George Floyd’s killing has shocked the nation. “I can’t breathe,'' Floyd said. The last words of a man on a street in Minneapolis that have rocked the nation. These words have so much resonance throughout our history; words that, at their very heart, have helped to define the moral issue of our country — slavery and the long struggle for civil rights.
The freedom to breathe and live your life as your own are what were taken from men and women and their children when they were ripped from their lands and brought, in slavery, to this country. That is what was taken away from Native Americans and Alaska Natives when they were forced off of their lands.
The freedom to take the full breath of life is what is taken away from people in our state and across the nation when they are denied a quality education or safe neighborhoods; when they are denied jobs, or promotions when they get those jobs; when they are viewed, because of the color of their skin, as less deserving or less able.
I applaud those in Alaska and across the nation who have peacefully taken to the streets to protest against racism, and I also applaud the brave and honorable police officers and National Guardsmen who are protecting those who need protecting and reaching out to constructively engage with peaceful protesters. It is important to remember that the vast, vast majority of these law enforcement officers are honorable and risk their lives for us daily.
We are witnessing what I believe is an important moment, one that has the potential to move our country toward a more perfect union.
Senators are discussing what kind of legislative action should be taken, and I am looking at the bills being proposed. But beyond legislative action, something else that is happening in America. We are engaged in discussions, not just in the halls of government, but around dinner tables, among families and parents and their kids and their friends regarding what can be done at the individual level. This is certainly happening in my family.
That was the main point of a powerful, wisdom-filled op-ed by my former boss, friend and mentor, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, last week in the Washington Post, entitled “This moment cries out for us to confront race in America.” Condoleezza Rice was the daughter of the segregated South, raised in Birmingham, Alabama during the height of the struggle for civil rights, with sit-ins, protests and violence. She was eight years old when the Ku Klux Klan bombed a local church in Birmingham, killing four school-aged girls, one of whom was a friend of hers.
More than five decades later, through hard work, grace, dignity, and supreme intelligence, she rose to become one of the most powerful people in the world as Secretary of State of the United States. I had the honor of a lifetime to work for her for five years.
She recounts some of her personal journey in this op-ed, which I encourage all Alaskans to read, as well as our country’s journey. She notes one harsh indicator of progress. During her youth in Jim Crow Alabama, “No one batted an eye if the police killed a black man,” she wrote. “There wouldn’t have been even a footnote in the local press.” Now, hundreds of thousands are protesting.
But perhaps most importantly, Condoleezza Rice emphasizes something seemingly so obvious but not spoken much: individual action and responsibility as it relates to your own personal passion. She ends her piece with this challenge to her fellow Americans: “What will each of you do? ... What is your question about the impact of race on the lives of Americans? And what will you do to find answers?”
For days I thought about her challenge. What questions do I have? I have an amazing Alaska Native wife from whom I have learned much about the serious issue of racism against indigenous Alaskans and among the first peoples of America, but I have never experienced the kind of racism that many across our country have.
I am a colonel in the Marines, an institution I am very proud to be a part of. The fundamental ethos of the Marine Corps and our military is supposed to be this: It doesn’t matter what race you are. You are just a United States Marine, united brothers and sisters, defending America.
I believe that the U.S. military — desegregated in 1948, nearly 20 years before the passage of the Civil Rights Act — is one of the most exemplary civil rights organizations in America. But I know that it can improve in terms of race.
Last week, the Senate unanimously voted to confirm Gen. Charles Q. Brown, Jr., to be chief of staff of the U.S. Air Force — the first African-American in the history of our country to lead one of our five branches of the U.S. military
This was good news for racial progress in America, and I highlighted General Brown’s exceptional qualifications in a speech on the Senate floor prior to our vote. But his confirmation also begs an important question: Why did it take so long for this to happen, especially in one of America’s institutions with such high and commendable levels of racial diversity over so many decades?
General Brown hinted at some of those answers in moving video address that he gave recently when he talked about what was on his mind in the wake of the horrible George Floyd killing. In the Air Force, he says he was often the only African American in his squadron and, as a senior general officer, the only African American in the room.
“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?''
He said that his mentors rarely looked like him, and he talked about the pressure he felt to perform error-free, especially for supervisors he perceived had expected less of him as an African American.
Here is how I am going to take up Condoleezza Rice's individual challenge: I am going to ask questions about why, until last week, no African-American four-star had ever been confirmed to be a service chief in the U.S. military.
We need data to find answers. That’s why I am introducing an amendment to this year’s National Defense Authorization Act to get data on minorities and senior enlisted and officer billets in the military. We know that African Americans, Alaska Natives and American Indians serve at high rates in the U.S. military. In fact, Alaska Natives serve at higher rates in the military than any other ethnic group in the country, what I refer to as “special patriotism.”
Is this patriotic service reflected at the highest enlisted and officer ranks of our military? If not, then why not?
I suspect that a lot of our military leaders who have risen to the general officers ranks, like General Brown or other outstanding African-American generals whom I know and have served with, will have insightful views on these important matters.
Our military is something I am very passionate about, not only because it protects and defends our nation, but because, for decades, it has provided Americans of all colors and creeds with the opportunity to rise up individually and as a collective force for good in our society, enabling many to achieve their full potential and have a promising future after their service is completed.
If there is some kind of obstacle for minority advancement that stifles opportunities at the highest ranks of our military, then we need to know why and we need to work on addressing it, together. We need our military — like we need the rest of the country — to be a place where everyone who joins can breathe freely.
This is one way I intend to take up Condi’s challenge. It’s just one step, I know, and it won’t be my last. I encourage all Alaskans to look for ways to do the same.
Sen. Dan Sullivan, elected in 2014, is a U.S. senator for Alaska.
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