A White senator from the South told America’s first Black defense secretary on Thursday that President Joe Biden’s nascent administration has witnessed the birth of racism and sexism within the military.
The cause of this completely new phenomenon is allegedly the anti-extremism and diversity training that troops have taken so far this year, Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) said during Thursday’s Senate Armed Services Committee hearing.
“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,” said Cotton, a former Army captain and a graduate of Ranger School.
Dog whistles aside, there is plenty of evidence that racism and sexism within the ranks actually predates the Biden administration. Task & Purpose has documented 40 cases since 2016 of service members and veterans participating in extremist organizations, such as white supremacist groups.
The Pentagon tried to bury a 2017 survey that found nearly one-third of Black service members who responded said they had experienced racism. Moreover, 30% of Black respondents and 22% of Asian respondents felt their chances for promotion would be harmed if they reported the racial harassment and discrimination that they endured.
Retired Marine Lt. Gen. Vincent Stewart, the former head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, also wrote a June 2020 commentary for Task & Purpose about the racism that he and his family have endured.
“I want you to know how difficult it was to convince a member of Congress that I had earned my position at DIA; that it wasn’t a gratuitous appointment because, in his words, I ‘must be close to the president,’ in reference to President Obama,” Stewart wrote.
As for sexism within the military, there are many examples from before Biden took office in January of commands failing to protect female service members from sexual harassment. A review following the April 2020 murder of Army Spc. Vanessa Guillén also showed that female soldiers at Fort Hood faced an environment so toxic that they constantly lived in “survival mode”
When asked if Cotton believes that racism and sexism did not exist in the military six months ago, the senator’s office provided the following statement: “Senator Cotton has heard from men and women of all races that new Critical Race Theory indoctrination in the military is fomenting increased distrust in the ranks on the basis of sex and race.”
At the heart of Cotton’s argument is the right-wing talking point first espoused by Fox News personality Tucker Carlson that the military has gone “woke” since Biden became commander in chief.
Earlier this year, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin ordered all units to hold stand-downs to discuss the issue of racism and extremism within the ranks. Those stand-downs were in response to the Jan. 6 assault on Capitol Hill, for which an active-duty Marine major, four service members in the reserve component, and 41 veterans have been charged so far.
Cotton insisted that he and Rep. Dan Crenshaw (R-Texas) have received “several hundred whistleblower complaints about Pentagon extremist and diversity training.”
Crenshaw, a veteran Navy SEAL, tweeted on May 28 that he and Cotton had established a website to allow service members who have fallen victim to “woke ideology” to file anonymous complaints, vowing that they would be protected against retaliation.
The website has received many prank complaints from people referencing movies such as “Star Wars,” “Stripes” and “A Few Good Men.”
On Thursday, Cotton read a sample of the non-satirical complaints that he and Crenshaw have received. Many of these complaints were from people who felt that diversity training portrayed White people as racist.
“This is not about diversity in general, though,” Cotton said. “This is about a very specific kind of anti-American indoctrination that is seeping into some parts of our military based on the whistleblower complaints we have received.”
Cotton said that one Marine complained that instead of learning about military history, his unit had to complete “mandatory training on police brutality, white privilege and systemic racism.”
“He reported that several officers are now leaving his unit, citing that training,” Cotton said.
The senator did not explain exactly how the officers in this particular Marine unit have been able to leave because they disagreed with the diversity training. Marines may request transfers to other units but they are not allowed to simply walk away from their assignments if they disagree with their chain of command.
Cotton also said a student at the U.S. Naval Academy claimed administrators do not push back when midshipmen describe the United States as “a fundamentally racist place,” Cotton said.
“One African American officer disparagingly said, and I quote, ‘The Navy thinks that my only value is as a Black woman,’ and not the fact that she is a highly trained military specialist,” Cotton said.
Navy spokeswoman Priscilla Rodriguez said she could not comment on specific cases or complaints, but the service strives to embrace equality and provide equal opportunities for all sailors.
“We are committed to recruiting and retaining top talent regardless of race, class, gender, or background; removing as many barriers as possible to ensure all who are qualified can serve; and giving every member of the Navy community the opportunity to rise to their highest potential,” Rodriguez said.
Other people complained that they had been told that the Army as a whole and special operations community in particular are racist, Cotton said
“Soldiers have come forward to tell us they are being forced to watch videos about systemic racism and documentaries that rewrite America’s history as a fundamentally racist and evil nation,” Cotton said.
Asked about Cotton’s comments, an Army spokesman did not directly address the videos and documentaries that the senator mentioned.
“The Army conducted DoD-mandated stand-down sessions to educate all soldiers and civilians about extremism and how to identify suspicious behaviors,” said Lt. Col. Gabriel Ramirez. “We will continue to reinforce Army values and treat people with dignity and respect.”
Cotton also claimed to have heard from a Space Force officer, who said that diversity training has caused two Guardians to leave the service – one White, the other Black. And, the Senator said an Air Force unit conducted a training exercise that involved airmen dividing themselves into groups based on gender and race to discuss privilege.
An Air Force spokeswoman said the purpose of diversity training is to allow airmen and guardians to recognize, respect, and understand their different perspectives and experiences.
“Diversity makes us the best, most innovative Air and Space Forces the world has ever known,” said Ann Stefanek.
During Thursday’s hearing, Cotton repeatedly interrupted Austin as he tried to give full and nuanced replies about racism in the military.
“Mr. Secretary: Do you believe that our military is a fundamentally racist organization?” Cotton asked. “Yes or no, please.”
“Well, I won’t give you a yes or no answer on that, sir, because it deserves more than a yes or no,” Austin replied. “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, claiming “our time is limited.” The senator then asked if troops should be treated differently based on their skin color or gender.
“Again, this question deserves more than a yes or no answer …” Austin began saying before Cotton cut him off again. This became a pattern.
Whenever Austin said more than a few words, Cotton would pounce and try to silence him until Austin ultimately was able to say why diversity is important to the military.
“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,” Austin said. “And I appreciate your support on this.”
Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton questions Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick M. Shanahan, Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph F. Dunford, and Commander, United States Strategic Command Gen. John E. Hyten on April 11, 2019. (U.S. Air Force Photo by Adrian Cadiz)