San Francisco Chronicle - (Sunday)

Is­sue of racism per­sonal for new Pen­tagon leader

- By Lolita C. Bal­dor Lolita C. Bal­dor is an Associated Press writer.

WASHINGTON — Newly con­firmed De­fense Sec­re­tary Lloyd Austin will have to con­tend not only with a world of se­cu­rity threats and a mas­sive mil­i­tary bu­reau­cracy, but also with a chal­lenge that hits closer to home: root­ing out racism and ex­trem­ism in the ranks.

Austin took of­fice Fri­day as the first Black de­fense chief, in the wake of the deadly in­sur­rec­tion at the U.S. Capi­tol, where re­tired and cur­rent mil­i­tary mem­bers were among the ri­ot­ers tout­ing far­right con­spir­a­cies.

The re­tired four­star Army gen­eral told se­na­tors last week that the Pen­tagon’s job is to “keep Amer­ica safe from our en­e­mies. But we can’t do that if some of those en­e­mies lie within our own ranks.”

Rid­ding the mil­i­tary of racists isn’t his only pri­or­ity. Austin, who was con­firmed in a 93­2 vote, has made clear that ac­cel­er­at­ing de­liv­ery of coronaviru­s vac­cines will get his early at­ten­tion.

But the racism is­sue is per­sonal. At Tues­day’s con­fir­ma­tion hear­ing, he ex­plained why.

In 1995, when then­Lt. Col. Austin was serv­ing with the 82nd Air­borne Divi­sion at Fort Bragg, N.C., three white sol­diers, de­scribed as self­styled skin­heads, were ar­rested in the mur­der of a Black cou­ple. In­ves­ti­ga­tors con­cluded the two were tar­geted be­cause of their race.

The killing trig­gered an in­ter­nal in­ves­ti­ga­tion, and all told, 22 sol­diers were linked to skin­head and other sim­i­lar groups or found to hold ex­trem­ist views. They in­cluded 17 who were con­sid­ered white su­prem­a­cists or sep­a­ratists.

“We woke up one day and dis­cov­ered that we had ex­trem­ist el­e­ments in our ranks,” Austin told the Se­nate Armed Ser­vices Com­mit­tee. “And they did bad things that we cer­tainly held them ac­count­able for. But we dis­cov­ered that the signs for that ac­tiv­ity were there all along. We just didn’t know what to look for or what to pay at­ten­tion to.”

Austin is not the first sec­re­tary to grap­ple with the prob­lem. Racism has long been an un­der­cur­rent in the mil­i­tary. While lead­ers in­sist only a small mi­nor­ity hold ex­trem­ist views, there have been per­sis­tent in­ci­dents of racial ha­tred and, more sub­tly, a his­tory of im­plicit bias in what is a pre­dom­i­nantly white in­sti­tu­tion.

A re­cent Air Force in­spec­tor gen­eral report found that Black ser­vice mem­bers in the Air Force are far more likely to be in­ves­ti­gated, ar­rested, face dis­ci­plinary ac­tions and be dis­charged for mis­con­duct.

Based on 2018 data, roughly two­thirds of the mil­i­tary’s en­listed corps is white and about 17% is Black, but the mi­nor­ity per­cent­age de­clines as rank in­creases. The U.S. pop­u­la­tion over­all is about three­quar­ters white and 13% Black, ac­cord­ing to Cen­sus Bureau statis­tics.

Austin, who broke racial bar­ri­ers through­out his four decades in the Army, said mil­i­tary lead­ers must set the right ex­am­ple to dis­cour­age and elim­i­nate ex­trem­ist be­hav­ior.

But Austin — the first Black to serve as head of U.S. Cen­tral Com­mand and the first to be the Army’s vice chief of staff — also knows that much of the so­lu­tion must come from within the mil­i­tary ser­vices and lower­rank­ing com­man­ders. They must en­sure their troops are trained and aware of the pro­hi­bi­tions.

 ?? Jim Lo Scalzo / AFP / Getty Im­ages ?? De­fense Sec­re­tary Lloyd Austin is a 1975 grad­u­ate of the U.S. Mil­i­tary Academy at West Point.
Jim Lo Scalzo / AFP / Getty Im­ages De­fense Sec­re­tary Lloyd Austin is a 1975 grad­u­ate of the U.S. Mil­i­tary Academy at West Point.

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