Air Force leader's impassioned tweets spark candid conversation about racism in America: "I am George Floyd"
It was the first time a senior DOD leader spoke about the death of George Floyd.
It started with a tweet on Monday.
The most senior enlisted member of the Air Force, Kaleth Wright, asked a question on Twitter: "Who am I?" But it was the answer to that question that went viral and sparked a candid conversation with Air Force leadership.
"I am a Black man who happens to be the Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force. I am George Floyd…I am Philando Castile, I am Michael Brown, I am Alton Sterling, I am Tamir Rice," Wright wrote, listing the names of black men killed by police officers.
It was the first time a senior leader in the Defense Department was publicly speaking out about the death of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer the week prior, that touched off nationwide protests about police brutality and systemic racism in America. It would be another 24 hours before Defense Secretary Mark Esper issued a statement to the force, and another 36 hours before he called a press conference.
"Just like most of the Black Airmen and so many others in our ranks...I am outraged at watching another Black man die on television before our very eyes," Wright continued.
"This, my friends, is my greatest fear, not that I will be killed by a white police officer (believe me my heart starts racing like most other Black men in America when I see those blue lights behind me) ... But that I will wake up to a report that one our Black Airmen has died at the hands of a white police officer."
In a series of tweets now shared thousands of times, Wright went on to talk about what he is doing as a senior leader in the Air Force to create change around issues of racial injustice. He also asked people to listen and try to better understand "what it's like to grow up, exist, survive & even thrive in this country as a Black person."
Later that day, the most senior officer in the Air Force, Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein, wrote to his commanders that the service is "not immune to the spectrum of racial prejudice, systemic discrimination, and unconscious bias" and called on them to disseminate Wright's message. He also announced that the Air Force Inspector General would conduct an independent review of the service's "legal system, racial injustice, and opportunities for advancement."
Just this March, the watchdog group, Protect Our Defenders, wrote that the Air Force had failed to make reforms to fix racial disparities in its justice system, following a 2017 report that found racial inequalities across the military justice system and extreme discrepancies in the Air Force specifically. That report said that black airmen were on average 71% more likely to face court-martial or nonjudicial punishment than their white counterparts.
On Tuesday, the Air Force posted a conversation on its social media pages between Wright and Goldfein in which the latter, a white man, acknowledged that "almost every room I've walked into has been full of me, and the systems that we operate in are sort of designed by me, for me."
Wright shared his fear that his two sons or young black Airmen could be the next George Floyd, and that while the leaders were "probably a little bit late" in addressing the issue, he was glad they were getting the opportunity to talk openly about race and encourage Air Force units to start the conversation.
"We're not going to get better overnight," Goldfein said. "This is weeks and months of engagement at every echelon of command to create the safe space for greater understanding."
The Air Force's decision to reach out to its force earlier this week seems to have been a purposeful choice. The Washington Post reported on Tuesday that senior Pentagon officials had directed military service chiefs to keep quiet about the issues, despite some expressing interest in responding.
Asked about that report during a press conference on Wednesday, Esper said, "What happened to George Floyd happens way too often in this country. And most times, we don't speak about these matters as a department, but as events have unfolded over the past few days, it became very clear that this is becoming a very combustible national issue."
He said that he had made the determination that he wanted to send "a clear message to the department about our approach" and to "set the tone" before giving other DOD leaders the space to express their thoughts.
After that press conference, those leaders did start to release their own messages about Floyd's death and racial inequities.
Army leadership acknowledged that racial divisions in America "live in the Army as well" and that those division "erode the trust" that the American people place in the U.S. military.
"Though we all aspire to live by the Army values of loyalty, duty, respect, selfless service, honor, integrity, and personal courage, the Army has sometimes fallen short," wrote Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy, Army Chief of Staff Gen. James McConville and Sergeant Major of the Army Michael Grinston. "How we respond to the anger that has ignited will chart the course of that trust."
Navy Chief of Operations, Adm. Michael Gilday, echoed a similar sentiment in a recorded video message to the fleet, saying that "racism is alive and well in our country ... and I can't be under any illusions that we don't have it in our Navy."
He encouraged sailors to approach others who express racism because it "happens a lot and it happens with people that we don't normally expect" who can be "friendly, generous and kind."
"Think about having a private conversation – an honest conversation in educating them," Gilday said. "Make them more self-aware of what they did and what they said. If we don’t do that, racism, injustice, indignity and disrespect – it’s going to grow and it’s going to continue. And we’ll have more weeks like we’ve had this week."
Navy leadership with Sixth Fleet and Naval Forces Europe/Africa called on its force to "redouble our personal efforts to create -- and ensure -- a climate and a culture that is based on respect, dignity, and inclusion in every corner of our organization."
"Bias, prejudice, and intolerance have no place on our team. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, 'The time is always right to do what is right.' Today, and every day, the right thing to do is to live up to our core values of Honor, Courage, and Commitment, lead by example, and build trust across our team."
Across the active duty, National Guard, and Reserves, about 17% of U.S. military is African American, compared to just over 13% in the general U.S. population, according to the Census Bureau.
ABC News' Luis Martinez contributed to this report.
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