and their supporters exaggerated their stories. In conclusion, from reviewing Dr. Haulman’s body of work, it seems that his zeal for ‘historical accuracy’ and his search for exaggeration does not extend beyond the Tuskegee Airmen. I have seen that Dr. Haulman has been involved in the verification of sorties during the Vietnam War but his approach with the Tuskegee Airmen seems to target more than the facts and figures concerning their units’ accomplishments but also their heritage and identity. Dr. Haulman inappropriately crosses a line by questioning the racial identity of the Tuskegee Airmen. His statement is egregious, blatantly distasteful, offensive and outlandish:
“Even the black pilots of the Tuskegee Airmen units were not all black. Many of them descended not only from African Americans, but also from European Americans and native Americans. Some were a mixture of all three. Yet, no matter how little African American blood they had, most of the members of the Tuskegee Airmen organizations were classified as “colored” in the World War II period. The skin color and hair texture and facial features of the Tuskegee Airmen varied as greatly as their height. Some of the Tuskegee Airman pilots looked more white than black (Haulman, “Misconceptions About the Tuskegee Airmen”, 2015).
To suggest that a black person is not black if he has any white or native American blood or both or because he was fair-skinned would likely erase a significant percentage of the black population. There is a biblical adage that says “out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.” These words from Dr. Haulman expose the fire behind the zeal for Dr. Haulman’s career focus. Seemingly the one thing that Dr. Haulman couldn’t take away from the Tuskegee Airmen was the fact that they were black, but he tried.
When I read this disgusting quote I was compelled to research Dr. Haulman’s background, hoping to find something that would excuse the overt racism in the quote and perhaps attribute it to unbelievable ignorance or insensitivity. What I found though is a historian that went to college in Alabama, who lived in Alabama, during a time when no such definition of black people would have been tolerated. How could a Alabama historian of his age be unfamiliar with Alabama’s state laws?:
The Alabama legislature reinforced this statute in new penal codes that were enacted in 1867 (§ 3602), 1876 (§ 4189), 1886 (§ 4018), and 1896 (§ 5096). In 1901, Alabama drafted a new state constitution, wherein the anti-miscegenation statute was made a part of the state constitution: “The legislature shall never pass any law to authorize or legalize any marriage between any white person and a negro, or descendant of a negro.” The final revisions to Alabama’s anti-miscegenation law were adopted in the Code of Alabama of 1940, which stated: “If any white person and any negro, or the descendant of any negro intermarry, or live in adultery or fornication with each other, each of them shall, on conviction, be imprisoned in the penitentiary for not less than two nor more than seven years. (Richter, 2015)”
As a black man I remember my mother telling me that she grew up under the saying ‘one drop of n*****…made you n*****…all over.” I actually found that this saying wasn’t just something passed down through black folklore but actual legislation that would have existed long after the Tuskegee Airmen served:
Until the Supreme Court intervened in 1967, laws enforced by many states barred interracial marriage and thus discouraged marriages that might result in mixed race children…Part I outlines the history of the anti-miscegenation laws, which sought to limit interracial marriages between Blacks and Whites and thus mixed race offspring. Extralegal means, namely, “lynch law” and this nation’s sordid history of lynching African American men accused (often wrongly) of crossing the color line, powerfully buttressed the legal prohibition. The readings document the slow demise of the anti-miscegenation laws in the courts. Part II considers racial formation and mixed race identity and outlines the legal definition of African American identity - the “one drop” rule, that is, the legal rule that “one drop” of African American blood made a person African American. By operation of this rule of law, many mixed race people were deemed to be African American (Johnson, 2002).
As an Alabama historian I find it nearly impossible for Dr. Haulman not to know of the “one drop” rule or the fact that “wrongly crossing the color line” was a crime punishable by death. If there were Tuskegee Airmen who were not truly black as Dr. Haulman asserts, and were fair enough to try to pass themselves off as white, it would have been at risk of death in the 1940s. It is a cruel thing for Dr. Haulman to imply and sullies the entire body of his work.
Just as I was astonished that at the characterization of the black man in the 1925 Army War College report, I am equally astonished and saddened that this type of material can be found on the Air Force Historical Research Office’s official site with a publication date of October 2015. It’s appalling and inexcusable. The sentiments, however subtle, expressed on an official United States Air Force website, are the type of poison that help the negative stereotypes about black pilots to continue to live. If we are to see these negative stereotypes eradicated in the minds of black and white Air Force members and society a-large, we must all vigorously oppose subtle characterizations, such as Dr. Haulman’s, that imply that even the greatest black pilots that ever lived weren’t even all that great.
I find it interesting also that Dr. Haulman makes scant mention of the fact that the Tuskegee Airmen were the only unit that had to fight two wars at once: the war against the Axis powers and the war against its own Army Air Corps leadership and even the War Department, over the unit’s existence (Haulman, “A Short History of the Tuskegee Airmen, 2015). The Tuskegee Airmen’s famed leader, Col. Benjamin O. Davis Jr., had to divide time between defending his units’ existence, fighting for the right to fight, fighting for comparable equipment and leading his unit to success in combat. No other flying commander in history can make such a claim. How great could the Tuskegee Airmen have been if they were left alone to fly, fight and win as their white counterparts were? This story of resilience is one of the greatest accomplishments of the Tuskegee Airmen and must be relayed as such if the stereotypes about black fighter pilots are to be destroyed.
