Sullivan Speaks on Racism in America

WASHINGTON, D.C.  U.S. Senator Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska) yesterday spoke on the Senate floor regarding the tragic killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, the outcry and protests that have emerged, and the part he can play to work to end racism in America. 



Mr. President, there is no doubt that there is a lot of anger in our country right now. We have seen that anger being given voice all throughout our communities and small towns and big cities. We have seen it in our households, among our families, our children, our friends.


The killing of George Floyd has shocked us all. The video of a police officer so nonchalantly kneeling on George's neck as he begged to be released and three other officers standing by as if nothing was happening, as if it weren't a human being's life being taken--this shocked us.


By now, we all know how George Floyd called out, calling out for his mother, who had passed years ago, a mother who loved him, whom he must have seen coming to him in his final moments. ``I can't breathe,'' he said--the last words of a man on a street in Minneapolis that have rocked the Nation. They are three simple words that mean so much and have so much resonance throughout our history; words that, at their very heart, have helped to define the moral issue of our country, and that is slavery and the struggle--the long struggle for civil rights.


The freedom to breathe and your life as your own are what were taken from men and women and their children when they were ripped from their countries and brought, in slavery, into this Nation. That is what was taken away from Native Americans and Alaska Natives when they were forced off their lands.


The freedom to take the full breath of life is what is taken away from people when they are denied a quality education or housing in safe neighborhoods; when they are denied jobs or promotions when they get those jobs; when they are viewed, because of the color of their skin, as less deserving or as less able.


I applaud those who have peacefully taken to the streets throughout our communities to protest against racism, and I also applaud the brave police officers and National Guardsmen all across the country who are protecting those who need protecting and reaching out to constructively engage peaceful protesters. The vast, vast majority of these law enforcement officers are honorable and risk their lives daily for their fellow citizens, and we need to remember that.


We are witnessing something that I believe is an important moment, one that has potential to move our country in a direction toward a more perfect Union. This moment has promise.


Senators are discussing with each other what kind of legislative action should be taken. For example, we had a very good discussion on these issues just yesterday led by my friend and colleague Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina. State and community leaders are also having these discussions.


Of course, we are a big country, and what might seem to be a good idea in one place wouldn't be a good idea in some other place. For example, one of the enormous challenges in the great State of Alaska that I have been focused on for years is not enough law enforcement, particularly in our rural and Native communities, dozens of which don't have any law enforcement officers at all. So this is a huge problem in Alaska that can create horrible situations, particularly when it comes to violent crimes like sexual assault and domestic violence.


So I am not a proponent of defunding the police, but something else that is happening in America right now at this moment are discussions--not just in the halls of government but around dinner tables, among families and parents and their kids and their friend groups--on what can or should be done at the individual level, the individual American level. This is certainly happening, for example, in my family.


That was the main point of a powerful and wisdom-filled op-ed by my former boss, friend, and mentor, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice last week, in the Washington Post


Mr. President, I ask unanimous consent that this op-ed be printed in the Record following my remarks.


It is entitled ``This Moment Cries Out for Us to Confront Race in America.'' Condoleezza Rice was the daughter of the segregated South, raised in Birmingham, AL, during the height of the struggle for civil rights, with sit-ins, riots, and even bombings happening in her city.


When she was 8 years old, the Ku Klux Klan bombed a local church in Birmingham, killing four school-aged girls. One of those girls, Denise McNair, was a friend of Condi's. They used to play dolls together.


Over five decades later, through hard work, grace, dignity, and supreme intelligence, she rose to become one of the most powerful people in the world as Secretary of State of the United States, and I had the honor of a lifetime to work for her for 5 years.


She recounts some of her journey in this op-ed, which I encourage all of my colleagues and all Americans to read. She reminds us:


Our country has a birth defect: Africans and Europeans came to this country together--but one group was in chains. In time, the very Constitution that counted slaves as three-fifths of a man became a powerful tool in affording the descendants of slaves their basic rights. That work has been long and difficult, but it has made a difference. We are better than we were.


She notes one harsh indicator of progress. In Jim Crow Alabama, in her youth, she says:


[N]o one batted an eye if the police killed a black man. There wouldn't have been even a footnote in the local press.


Yet now we are seeing hundreds of thousands across America take to the streets peacefully to protest such injustice.In her piece from last week, she emphasizes that finger-pointing at this moment will not help the cause:


And if we are to make progress, let us vow to check the language of recrimination at the door.


Very wise words. We all need to focus on emphasizing unity and empathy at this moment--all of us. Senators, Governors, the President, the media--all of us have this responsibility, and it is what the vast majority of our fellow Americans want. It is what they want and what they want us to do and to see and hear from us.


Perhaps most importantly, Condoleezza Rice, in her op-ed, emphasizes something seemingly so obvious but not spoken much: individual action and responsibility. She ends her piece with this challenge that I put up here on the posterboard. It is a really important challenge for every American:


So I ask my fellow Americans: What will each of you do? My personal passion is educational opportunity, because it is a partial shield against prejudice. It is not a perfect shield, I know, but it gives people a fighting chance. In my conversations, I want to discuss why the learning gap for black kids is so stubborn and what can be done about it. What is your question about the impact of race on the lives of Americans? And what will you do to find answers?


Those words in her op-ed--the challenge--really struck me, and I have thought long and hard all week about them since reading those words in the Washington Post.


Of course, as a Senator, I, with many of you, my colleagues, am taking part in discussions which I hope will lead to collective action by our Federal Government to address some of the challenges our Nation certainly continues to have regarding race. But Condoleezza Rice's question and challenge is about personal passion and action, and it is a question for every American to consider.


