Charles v. Bush Agitated for Equity in the Officer Corps

This is the thirty-ninth entry in the series Honoring Black History.

Charles Vernon Bush is perhaps best known for holding not one, but two “first” titles. In 1954, Charles became the first black page of the Supreme Court of the United States. Nine years later, he became the first black cadet to graduate from the United States Air Force Academy (USAFA). Charles didn’t stop there, however.

After graduating from the USAFA, Charles had an impressive military career. He resigned from the Air Force in 1970 as a Major with a number of medals to his honor, including the Bronze Star. After his resignation, he went to Harvard Business School and began a second career in senior leadership of numerous companies including Max Factor and Hughes Electronics.

Throughout all of these experiences, Charles was well-aware of the problems brought about by a lack of representation within any organization’s upper management. In his retirement, he began to work with a handful of former military colleagues to try to change this reality in the Air Force.

In the mid-2000s, Charles and retired General Ron Fogleman, began putting more pressure on the USAFA (and the Air Force in general) to diversify senior leadership. They drafted a “Strategic Diversity Plan” for USAFA admissions. There was a lot of pushback to this from the Air Force and they went so far as to resist sharing racial demographics of the officer corps. With a little external help, they eventually obtained this Department of Defense (DOD) data through a rather circuitous route.

After compiling the data with a handful of others—many of whom did not take credit for the work for fear of retribution—they published the “DOD Executive Diversity Study” in 2008. The study concluded that whites rose into the DOD executive ranks at a rate of 3× more than Native Americans and Pacific Islanders, 4× greater than blacks, and 6× greater than Hispanics. Clearly diversity was not a priority for the DOD. They attributed this reality to treating diversity as a personnel issue rather than a “critical mission element, strategically imperative to national security.”

These poor diversity statistics are partly a result of the past and current low numbers of qualified diversity candidates and graduates from our nation’s service academies and other officer-commissioning sources. This underrepresentation directly and adversely affects the pool of qualified diversity candidates available for senior promotions 25 years into the future.

It took over two years of advocacy, both within the military and in Congress and the White House for things to start to turn around. The Air Force began engaging with the Navy, which Charles felt offered a good model for increasing representation throughout its ranks. To put this in context, Charles recalls Navy Admiral Mike Mullen, then the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, sharing just how important diversity within the officer corps is in a meeting in late 2010: “We measured ourselves on that… and if there were senior officers that weren’t [onboard], they were leaving.”

2010 was when the metaphorical rubber met the road for the Air Force, both within the military branch itself and within the USAFA. Policies were overhauled, directives were issued, and—to Charles’ joy—the admissions process for the Academy was reformed.

While Charles V. Bush was not solely responsible for the move to diversify the armed forces (or even the Air Force), his work highlighting inequity was instrumental in helping to improve representation within the officer corps.

If you’re interested, you should check out the Department of Defense’s Diversity and Inclusion Strategic Plan. It’s top three goals align perfectly with the goals every company and organization should hold:

  1. Ensure Leadership Commitment to an Accountable and Sustained Diversity Effort
  2. Employ an Aligned Strategic Outreach Effort to Identify, Attract, and Recruit from a Broad Talent Pool Reflective of the Best of the Nation We Serve
  3. Develop, Mentor, and Retain Top Talent from Across the Total Force

Further Reading

  1. “Diversity Is A Leadership Issue” by Charles V. Bush. Speech at USAFA National Character & Leadership Symposium, 2011.
  2. “Air Force Cadets” Uncredited. Ebony, February 1960.

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