On June 23, 2021, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman General Mark Milley testified before Congress on when the topic of Critical Race Theory (“CRT”) training in the Department of Defense appeared at the forefront of his testimony. Over the last few weeks Republican members of Congress have pushed for legislation banning CRT in education, claiming that it is anti-American and divisive. As of June 25, 2021, Arkansas, Idaho and Oklahoma have banned CRT training while over 20 additional states are considering similar legislation.
CRT is a topic every military leader should become familiar with as the U.S. military does not have a reputation for making strong efforts to promote diversity and inclusion in their ranks. In fact, the military's most senior leaders who were famously photographed alongside Donald Trump in the Oval Office, are all White men. Further, the last decade has seen dozens of headlines smearing social movements like Black Lives Matter and attacking individuals who push for anti-racism.
Gen. Milley firmly stated “…I personally find it offensive that we are accusing the United States military, our general officers, our commissioned, noncommissioned officers of being, quote, 'woke' or something else, because we're studying some theories that are out there." This came in response to Representative Matt Gaetz, who is currently under investigation by Federal authorities for sex trafficking minors, asking “how should the department of defense think about Critical Race Theory?” Unsurprisingly Rep. Gaetz began his question with his own discordant opinion, that mandated CRT training is the number one concern among military Officers. He further claimed that these concerns were particularly high among units with greater minority service members—where CRT training is needed most. Unfortunately for Gaetz, Gen. Milley responded in defense of CRT “…what is wrong with understanding [critical race theory] — having some situational understanding about the country for which we are here to defend?"
Due to CRT’s frequent mis-categorization as “political” or “polarizing,” it is uncommon to hear such a brazen, public defense from a leader like Gen. Milley. Typically, military leaders have toed the line of neutrality when it comes to issues that surround race and systemic racism in our military, not realizing how loud their neutrality is to BIPOC (“Black, Indigenous, People of Color”) service members. The usual response to questions surrounding race is that we are all one military or that we’re all one color, “green.”
On the other hand, it is tough to give full credit to Gen. Milley’s statements as they seem to be too little, too late. Last June, Gen. Milley escorted former President Trump to St. John’s Church for his famed Bible photo, a photo that was taken immediately after Trump ordered tear gas onto Black Lives Matter protesters. Yet, learning anti-racism is a life-long process that requires bold, public commitment like Gen. Milley’s.
There is no doubt that the U.S. has a long history of White supremacy and systemic racism, both of which have found their way into the rank and file. These notions are often challenged with outcries of “woke” culture or “cancel culture.” However, Gen. Milley put it well when he claimed, “what is wrong with having awareness?” This seems to be the critical point that the GOP and service members who politically align with the GOP tend to miss. Erasing CRT training largely erases the cultural identities of service members who are making an equal sacrifice and sending a message that their experiences do not matter. BIPOC soldiers are often choosing the military over low-income jobs, or because they are seeking access to housing, education, and health care, all the while submitting themselves to grueling treatment in training and combat environments.
If General Milley can come forward and rebut ill-placed claims of “wokeness” around the theories that shed light on the truth of our nation’s history, more leaders should feel empowered to follow suit. The fragility of CRT opponents is much deeper than what it appears. It is more than a challenge to the American history they know and choose to believe, but a challenge to the power they hold. To accept CRT would mean to admit that America is a flawed nation with a soiled history of oppression and brutalization. But what CRT opponents fail to perceive is that this is okay. To see progress and build America to be the great nation we know it to be, we must learn from our past and acknowledge the pain we have caused to so many. Being a “woke” military should not come as an insult indicating weakness, but as a strength in understanding who we are as a nation.
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