Cotton, Pentagon chief tangle over diversity training in military
Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin tangled Thursday over the Pentagon’s efforts to bolster diversity, equity and inclusion in the military.
Cotton repeatedly cut off Austin, the nation’s first Black Defense secretary, as the Pentagon leader sought to provide context on racial issues in the armed forces during a Senate hearing.
The exchanges came on the heels of Cotton and Rep. Dan Crenshaw (R-Texas) — two combat veterans — launching a web portal for “whistleblowers” to report examples of “woke ideology” in the military.
Twitter users mocked the effort, with jokes about plotlines from “A Few Good Men,” “M.A.S.H.” and other popular war movies and TV shows.
But Cotton said Thursday that he and Crenshaw have received “several hundred whistleblower complaints,” reading some of what he said were those complaints at the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing where Austin was testifying.
“Mr. Secretary, we’re hearing reports of plummeting morale, growing mistrust between the races and sexes, where none existed just six months ago, and unexpected retirements and separations based on these trainings alone,” Cotton said. “And again, these are not my words. These are the words of your own troops.”
Cotton then asked Austin for a yes-or-no answer on whether he believes the military is a “fundamentally racist organization.”
“I won’t give you a yes-or-no answer on that, senator, because it deserves more than a yes or no,” Austin said. “The military, like any organization, will have its challenges, but I do not believe it is a fundamentally racist organization.”
Cotton then cut Austin off, saying “our time is limited,” and asked him for a yes-or-no answer on whether members of the military should be treated differently based on their skin color or sex.
“Mr. Secretary, I’m sorry to cut you off; our time is limited. It is a very simple question. Should a member of the organization you lead be treated differently, in violation of the Constitution, I would add, based on their sex or the color of their skin?” Cotton interjected.
“Again, this question deserves more than a yes-or-no answer,” Austin replied.
“I do not believe that, and that is why we have diversity, equity, and inclusion focus in the military,” Austin responded.
Cotton replied that “the military for decades has been one of the institutions in this society where you are most likely to get ahead based on your own performance, on your own merit, irrespective of the color of your skin or where you came from or who your parents were.”
“I absolutely agree with that and I am an example of that. But I would also — I would also say that—” Austin said, trying to speak over Cotton before being cut off again.
Alleging Pentagon reading lists include works on “critical race theories,” the senator then asked Austin whether he agreed with a quote in Ibram X. Kendi’s “How to Be an Antiracist” that “the only remedy to past discrimination is present discrimination. The only remedy to present discrimination is future discrimination.” The book is on a list of books recommended for Navy leaders to read.
“I’ve not read that and I certainly don’t agree with what you just said, but I—” Austin said as Cotton tried to cut him off again, adding that “it’s always important to have the full context of anything that you’re being asked to evaluate.”
Asked by Cotton whether troops who are “subjected to the kinds of trainings drawing on critical race concepts” should report that to chain of command or inspectors general, Austin replied that “they’ve always had that ability to do that and I would recommend that in the future.”
“I would also say that diversity, equity and inclusion is important to this military now and it will be important in the future,” Austin added. “And so we’re going to make sure that our military looks like America and that our leadership looks like what’s in the ranks of the military.”
The back-and-forth was the latest example of conservatives increasingly pulling the armed forces into culture wars as the military seeks to recruit and retain more women and people of color, in addition to addressing issues with extremism.
Austin has made tackling extremism a priority after a number of individuals arrested in connection with the Jan. 6 Capitol attack were found to have military backgrounds.
But diversity and inclusion efforts in the military are not new or unique to the Biden administration. Former Defense Secretary Mark Esper, who served during the Trump administration, launched diversity and inclusion initiatives last year after nationwide protests against racial injustice following the murder of George Floyd.
Still, conservatives have increasingly been blasting those efforts since President Biden took office. Fox News host Tucker Carlson earlier this year derided maternity flight suits. Last month, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) compared an ad featuring a soldier who talked about her childhood marching for LGBT rights with Russian propaganda showing its military’s machismo, complaining the U.S. ad showed a “woke, emasculated military.”
Conservative ire toward the military has coincided with GOP legislators in numerous states labeling any kind of diversity training as critical race theory, which addresses institutionalized racism and other systemic barriers to equality that disproportionately affect people of color.
The Pentagon has pushed back on criticism that the military is being portrayed as “too soft,” including Austin hitting back at Cruz in a CNN interview.
At Thursday’s hearing, after Cotton’s questioning of Austin, Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) asked the Defense secretary to elaborate on his answers.
“We should be welcoming to everyone who can qualify and who is fit to serve and who can maintain the standards,” Austin said. “And, secondly, we ought to look like the America that we support and defend and our senior leadership should look like what’s in the ranks.”
“Where we’ve done a great job in recruiting highly qualified and capable people, I think we need to do a bit better in terms of making sure that we’re absolutely inclusive and making sure that we create pathways, or pathways are available, for everybody that’s in the ranks to achieve, to realize their full potential,” he added.
“And so that’s what diversity, equity and inclusion is all about. It’s about cohesion. It’s about making sure that we remain the most effective and lethal fighting force in the world and we have been in the past and we will be in the future.”
The Hill has removed its comment section, as there are many other forums for readers to participate in the conversation. We invite you to join the discussion on Facebook and Twitter.