San Francisco Chronicle - (Sunday)
Issue of racism personal for new Pentagon leader
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.