Normally, debates about what books troops should read are confined to esoteric listserv groups; but as politicians look for any pretense to accuse the military of becoming “woke,” a Navy reading list can become the rock in King David’s sling.

At a recent congressional hearing, two House Republicans pressed Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Gilday about why the book “How to be an Antiracist” by Ibram X. Kendi is included in the Chief of Naval Operations Professional Reading Program, a voluntary reading list that is meant to help sailors learn about leadership.

“Now I understand that this is a voluntary reading list, but how does exposing our sailors to the idea that they are either oppressors or oppressed and that we must actively discriminate to make up for past discrimination improve our Navy’s readiness and lethality for great power competition,” Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-Colo.) asked at Tuesday’s hearing.

“Sir, initially you mentioned critical race theory: I’m not a theorist; I’m the chief of naval operations,” Gilday responded. “What I can tell you is, factually, based on a substantial amount of time talking to sailors in the fleet, there’s racism in the Navy, just like there’s racism in our country. And the way we’re going to get after it is to be honest about it, not to sweep it under the rug, and to talk about it — and that’s what we’re doing. And that’s one of the reasons that book is on the list.”

In “How to be an Antiracist,” Kendi argues that people who fail to oppose racist ideas are racist themselves, according to the New York Times Book Review. Kendi calls on people to become antiracists, who not only confront racist ideas but also support policies that affirm all people are equal.

Part of Kendi’s book also argues that labeling all white people as racists actually feeds the power of racism.

“Going after White people instead of racist power prolongs the policies harming Black life,” Kendi writes in the book. “In the end, anti-White racist ideas, in taking some or all of the focus off racist power, become anti-Black. In the end, hating White people becomes hating Black people.”

Gilday also said he does not expect sailors to believe everything that Kendi argues in his book, adding, “I don’t support everything that Kendi says.”

However, Gilday argued that sailors need to understand why the Navy values diversity. It is also important for sailors to learn how to recognize the disinformation from Russia and China that they are “bombarded” with every day.

On Wednesday, Task & Purpose asked Lamborn why he asked Gilday about a book on a reading list when the Navy is facing a myriad of serious challenges, including maintenance backlogs, overworked sailors, China’s ongoing military expansion, and continuing issues with littoral combat ships.

“Radical books that teach our sailors that the country and Constitution they are sworn to defend are fundamentally racist and bigoted will materially damage our Navy’s ability to project power, weakening our national security,” Lamborn replied in a statement. “The American people and our rank-and-file men and women in uniform understand this.”

Lamborn also said he asked Marine Corps Commandant Gen. David Berger about weapons systems not funded in the Pentagon’s proposed fiscal 2022 budget that would be needed to deter or fight China, such as maritime strike missiles.

Task Force One Navy, which was established last year to remove racial barriers in the service, recommended that “How to be an Antiracist” be added to the reading list to help sailors understand different perspectives, said Cmdr. Nathan Christensen, Gilday’s spokesman.

“While CNO does not endorse every viewpoint of the books on this reading list, he believes exposure to varied ideas improves the critical thinking skills of our sailors,” Christensen said. “The past few months, Adm. Gilday has engaged with sailors across the fleet and has heard their concerns firsthand on a variety of issues – to include their own experiences of social and racial discrimination.”

Indeed: The Navy has seen some ugly incidents with racial overtones recently, such as in January when a member of the cruiser USS Lake Champlain’s crew left a noose at a Black sailor’s bunk, or when “hate speech graffiti” was discovered in a bathroom aboard the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson earlier this year.

The Associated Press also obtained surveys from sailors aboard the Navy’s 11 aircraft carriers, in which more than 1,600 sailors indicated that racism occurred aboard their ships and nearly one in four sailors said they feared retaliation if they reported incidents of racism to their chain of command. On a 2019 survey conducted aboard the USS George Washington, 30% of the sailors who responded said they felt crew members were treated unequally based on their race, color, or national origin.

“CNO’s commitment to them is to continue to listen, make sure their voices are heard, and make our Navy a shining example of an organization centered on respect and inclusive of all,” Christensen said. “In doing so, we will build a stronger Navy and a stronger nation.”

However, Fox News has sounded the dog whistle about the military becoming “woke” under President Joe Biden, and many politicians have heard the call. First Laura Ingraham argued in February that the Pentagon wants to purge the military of white, Christian, conservative men who voted for former President Donald Trump.

But it was Tucker Carlson who gave birth to the woke war when he claimed in March that the Air Force’s new maternity uniform was proof that Biden wanted to make the military “more feminine.”

For right-wing lawmakers and pundits, this was Manna from Heaven.

At Tuesday’s hearing, Rep. Jim Banks (R-Ind.) used “How to be an Antiracist” as a cudgel to bludgeon Gilday with cable news talking points about how critics of racism are also racist.

Taking a page from Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), Banks attempted to force Gilday to answer questions about racism with a yes or no; he interrupted and spoke over Gilday as the admiral tried to respond; and he treated Gilday with a total lack of respect.

“Kendi’s book states that capitalism is essentially racist,” said Banks, a Navy reservist. “And Kendi is clear that racism must be eliminated. So yes or no: Do you personally consider advocating for the destruction of American capitalism to be extremist?”

“Here’s what I know, Congressman …,” Gilday began saying before Banks interrupted.

“It’s a yes or no question,” Banks said.

“There’s racism in the United States Navy. I have an obligation …,” Gilday continued as Banks again tried to silence him.

“Admiral, you recommended that every sailor in the United States Navy read this book,” Banks said. “It’s a yes or no question.”

Gilday replied he is not forcing anyone to read the book. It’s on a voluntary reading list.

Banks continued to attempt to force Gilday to say that Kendi has espoused extremist beliefs, including a conspiracy theory that white people created the AIDS virus, but Gilday refused to address “cherry picked quotes.”

“This is a bigger issue than Kendi’s book,” Gilday said. “What this is really about is trying to paint the United States military – in this case the United States Navy – as weak, as woke. And we’ve had sailors that have spent 341 days at sea last year with minimal port visits – the longest deployments we’ve had since the Second World War.”

Banks began talking over Gilday, saying he was “astonished” that he put the book on a reading list, but the admiral pressed on, saying: “We are not weak. We are strong.”  

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Navy photo

Featured image: Task & Purpose photo composite showing Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Michael M. Gilday and a photo of “How to be an Antiracist” by author Ibram X. Kendi. (DoD photo by Lisa Ferdinando)