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Military should keep confronting racism and pay conservative critics no attention | COMMENTARY

Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, left, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Mark Milley talk before a Senate Appropriations Committee hearing to examine proposed budget estimates and justification for fiscal year 2022 for the Department of Defense in Washington on Thursday, June 17, 2021. (Evelyn Hockstein/Pool via AP)
Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, left, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Mark Milley talk before a Senate Appropriations Committee hearing to examine proposed budget estimates and justification for fiscal year 2022 for the Department of Defense in Washington on Thursday, June 17, 2021. (Evelyn Hockstein/Pool via AP) (Evelyn Hockstein/AP)

Like many of the country’s institutions, the U.S. military has come under fire from certain Republican lawmakers for daring to take on racism and extremism within its ranks. One recent example occurred early this month, when an Air Force Academy professor said in an op-ed that critical race theory — that academic lightning rod — was fair game for discussion with cadets, leading conservative legislators to suggest some kind of indoctrination against America was occurring in the nation’s military academies.

Reps. Dan Crenshaw of Texas, Jim Banks of Indiana and Mike Gallagher of Wisconsin, along with Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas, went so far as to direct an investigation into Navy “culture,” which, predictably, found an “over-sensitivity and responsiveness to modern media culture.”

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“Military leaders are prioritizing woke training over actual war fighting,” Mr. Crenshaw, a former Navy SEAL, tweeted July 15th. He neglected to add that only 3% of Navy SEALs and 2% of Navy pilots are Black.

He and Mr. Cotton had earlier created a whistleblower webpage to fight against supposed unnecessary “woke ideology” in the military. Mr. Cotton, who has been accused of misrepresenting his Army service, even claimed at a congressional hearing last month that efforts at rooting out racism were hurting morale within the ranks, and that such issues didn’t exist before President Joe Biden took office. He said military officers were leaving their units because of “mandatory training on police brutality, white privilege and systemic racism.”

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Seriously? The can handle boot camp but not a little self reflection?

The moaning is all a bit much. Conservative Republicans seem to cry out “culture wars” whenever the idea of addressing the country’s issues with race and inequality is raised. But learning about the ways in which race and perceptions of it have negatively shaped opinion, opportunity and institutions within our borders should only be offensive to you if you’re guilty of perpetuating the problem. What ever happened to knowledge is power?

We know its an uncomfortable conversation to have, but avoiding it doesn’t change reality or the need to confront what is apparently a growing problem. A Military Times survey conducted in February last polled 1,630 active duty subscribers (compared to the 77 people interviewed for the Navy culture “investigation”) and found that 36% of all active duty troops and 53% of minority service members had witnessed instances of white nationalism or racism within the military — up significantly from 2018, when the poll was last conducted. Respondents also said white nationalists are a greater national security threat than both domestic terrorism with a connection to Islam, as well as immigration. Add to that the revelation that the Jan. 6 attackers on the U.S. Capitol had an over-representation of active duty and veteran members of the military, with one in five people criminally charged in the incident having an armed forces background, and the crisis is undeniable.

Change finally could be on the horizon, however, under the leadership of Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III, the first African-American person to hold the post. He has ordered the military to investigate extremist activity and lifted a Trump-era ban on diversity training; he also spoke at a Pride Month celebration at the Pentagon. Other efforts, some small and some large-scale, are also promising. Fort Bragg, one of the largest military bases, commemorated Juneteenth last month. And the Defense Department has created a deputy inspector general position for “diversity and inclusion and supremacist, extremist and criminal gang activity. " We hope this role is not just ceremonial and given the teeth it needs to truly diversify the ranks and address racism.

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But the military shouldn’t stop there. What about the women whose sexual assault claims have been brushed aside by higher-ups? To truly move forward and address wrongs of both the past and the present, inequities of all kinds must be thoroughly examined, with their roots uncovered and ripped out. These are real problems that far outweigh any individual soldier’s — or lawmaker’s — discomfort about them. Pentagon officials should turn on the white noise machine when they are confronted with such nonsense and keep pushing on the path toward anti-racism. Treat the conservative backlash for what it is: an attempt at distraction that should simply be ignored.

Baltimore Sun editorial writers offer opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. They operate separately from the newsroom.

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