WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Senate confirmed General Charles Brown on Tuesday as the first African-American military service chief, voting unanimously to make him chief of staff of the Air Force as the armed forces – and the country as a whole – grapple with questions about racial inequality.
The vote was 98-0, as Vice President Mike Pence made an unusual appearance presiding over the Republican-led chamber.
Brown, 58, is currently commander of the Pacific Air Forces.
There have been waves of protests across the United States and other countries over the past two weeks sparked by the May 25 death of George Floyd, a black man killed while in Minneapolis police custody after an allegation that he had used a counterfeit $20 bill to buy cigarettes.
Floyd’s funeral was taking place in Houston on Tuesday.
The military has been doing a mixture of damage control and soul-searching on race amid the protests, as Republican President Donald Trump sent in the National Guard to control demonstrations and threatened to deploy active-duty troops against U.S. citizens.
In response, service chiefs have issued poignant statements on race relations.
Brown recounted his experiences in an emotional video, speaking of how during his Air Force career he was “often the only African American in my squadron or, as a senior officer, the only African American in the room” and of wearing the same flight suit with wings pinned on his chest as his squadron yet being asked if he was a pilot.
He expressed hope that his confirmation would make a positive difference after centuries of racism in the United States.
“I am thinking about how I can make improvements, personally, professionally and institutionally so that all airmen, both today and tomorrow, appreciate the value of diversity and can serve in an environment where they can reach their full potential,” Brown said.
Reporting by Patricia Zengerle, Additional reporting by Idrees Ali and Arshad Mohammed; Editing by Peter Cooney