The chief of Air Force Materiel Command is “disappointed and frustrated” that 25 percent of respondents on climate surveys in AFMC reported racial slurs, jokes and innuendos were present in workplaces there.
“This tells me we do not have the right workplace environment,” Gen. Arnold W. Bunch Jr. said in a video statement on Wednesday. “I expect our workplaces and installations to be safe environments, free from prejudice or fear and free from reprisal against anyone who speaks out.”
The general’s video comes in the middle of a national conversation about race that is also taking place in the Air Force. After a report of a cover-up on racial disparities in the branch justice system came out last month, Chief of Staff Gen. David. Goldfein and Chief Master Sergeant Kaleth Wright called on airmen to become aware of their biases and stamp out discrimination where they see it.
The incoming Chief of Staff, Gen. Charles Q. Brown, also shared an emotional video about his own struggles with racism. The video came out days before Brown was confirmed by the Senate, thereby becoming the first black service chief in American history.
The Air Force Judge Advocate General told JAG airmen he welcomed their input on making the justice system more equitable, and the Air Force Inspector General said he would be conducting an investigation into racial disparities in how airmen are disciplined and promoted.
Bunch is the latest high-level Air Force general to publicly join the call on the branch to deal with racial disparities. The general has a wide audience to address: with a workforce of 87,000 personnel, AFMC is the largest and “most diverse” major command in the branch, he said. AFMC is the chief command for researching, developing, testing, fielding and providing the service with new equipment.
“The diversity of our team is a strength, and our views, experiences and skills contribute to the team,” he said. “As I often say ‘none of us is as smart as all of us.’”
Bunch told his airmen that now was the time for leaders to do everything they can to create that kind of environment. The first steps to do that, he said, are to acknowledge one’s own bias and blind spots when it comes to racial prejudice. The general pointed to himself as an example.
“I grew up in a small town in Tennessee. It was not a diverse upbringing,” he said. “I didn’t have a lot of interactions with people who didn’t look or sound like me.”
Bunch said he lived a sheltered life and had never been west of Nashville until entering the Air Force Academy in 1980. It wasn’t until he entered the Air Force that he “learned to push back on boundaries and pay attention to my own interactions to make sure I didn’t limit someone’s growth,” he said.
The general acknowledged that he and everyone else has unconscious biases, blind sports, and a lot to learn. To change that, he called on airmen to begin a dialogue, “that starts with simply listening.”
“This means we are going to have to be comfortable with being uncomfortable so we can have a dialogue and learn together,” he said.
Bunch said he expects leaders in particular to hold their people accountable at all levels in order to stamp out discrimination.
“If we remain silent or walk by these problems we will allow them to continue,” he said. “We do not want bystanders in our command. We may make mistakes along the way, but the biggest mistake we can make is to do nothing and simply hope it gets better.”