Posted on January 26, 2021

For 1st Black Pentagon Chief, Racism Challenge Is Personal

Lolita C. Baldor, Associated Press, January 22, 2021

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 far-right conspiracies.

The retired four-star Army general told senators this 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.”


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

In 1995, when then-Lt. Col. Austin was serving with the 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, three white soldiers, described as self-styled skinheads, were arrested in the murder of a Black couple who was walking down the street. 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.


Based on 2018 data, roughly two-thirds 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 three-quarters white and 13% Black, according to Census Bureau statistics.

Over the past year, Pentagon leaders have struggled to make changes, hampered by opposition from then-President Donald Trump. It took months for the department to effectively ban the Confederate flag last year, and Pentagon officials left to Congress the matter of renaming military bases that honor Confederate leaders. Trump rejected renaming the bases and defended flying the flag.

Senators peppered Austin with questions about extremism in the ranks and his plans to deal with it. {snip}

“It’s clear that we are at a crisis point,” said Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., saying leaders must root out extremism and reaffirm core military values.

Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., pressed Austin on the actions he will take. “Disunity is probably the most destructive force in terms of our ability to defend ourselves,” Kaine said. “If we’re divided against one another, how can we defend the nation?”

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. They must get to know their troops, and look for signs of extremism or other problems, he said.


But he also cautioned that there won’t be an easy solution, adding, “I don’t think that this is a thing that you can put a Band-Aid on and fix and leave alone. I think that training needs to go on, routinely.”