Commentary: Commit to 'do your part' this MLK Day

  • Published
  • By Col. Jeffrey Holland
  • 75th Air Base Wing commander

As Dr. King said, “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and moment of convenience, but where he stands in moments of challenge and moments of controversy.”

This moment is a time of challenge controversy. You and I are being measured — and we’re failing. Our fellow Airmen — uniformed and civilian, active and reserve component — and our Air Force need us. They need us to recapture momentum lost to distraction, indifference, deference, and ignorance to help all Airmen achieve their potential. They need us — you and me — to make an individual and personal difference in our service.

In the aftermath of the George Floyd murder in May 2020, the Air Force moved out on assessing and beginning to address inequalities amongst us. We started to have hard conversations about race, privilege, diversity, and opportunity. Then those conversations slowed and stalled. COVID-19 response dominated the news and our lives. News stories conflated just causes with leaders’ flaws. Our communities didn’t have headline-grabbing issues and, when they did, those issues were dismissed as the actions of a few, as isolated incidents and not indicators of persistent problems. Momentum faded and we moved on.

Inequality became someone else’s problem to see and to solve. So, together, we’ve been waiting on the Air Force to fix our problem. The Air Force tried and is still trying, but can’t move fast enough. Regardless, real change starts with us — with you and with me — and is something we create, not something that happens to us. It’s no longer enough for us to just not be racist — that should be easy.

You and I need to stand for equality and inclusion. We need to actively and aggressively seek ways to create equality and opportunity for every Airman so we can, in Dr. King’s words, “bring an end to the blindness, fear, prejudice, pride and irrationality, which stand as barriers” to our Air Force’s enduring success. We all need to be trusted Airmen, exercising our four C’s: competence, commitment, courage, and compassion.

We need to increase our competence on the topics of racism, prejudice, and diversity by educating ourselves on how our differences affect opportunity, how the present is shaped by the past, and both the chance and need to change the future. Across the installation, we’re moving out on training that exposes us to “unconscious bias.” That bias is real and impacts how we live our lives. Be a harsh critic of yourself — do you truly afford equal opportunities to everyone even when they look different, have different opinions, or have different interests?

We need to be committed to making change, because the journey will not be quick, and our personal journeys create discomfort as we begin to recognize opportunities where we might have done better. As we make change, we must also recognize the reality of inertia in personal and organizational habits. Unless we maintain our engagement and monitoring, we will risk returning to the old ways. It takes commitment to keep improvements alive.

We must be courageous, because it won’t be easy. It’s not easy to keep difficult conversations at the forefront. We also require courage to push through natural defensive reactions — for example, fears that others’ rise will threaten another’s stature or status — and accusations that the desire to maximize everyone’s potential is politically-motivated, not rooted in the desire to better provide for our common defense.

Most of all, we need to exercise compassion. Compassion will enable us to share other Airmen’s experiences — to hurt when they face injustice, to be infuriated when they’re faced with unfairness, and even anger when they’re wronged. When we experience inequity alongside them, when we make their experience ours, “those Airmen” become “our Airmen” and we stop waiting for others to help because we recognize we have part in the remedy.

Dr. King, in commentary on the biblical story of the good Samaritan captured in Strength to Love, stated, “No longer can we engage in the luxury of passing by on the other side. Such folly was once moral failure; today, it can only lead to universal suicide ... I must not ignore the wounded man on life's Jericho Road because he is a part of me and I am a part of him. His agony diminishes me and his salvation enlarges me.” We cannot allow our fellow Airmen to be diminished. Our nation needs every Airman’s full contribution if we want to win when we fly and fight.

Commemorate this Martin Luther King, Jr. Day by committing to do your part. You don’t need to change the entirety of the Air Force or even the installation. Change your Air Force, which is you and those you interact with and influence daily. Purposefully look to see where inequality might exist and commit to engage where it does. Help those Airman around you break down barriers to their success. Extend an arm of assistance and pull Airmen up when needed. You don’t need additional permission to make your Air Force better. Lead the way; others will follow.