Trump, Pentagon collide over anti-diversity training push
President Trump’s efforts to appeal to his conservative base by banning certain diversity training is butting up against the Pentagon’s efforts to build a more inclusive military.
The conflict has been prominent this week, as Trump signed an executive order that extended his administration’s ban on training involving race- and sex-based discrimination to include the military, federal contractors and grant recipients.
Days later, top Pentagon officials were extolling the virtues of diversity to service members at a virtual town hall and touting the department’s efforts to fight racial bias.
It’s unclear exactly what effect Trump’s order will have on the military’s plans to address racism and discrimination in the ranks, but the messaging coming from the White House and the Pentagon stand in stark contrast to one another.
“The president of the United States is sending the message that training around racial equity and gender equity is something that he devalues,” said Shannon Minter, legal director at the National Center for Lesbian Rights, which is leading a lawsuit against Trump’s transgender military ban.
Trump and Pentagon officials have been at odds for months about how to respond to nationwide protests against racial injustices.
Pentagon officials initially came under sharp criticism for their handling of the protests after Defense Secretary Mark Esper and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley accompanied Trump to a photo op at church across from the White House that happened after federal law enforcement forcibly cleared the area of peaceful protesters.
But since then, the department has worked to grapple with its own racial disparities and restore public trust, including by both men expressing regret for their role in Trump’s photo-op.
In June, after Trump threatened to send active-duty troops into cities to quell the protests, Esper held a news conference at the Pentagon announcing his opposition to the idea.
Defense officials have also come out in support of renaming military bases that are named after Confederate leaders, something Trump has adamantly refused to do.
Esper has also announced a series of initiatives aimed at improving inclusion and diversity. In July, he issued a memo that, among other things, called for the department to “develop educational requirements for implementation across the military lifecycle to educate the force on unconscious bias.”
This past week, though, Trump signed an executive order barring the military, federal contractors and federal grant recipients from teaching “divisive concepts,” such as the idea that one race or sex is superior, that the United States is fundamentally racist or sexist, that any individual should feel “discomfort, guilt, anguish” or physiological distress because of their race or sex or that an individual bears responsibility for past actions by others of the same race or sex.
The U.S. Armed Forces “shall not teach, instruct or train any member of the United States Uniformed Services, whether serving on active duty, serving on reserve duty, attending a military service academy, or attending courses conducted by a military department pursuant to a Reserve Officer Corps Training program, to believe any of the divisive concepts” defined in the order, it says.
“No member of the United States Uniformed Services shall face any penalty or discrimination on account of his or her refusal to support, believe, endorse, embrace, confess, act upon or otherwise assent to these concepts,” the order adds.
The order expands on a memo from the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) earlier this month that ordered federal agencies to cancel programs that discuss “white privilege” or “critical race theory.” The latter concept teaches that racism and racial inequality are a result of systemic power structures.
The measures are part of a trend of Trump attempting to stoke cultural issues along lines of race that appeal to his socially conservative base.
It comes as polls show Trump faring worse than he did in 2016 with white voters, who carried him to victory that cycle over Hillary Clinton, even as he shows some improvement in polls with Black and Hispanic voters.
“Americans should be taught to take PRIDE in our Great Country, and if you don’t, there’s nothing in it for you!” Trump tweeted Tuesday about the executive order.
Two days later, Esper, Milley and Senior Enlisted Advisor to the Chairman Ramón Colón-López held a virtual town hall where they spoke about forging ahead on the department’s diversity initiatives. None directly addressed the executive order, but they all spoke about the importance of the Pentagon’s efforts.
“It’s not just diversity for diversity’s sake,” Milley said. “It’s diversity to improve the system, improve the military, improve our problem-solving capabilities and improve our warfighting readiness in order to protect and defend the Constitution.”
The Pentagon had no specifics to provide when asked what effects the executive order would have on its plans for unconscious bias training or any of its other recent diversity initiatives.
The Army, for its part, said it did not think the order would affect its diversity training since the service was not planning on teaching critical race theory.
“We wouldn’t have been going down the critical theory road anyway,” Casey Wardynski, assistant secretary of the Army for manpower and reserve affairs, told reporters on a conference call about the Army’s “Project Inclusion” effort. “It would not have aligned with our fundamental strategy and so, no, it’s not a concern for us.”
Wardynski also called critical race theory “at odds with the Constitution” because it is “advocating putting one group ahead of another group.”
The Air Force, though, has taken initial steps to cancel contracts that do not comply with the OMB memo, according to Air Force Times.
Air Force spokesperson Ann Stefanek told The Hill the service is “reviewing” material to see if it complies with the OMB memo.
“The Department of the Air Force continues to provide unconscious bias training in accordance with Department of Defense directives and is reviewing all course material to ensure it is compliant with the OMB memorandum,” she said in an email.
Minter, at the National Center for Lesbian Rights, called the executive order a “political stunt,” predicting the Pentagon would find a way to work around it.
“I would hope that there’s still room for training that addresses unconscious bias that can comply with the letter of the EO,” he said. “The military has a lot of expertise in how to do diversity training, and they have been in many respects very successful with that. I’m sure they know the importance of that type of training. So I’m sure they will do everything they can to try to both comply with the order and come up with training that will still be effective. It’s so frustrating to have to have to do any workaround around the president of the United States.”
More than the practical effect, Minter lamented the message Trump is sending to the force.
“I can’t imagine what it’s like to be serving the military — especially if you’re a personal of color or a woman or a transgender person — how depressing it must be to see the commander-in-chief sending such a negative message about diversity,” Minter said.
Rep. Anthony Brown (D-Md.), a House Armed Services Committee member who spearheaded a number of provisions on diversity and inclusion in the House version of this year’s annual defense policy bill, accused Trump of trying to “slow walk” progress.
“Congress and military leadership are working hard to create more diverse and inclusive armed services,” Brown said in a statement to The Hill. “As Commander in Chief, President Donald Trump is trying to slow walk this progress – from defending the racist legacy of the Confederacy to ordering an end to race and sex discrimination trainings in the military. While President Trump will take any chance he has to divide us, we can’t let him. We cannot address discrimination by turning our heads and pretending it does not exist.”
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