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?
Best and the Brightest With Something to Prove
The Tuskegee Airmen were black men with degrees (many of them math and science) received during the mid-to-late 1930s. They were some of the nation’s best and brightest black men. What attracted men of this caliber to military service?
The CPTP provided initial flying training to a generation of Americans for who powered flight was brand new. At the time of the Tuskegee experiment, there was great excitement about becoming a pilot, serving in the nation’s armed forces and for black men, a chance to disprove diabolical misrepresentations about their courage, their intellect, and their physical ability to fly.
Most of these motivations do not exist today, and it is my assertion that the Air Force must go out into the minority community and cultivate the desire to fly in minority youth. I will discuss this more in the “Build Your Own Pipeline” chapter of this book. This generation of minority youth have so many other choices than to fly—choices as diverse as to become the next President Barack Obama, Oprah Winfrey, Lebron James, Serena Williams, Jay-Z, and Beyonce.
The study I previously mentioned where 38 people—14 ROTC and Air Force Academy recruiters and 24 instructor and student pilots from Laughlin and Luke Air Force bases—came up with a similar conclusion:
Large public and private academic institutions, corporations, and even other government agencies are willing to provide incentives to attract top minority students. Many of the nations’ top schools offer attractive scholarship programs equal to the free education provided by the USAFA or AFROTC; and they require no service commitment, leaving the students free to choose any opportunities offered upon completion of college…. Given the lucrative opportunities available to highly qualified minority students, the focus group members were doubtful that the Air Force will be able to generate sufficient interest in the short term, without extremely generous financial incentives to high school seniors or college students. They emphasized instead the need to effect a shift in attitudes about flying, by getting minority community members more direct experience with the world of aviation and especially by initiating community programs which will introduce minority youth to flying and get them ‘bitten by the flying bug.’ They also stressed the need to get minority pilots into these communities as role models, to remind the youth of the Tuskegee Airmen and other successful minority aviators, and to demonstrate that a flying career is something that is attainable” (Jerry M. Barucky, 1998).
During my time on the Defense Business Board Task Force, I researched the officer recruiting strategies of all three services and met with members of their staffs. At the time of the study in 2003 I found the Air Force to be the least aggressive of the three services in terms of its approach to recruiting minorities. It was my assessment then that the Air Force was unwilling to match the intensity of other suitors for the most highly qualified minorities, both inside and outside of the Armed Services.
I think the most tantalizing offer the Air Force has to attract this caliber of student is a chance to become a fighter pilot, to fly the F-22 or F-35. Sadly, the ability to successfully produce black fighter pilots is where the Air Force’s track record is the most deficient so it has few role models to put in front of prospective applicants. The Air Force has to the follow the example of McDonald’s and other industry leaders and seek to establish itself through marketing, more sophisticated advertising, and other varied means as the employer of choice for top minority talent. It will also have to win over a generation of what the recruiting community calls “influencers”—parents and educators—who do not see the Air Force as the employer of choice for its best and brightest minority students because of its diversity record. The Barucky report came to similar conclusions:
Focus group members suggested that many minorities view aspects of military life from a very negative perspective…In some cases these attitudes are engendered by parents/grandparents who carry a negative impression based on long held anti-war sentiments and experiences from the Vietnam era. Some minority community members have articulated their perceptions that the military treats minorities poorly…In addition, for many parents, the military is (appropriately) associated with physical danger and with the taking of lives: situations they prefer to have their children avoid (Jerry M. Barucky, 1998).
If it is true that there are more negative sentiments towards the military in the minority community, then the Air Force needs to accept that addressing those sentiments is just the cost of entry to obtaining highly talented minority students. Unfortunately as I previously stated, at the time of the study in 2003, the Air Force seemed to have an “if we build it, they will come mentality” versus realizing that it had to be more aggressive in its efforts to win over this specific portion of the population. The Barucky report seems to capture best how I would describe the Air Force’s passive approach, at least during my career:
While representation among officer corps has not reflected the percentages of minorities within the population at large, it has been representative of the percentages of minorities among college graduates. As a college degree is a prerequisite for commissioned service, the Air Force has tried to ensure that it was getting its fair share of that somewhat smaller, but growing, pool of talent (Jerry M. Barucky, 1998).
To me the “fair share” mentality is a cop out. The findings in the Defense Business Board report in 2003 also took this easy way out as well just saying there aren’t enough college-educated minorities out there to significantly change the officer, particularly flying officer diversity landscape in the Air Force (Defense Business Board, 2004). Were there more college-educated minorities in the late 1930s when the Air Force built the largest cadre of black fighter pilots ever assembled? What corporation would survive by saying that it would just be content with its “fair share” of profits based on an analysis of its current market share and competitive position? The most successful companies go out and change their approach to succeed in capturing an even greater segment of the market. Unfortunately, they do this with a view to the bottom-line profits that this greater share of the market will bring. This brings me back again to one of the greatest underlying problems of the Air Force’s approach: It cannot define for itself how having more black officers, especially fighter pilots, contributes to its bottom-line. It is already for all intents and purposes the greatest flying force on earth…right?