Defense chief says he won't get 'distracted' by critical race theory debate

Defense chief says he won't get 'distracted' by critical race theory debate
© Getty Images

Defense Secretary Lloyd AustinLloyd AustinOvernight Defense: Police officer killed in violence outside Pentagon | Biden officials back repeal of Iraq War authorization | NSC pushed to oversee 'Havana Syndrome' response One officer dead after violent incident outside Pentagon Austin misses an opportunity in Singapore but scores big in Philippines MORE on Wednesday dismissed efforts to “distract” from the military’s diversity and inclusion efforts with discussions about critical race theory.

“I don't want us to get distracted with a critical race conversation,” Austin told reporters at a press briefing.

“This department will be diverse. It will be inclusive. And we're going to look like the country that we support and defend. And, our leadership will look like what's in the ranks of our military. And so, I'm committed to that. This department is committed to that. The chairman’s committed to that,” Austin added, referring to Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Mark MilleyMark MilleyAustin misses an opportunity in Singapore but scores big in Philippines Overnight Defense: First group of Afghan evacuees arrives in Virginia | Biden signs Capitol security funding bill, reimbursing Guard | Pentagon raises health protection level weeks after lowering it Watchdog warns US will repeat mistakes of Afghanistan MORE.


“And that's what we're going to stay focused on. And so, we're not going to spend too much time debating the merits of this theory or any other theory. We're going to stay focused on making sure that we create the right force to defend this country and promote our values.”

Austin was responding to a question asking him to elaborate on comments he made at a recent House Armed Services Committee hearing where Republicans sought to corner him and Milley over the issue of critical race theory.

Critical race theory was espoused in the 1970s and, in broad terms, focuses on the ways that racism has played a part in the development of U.S. policies and institutions. 

The philosophy is largely confined to graduate school-level courses, but Republicans have brought the theory to the forefront of national debate. Some GOP-led state legislatures have gone so far as to ban it from being taught in K-12 schools.

The GOP have also increasingly sought to pull the military into the debate, including questioning Austin and Milley about critical race theory at the June House hearing.


During that hearing, Austin held that “we do not teach critical race theory” to the military.

Weeks later, a professor at the Air Force Academy penned an op-ed for The Washington Post defending her teaching of critical race theory to cadets. Republicans argued the op-ed proved Austin wrong.

On Wednesday, Austin told reporters he stood by his testimony.

“Critical race theory is not something that this department teaches, professes, embraces,” he said. “You've also heard a couple of people at academic institutions say that they have required this to be reading for their students and specific courses. But because that's the case does not mean that this department embraces this theory. And I stand by what I said earlier.”

At the same June hearing, Milley also made headlines for vigorously pushing back on Republicans’ questioning, arguing understanding critical race theory and “white rage” is important to being well-read.

“I want to understand white rage, and I'm white,” Milley said in June.

“What is it that caused thousands of people to assault this building and try to overturn the Constitution of the United States of America? What caused that?” Milley continued, referencing the Jan. 6 insurrection by supporters of former President TrumpDonald TrumpFive takeaways from the Ohio special primaries Missouri Rep. Billy Long enters Senate GOP primary Trump-backed Mike Carey wins GOP primary in Ohio special election MORE.

Asked Wednesday to elaborate on why he connected “white rage” to the Capitol attack, Milley declined, saying “white rage” was too “complicated” an issue to discuss at the briefing that ended a couple minutes later.

“We don't have the time to go into the nuance of it right this minute,” he said.

But Milley also reiterated he thinks it’s important for military leaders to “understand our own society.”

“The events of the sixth of January happened. Those are all going to get sorted out, historians will sort it out, commissions will sort it out, and so on,” Milley said. “But I do think it's important that we as a professional military not only understand foreign countries and foreign cultures and foreign societies, that's important that we do that, but we also need to understand our own society and understand the soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines and the society they're coming from. And I think that's important for leadership to study.”