by Rob Bluey
Col. Ben Jonsson, an Air Force officer who accused his fellow “white colonels” of being “blind to institutional racism,” is the subject of blistering criticism from subordinates at MacDill Air Force Base, where he served as commander from 2020 to 2022.
Jonsson (pictured above) is among the more than 300 military officers awaiting Senate approval for a promotion. Sen. Tommy Tuberville, R-Ala., has blocked Democrats—and now some Republicans—from rubber-stamping these promotions in a dispute over the Pentagon’s taxpayer-funded abortion policy.
This week, Democrats introduced a resolution that would change Senate rules for military promotions, bypassing Tuberville’s blockade. If successful, military officers such as Jonsson, whom Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin recommended for a promotion to brigadier general in January, would advance without further delay.
The Daily Signal’s previous reporting on Jonsson’s views on diversity, equity, and inclusion—and his endorsement of a book on critical race theory—sparked concerns among conservatives.
The reporting also prompted The Heritage Foundation’s Oversight Project to request a Defense Department “climate” assessment completed during Jonsson’s leadership of MacDill Air Force Base. As a result of a request under the Freedom of Information Act, the Oversight Project obtained the so-called Defense Organizational Climate Survey and shared it with The Daily Signal, which is Heritage’s news outlet.
Responses to this “climate” survey of Jonsson’s leadership, included below, paint a picture of his tenure and concerns about his views on DEI and CRT. The survey, completed in January 2022, was conducted anonymously.
“I trust [squadron and group] commanders, but not Col. Jonsson. He has bias in [equal opportunity] and [judge advocate] matters especially if someone is white,” one respondent stated. “He wants anyone white to feel ashamed.”
Survey respondents also said skin color was a factor in opportunities for promotion.
“Wing hiring practices are not based on [the] most qualified person, but focus solely on perception of diversity,” one comment states.
Another adds: “The core of promotion, advancement and opportunities must be performance based … period [but] that is not what we do at MacDill.”
The Pentagon’s climate assessment concludes with a recommendation addressing those concerns: “Review the Recognition program/promotions for fairness and equity to ensure it is rooted in merit and achievement (and not other factors like race/gender or personal favorites).”
Army veteran William Thibeau, director of the Claremont Institute’s American Military Project and a critic of “woke” military officers, says he was alarmed by the comments included in the Defense Department’s assessment of Jonsson’s leadership. The Daily Signal provided a sampling for Thibeau to review prior to publication.
“If Col. Jonsson’s previous public advocacy of bizarre and toxic political ideology was not already disqualifying, revelations about his on-the-ground leadership make his unsuitability for promotion undeniable,” said Thibeau, a graduate of Army Ranger School.
‘Dear White Colonel’
Shortly before becoming commander of the 6th Air Refueling Wing at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Florida, Jonsson wrote an 825-word commentary published in the Air Force Times on July 1, 2020. In it, he recounted several examples of what he described as “white defensiveness” in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death the previous May 25 while in the custody of Minneapolis police.
“Dear white colonel, it is time to give a damn. Aim High,” Jonsson wrote, adding:
As white colonels, you and I are the biggest barriers to change if we do not personally address racial injustice in our Air Force. Defensiveness is a predictable response by white people to any discussion of racial injustice. White colonels are no exception. We are largely blind to institutional racism, and we take offense to any suggestion that our system advantaged us at the expense of others.
Jonsson included an endorsement of critical race theory promoter Robin DiAngelo’s controversial book “White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism.”
One survey respondent writes: “If you are white and read this book, you cannot walk away without the interpretation [that] Col. Jonsson wants you to know he sees all white people as racist.”
Thibeau said the survey responses reveal that DEI was a defining aspect of Jonsson’s leadership, and a bigger problem with a politicized military.
“Col. Jonsson’s embrace of liberal political ideologies is a microcosm of the Pentagon’s institutional embrace of this merit-destroying decision framework,” Thibeau told The Daily Signal. “To Jonsson, DEI is about more than eliminating discrimination, but is instead about actively discriminating against certain demographics while preferencing others at the expense of standards. If a commander gives the perception of bias, then he has failed in his duty to be a neutral arbiter of talent, programs, and missions.”
Following his stint at MacDill Air Force Base, Jonsson became vice superintendent of the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado, which faced criticism for promoting diversity, equity, and inclusion programs and critical race theory. He currently is stationed at Scott Air Force Base in Illinois.
The Daily Signal contacted the public affairs office at Scott Air Force Base, which declined to comment on the Defense Department’s assessment of Jonsson.
Climate Survey Results
The Defense Department survey “provides valuable information about members’ perceptions of the organization’s climate,” according to the 139 pages of documents obtained by Heritage’s Oversight Project.
The climate assessment includes both a quantitative survey and substantive written comments.
An email from Jan. 10, 2022, included in the FOIA response, says the purpose of the survey was to “get meaningful comments and share them up & down the chain of command.” It adds:
This survey will help all of us understand the issues facing our team, protect the successes we hold in high regard, and formulate plans to ensure we are moving in the right direction. We will outbrief [sic] the results once complete and develop action plans where necessary.
At the conclusion of the survey, Jonsson received an email dated Feb. 3, 2022, that said: “Participants provided a lot of valuable feedback in the comments.”
Those comments include critical responses to Jonsson’s embrace of both the DEI agenda and DiAngelo’s book on critical race theory. They represent just a fraction of the 249 total comments submitted but reveal strong concerns within the ranks.
And although not all the comments are critical of Jonsson’s leadership, several subordinates cite his Air Force Times commentary as problematic or referenced DEI practices at MacDill. Their unedited responses, printed below, were submitted anonymously for the survey.
I feel everything in this wing has a political bend to it. Sorry to say, but you can’t author an article ‘Dear White Colonels’ and then operate in the way in which we do and not lose people because they do not support your politics, which you are openly embracing. It’s highly disheartening.
It was suggested by Col. Jonsson all commanders read ‘White Fragility.’ If you are white and read this book, you cannot walk away without the interpretation Col. Jonsson wants you to know he sees all white people as racist. Who wouldn’t feel negatively impacted by this book and the fact he asked his commanders to read it. Can you not find a cause to unite us (our flag or our shared warfighter ethos) instead of your personal social justice war to divide us? The belittling experience as a commander of “line by line” COVID alibis to Col. Jonsson was not only antagonistic, it was probably what convinced me I never want to work for/near/around him when I leave MacDill.
Overall, I believe we operate within an imperfect organization doing its best to stay on a path of constant improvement and focus relative to Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion.
We need to value all Airmen the same. Giving extra opportunities based off color or gender, even for what may be thought of as noble reasons, is still inherently flawed logic/racism.
Wing hiring practices are not based on [the] most qualified person, but focus solely on [the] perception of diversity.
D&I. Our base has a real blind spot in this area and command should be concerned. The Wg/CC [wing commander] pushes diversity at all cost to the level that performance and merit are not the primary markers for advancement or selection for opportunities. He has encouraged the reading of ‘White Fragility’ and his front office and many of his Gp CC’s [group captains/commanders] got more diverse…