I have an amazing Alaska Native wife from whom I have learned much about the serious issue of racism in my State against indigenous Alaskans and among the first peoples in our great Nation, but I have never experienced the kind of racism that many across our country have.


I am a colonel in the Marines, an institution I am very proud to be a part of, an institution that--like the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Coast Guard--at its very heart, it isn't supposed to matter what the color of your skin is, what religion you practice, or what part of the socioeconomic ladder you come from. The fundamental ethos of the Marine Corps and our military is supposed to be this: It doesn't matter what race you are. You are just a U.S. marine.


Now, of course, the Marines and the rest of the military don't always meet this ideal, but they strive for it, even in ways that might seem puzzling to those who haven't served.


There is the story of the tough Marine Corps drill instructor shouting at his raw recruits on day one of boot camp:


There is no racial bigotry here. In my eyes, every one of you are equally worthless. My orders are to weed out all non-hackers who cannot serve my beloved Marine Corps. Do you maggots understand that?


That is the drill instructor. Again, it is the ideal--equality in the U.S. military--but it is not always met.


I remember how the first rifle platoon I commanded as a young second lieutenant was literally about one-third White, one-third Black, and one-third Hispanic. My platoon sergeant was an African-American marine named Willis Towns. He was outstanding in every way, Sergeant Towns. I learned so much from him about leadership.


His dream in life was to be the first African-American sergeant major of the entire Marine Corps. He never reached that goal. A few weeks after I attended a Martin Luther King, Jr., ceremony with him in which he received an award for his leadership in the community, he was killed in a training accident. That was the worst day of my life. Just a few years later, the Marine Corps named another outstanding African American to be Sergeant Major of the entire Marine Corps. I remember thinking when the announcement came out: Congratulations, Willis. You did it. You did it.



I believe that the military--desegregated in 1948, nearly 20 years before the passage of civil rights legislation by this body--is one of the most important civil rights organizations in America. I am passionate about our U.S. military, but it can improve in terms of race. There are questions that need to be asked about the record of our military on these important issues.


Yesterday was an important day in the Senate with the unanimous vote to confirm Gen. Charles Q. Brown, Jr., to be Chief of Staff of the U.S. Air Force. For a whole host of reasons, I was probably more involved in his confirmation than any other Senator. I had the opportunity to come to the floor yesterday to speak strongly in support of his Senate confirmation.


I have had many discussions with General Brown over the past year, but what surprised me was that I learned recently that yesterday's vote was actually a historic vote for America. His confirmation, 98 to 0, was so historic because General C. Q. Brown was just confirmed yesterday by this body as our first African-American service chief in the history of the United States of America.


Let me explain a little bit more about that. The Joint Chiefs of Staff consists of the service chiefs, the top four-star generals of the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine, and Coast Guard, as well as the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, with the notable exception of GEN Colin Powell, who was Chairman of the Joint Chiefs in the early 1990s. General C. Q. Brown, whom we confirmed yesterday, will be the first African-American service chief ever for any military service. Of course, this is good news in terms of racial progress for America, but it also begs an important question: Why did it take so long for this to happen, especially in one of America's institutions with probably one of the best, longest records on positive civil rights in our Nation?


Some of the answers are surely hinted at in General Brown's very moving video address that he gave last week when he talked about what was on his mind in the wake of the horrible George Floyd death. I would recommend that everybody take a look at that. In the Air Force, he says he was often the only African American in his squadron, and as a senior general officer, the only African American in the entire room. What is he thinking about during these challenging times? ``I'm thinking about wearing the same flight suit with the same wings on my chest as my peers and then being questioned by another military member, are you a pilot?''


What else is he thinking?


“I'm thinking about my mentors and how rarely I had a mentor who looked like me.”


“I'm thinking about the pressure I felt to perform error-free, especially for supervisors I perceived had expected less of me as an African American.”


He continues saying he was thinking about the conversations he was having with his sons and the immense responsibility that comes from his historic nomination. He was thinking about how with this confirmation, he could make things better in the Air Force and America.


Here is how I am going to take up Condoleezza Rice's challenge, as she put forth for each individual American. I am going to ask questions--as she prods us to do in this piece--on why, until yesterday, no African-American four-star had ever been confirmed to be a service chief in the U.S. military in the history of our country.


We are introducing an amendment to this year's NDAA to get data on minorities and senior enlisted and officer billets in the military--African Americans, Alaska Natives, Native Americans, Hispanic Americans and others. We know these are very patriotic segments of our population. For example, Alaska Natives and American Indians serve at higher rates in the military than any other ethnic group in the country--what I refer to as special patriotism.


Is this patriotic service reflected at the highest leadership ranks of our military? If not, then, why not?


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 have gotten to know or have the privilege of serving with, like Army GEN Vincent Brooks, former CENTCOM Commander GEN Lloyd Austin, and Marine Corps Lt. Gen. Ron Bailey--will have insightful views on these important matters.


Our military is something I am very passionate about, not only because it protects and defends our Nation, but because for decades, it has provided Americans of all colors and creeds with the opportunity to rise up individually and as a collective force for good in our society and to enable members of the military to achieve their full potential and have a promising future after their service is completed.


If there is some kind of obstacle for minority advancement that stifles opportunities at the highest ranks of our military, then we need to know why and we need to work on addressing it together. As a matter of fact, I just came from a full day of marking up the NDAA with Democratic and Republican Senators, and we will be trying to look at this issue, which we had a great discussion on in our markup today. We need our military--like we need the rest of the country--to be a place

where everyone who joins can breathe freely. This is one of the ways I am going to take up Condoleezza Rice's challenge to her fellow Americans--this important challenge--and I hope my fellow Americans will find their own individual ways to do this, as well


There being no objection, the material was ordered to be printed in the Record, as follows:


I yield the floor.


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