Who am I? I am a white American man. I am a believer and follower of Jesus Christ, a husband, a father of four, a son, a brother and a servant to our nation as an officer in the U.S. Air Force.
I currently hold the rank of major and I am serving as the commander of 500 dedicated airmen from myriad cultures and experiences that form the multi-colored tapestry of these United States.
I am ashamed. It has taken me 31 years to wake up to the injustices happening all around me, every day.
Throughout my education, I was told that race is no longer a problem in America. I studied statistics, read about programs put in place to address wrongs, and was pointed to the success of some men and women as representative of all. I never asked classmates who were different from me how they felt. I wanted to believe everyone was safe so I accepted what I was told as fact.
This past week, a friend of mine and classmate from the Air Force Academy opened my eyes to his “American” experience. He is an outstanding officer, citizen and human being. We share a love of our country and a passion for service. And yet, we are different in this critical way: we do not enjoy equal protection under the laws of this nation we both swore an oath to defend.
He and I both wear the uniform of our country, we have answered the call of duty exactly the same way, and yet his past is scarred with the wounds of racism, his present is marred by persistent fear and the discrimination I thought had been eradicated in our country. His future as an American is clouded in uncertainty and darkness.
Enlightened by my friend’s experience, I was inspired to open myself up to listen to other people’s stories in hopes of connecting with and understanding the things they may be facing in our force and in society.
I was floored when Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force Kaleth Wright, an African American man, announced that even as the top enlisted leader in the Air Force, he is afraid to walk down the street without his uniform on. Also, Gen. Charles Brown Jr., our incoming chief of staff, will face the same dangers even though he will be the most powerful military member of the Air Force.
Over the course of the week, the scales covering my eyes fell off as I listened to airman after airman of diverse backgrounds, and began to realize the depth of the pain and consistent trauma my fellow airmen have experienced and continue to experience.
I am outraged. The institutions I faithfully serve to protect allowed George Floyd to be publicly murdered — in broad daylight — on a busy street. Before the eyes of the world, one man whose job was to protect and serve slowly drained the life of Mr. Floyd as three cowards in uniform stood by and watched. The same men who were sworn to defend the public instead defended a murderer from American citizens on the scene trying to intervene. Rather than seeing justice done, these brave bystanders watched powerlessly as their trusted servants betrayed the trust of their position.
Now that I have listened, I cannot remain silent anymore.
Ever since I was a child, I have chanted these words in pledge to the flag of the United States of America: “one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” Now, my heart is heavy with the realization that so many of my fellow Americans repeat these words as a hope for the still-distant future, but not as a statement of their present “American” reality. There is a cavernous gap in this country between where we are now and where we need to be, with the realization of those ideals for every person.
When we strive toward the goal of true liberty and justice for ALL, we leave no citizen behind. We have to stand up and say, “black lives matter,” because we recognize that until black lives matter, it is a lie for us to claim that all lives matter.
At the same time, we leave no one free from our gaze as we search out those who threaten our realization of those ideals. Because of this, I condemn the actions of men posing as defenders of freedom who abuse their authority, while I also condemn the actions of rioters and looters.
I respect honorable police officers, and I expect them to purge the evil from among their ranks with aggressive, legal action.
In the same way, my love for the uniform I wear inspires me to protect it by ensuring my fellow airmen live up to the highest standard. When any of us as defenders of freedom and justice miss the mark, regardless of the reason, we must be held accountable. As a leader who is responsible for the actions of those in my charge, I expect other leaders to be held accountable, too.
Liberty and justice for ALL cannot be a political issue in America. It is at the very core of our nation’s soul. The threat to our nation posed by the unequal application of liberty and justice can no longer be ignored. We cannot put this genie back in the bottle.
Leading meaningful change across this country has to start with two things. First, we must strive to understand the current reality. Our system of government can only thrive when we as citizens work to educate ourselves. Just as statistics are insufficient to decide whether one should participate in a game of Russian roulette, they are insufficient to develop an accurate understanding of what our fellow Americans are experiencing today. We must take our responsibility as citizens seriously and do the difficult work required to understand — through raw, real relationships — the life experiences of our fellow Americans.
Second, we must agree on our vision for the future. Our Declaration of Independence gave us that vision from the start of this, the greatest experiment in governance known to history. President Lincoln stood on the blood-stained grounds at Gettysburg and reiterated that same vision for all Americans: “that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom.” One hundred years later, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., again illustrated a vision for the soul of America before a packed National Mall in Washington, D.C., on Aug. 28, 1963.
The uncomfortable and tragic reality is that the words of these titans of American history ring in stark contrast with the realities many of our brother and sister Americans still face today. Only after we acknowledge this reality can we as a country get down to the real business of purging racism from among us.
We as citizens of this great experiment cannot look to any of our institutions to solve the injustices before us. In a government of, for and by the people, the people must drive the change from the ground level. I have seen this to be true within the ranks of the military, and I know from history it is true of American society. We cannot cast blame in cynicism when we hold within our own grasp the very authority we the people need to bring about this change.
For me, what began several days ago as a willingness to listen in complete discomfort has driven me to righteous anger at the evils I now see before me. Over the same period, I have seen hearts changed from bitterness or apathy to the shared conviction needed to right wrongs for the future; for all Americans. I have taken note of ways I can engage in my local community to bring the American dream closer for all of my neighbors. I have seen real connections between people break barriers and allow love to conquer bitterness and sadness to be shared in the redemptive joy of unity. I have hope for America and I know if we come together, we can get to where we need to be because I have already seen it happening within my own small scope of influence.
I am Brian Humphreys, and I come from a proud heritage of defenders of the freedom of all Americans, not just a select few. Join me in standing shoulder to shoulder with our fellow Americans of all backgrounds, and let us all fight to bring about an America where all citizens revel in genuine Liberty and Justice for ALL.
Editor’s note: Brian Humphreys is a Goodyear resident stationed at Luke Air Force Base. These views are his own and do not represent an official statement by the U.S. Air Force or U.S. Department of Defense.