In an editorial published today in the Anchorage Daily News, Alaska Sen. Dan Sullivan talked about racial inequality in the nation’s military questioning why “one of the most exemplary civil rights organizations in America” doesn’t have black men and women at its highest ranks.
He cheered the recent confirmation of Gen. Charles Q. Brown, Jr. to be the chief of staff of the U.S. Air Force, marking the first black man to ever lead a branch of the U.S. military but wondered “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?”
Sullivan, a Trump-friendly Republican who’s up for re-election this year, should be asking himself that question.
While other high-profile military confirmations moved swiftly ahead in May, Brown was held back several weeks because Sullivan had placed a secret hold as part of leverage to get KC-46 refueling tankers assigned to Eielson Air Force Base. The hold was first published by Defense Now and later confirmed by Sullivan once the original story had been published.
“You probably saw the confirmation hearing. I had some follow up questions on it. They got back to me now and so he’s cleared hot,” Sullivan told the outlet. “You know the nomination process, you’ve seen that I take it very seriously. The questions I asked are serious and then when we have questions for the record, they’ve got to be answered appropriately. So we’re just going through that. And we got there, so yeah he’s cleared hot.”
Holds placed on military appointments are not new and Alaska’s congressional delegation has placed several in recent years over decisions to potentially shutter bases, but Sullivan’s hold comes at a particularly suspect time as the country grapples with deep-rooted racism in every sector. And though his question about “Why did it take so long?” is likely about the 245 years that America’s military branches went without a black leader, it ignores the fact that Sullivan alone was responsible for extending that period by several weeks.
For his part, Gen. Brown has talked passionately about how race has affected his time in the military, pushing him to work harder in order to prove others’ attitudes about African Americans—whether they’re thinking about it consciously or subconsciously—wrong.
“I’m thinking about my mentors and how I rarely had a mentor that looked like me,” he said in a video address. “I’m thinking about the sound advice that has led to my success and, even so, most of my mentors cannot relate to my experience as an African American. I’m thinking about the pressure I felt to perform error-free especially for supervisors I perceived had expected less from me as an African American. I’m thinking about having to represent by having to work twice as hard to prove their expectations and perceptions of African Americans were invalid.”
Though placing these secret holds is one way for legislators to pressure military branches on big-ticket decisions, Defense News noted that it’s unlikely that Brown had the power to give Sullivan what he wanted.
“Usually, a senator will drop a legislative hold on a nominee after the presumptive official answers key questions or satisfies outstanding requests made by that lawmaker,” the outlet explained of the process. “However, the Air Force only announces basing decisions after going through an analytic process that takes into account factors such as cost, environmental considerations and how that location affects the ability of a platform to accomplish its mission — making it unlikely that Brown could satisfy a request from a lawmaker to base assets in a certain location.”
As for what’s ahead for Sullivan and diversity in the military, he said he plans to introduce an amendment into the National Defense Authorization Act to “get data on minorities and senior enlisted and officer billets in the military.” Oh, and he plans to talk with others about what can be done to diversify the military’s leadership:
“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.”