The politics of race spilled over into a hearing on the Defense Department’s fiscal 2022 budget request Wednesday, with top Pentagon leaders pushing back against accusations that critical race theory was undermining cohesiveness in the military.
For most of the House Armed Services Committee hearing, Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III and Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, fielded questions about funding levels for specific programs and whether the administration’s $715 billion topline request for defense was enough to keep pace with China.
Then Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., pointedly asked Austin, the first Black secretary of Defense, about the one-day discussion of extremism in the ranks that Austin ordered. Austin’s directive followed the Jan. 6 insurrection, when a crowd of Trump supporters stormed the Capitol. Active-duty personnel and military veterans are among those facing criminal charges stemming from the riot.
Gaetz told Austin that anecdotally, members of the military were telling the congressman that the stand-down had done more harm than good in terms of racial cohesion in the military.
Gaetz then pivoted, asking how the Defense Department should think about critical race theory.
A visibly annoyed Austin replied: “I don't know what the issue of critical race theory is and what the relevance [is] with the department. We do not teach critical race theory. We don't embrace critical race theory, and I think that's a spurious conversation.”
Milley tried to respond, but Gaetz cut him off.
Critical race theory is an academic approach, first developed by legal scholars more than 40 years ago, for reexamining how racial bias has been encoded in law and other social institutions.
Later, Florida Republican Michael Waltz brought up the topic again, noting that West Point’s superintendent had identified several instances, including during a seminar titled “Understanding Whiteness and White Rage,” where critical race theory was part of the curriculum.
Soldiers and their families, Waltz said, were alarmed and concerned at “how divisive this type of teaching is that is rooted in Marxism that classifies people along class lines, an entire race of people as oppressor and oppressed.”
Austin thanked Waltz, a former Green Beret who served in Afghanistan, for the question, his service and continued support.
Later, Rep. Chrissy Houlahan, D-Pa., gave Milley an opportunity to respond, and Milley unloaded on Gaetz and Waltz.
Milley acknowledged that he wasn’t fully up to speed on critical race theory, but gave an impassioned defense of the need for members of the military to be open minded and widely read. West Point, Milley noted, is an academic institution.
“I want to understand white rage and I'm white, and I want to understand it,” Milley said. “What is it that caused thousands of people to assault this building and try to overturn the Constitution of the United States of America? What caused that? I want to find that out. I want to maintain an open mind here and I do want to analyze it.”
Members of the military are composed of the American people, and it is important that military leaders, now and in the future, to understand what happened on Jan. 6, he said.
Milley, who has degrees from Princeton and Columbia universities as well as the Naval War College, said he has read works by Mao Zedong, Karl Marx and V.I. Lenin.
“That doesn't make me a communist,” he said. “So, what is wrong with understanding, having some situational understanding about the country for which we are here to defend?”
Milley added that he found it personally offensive that members of the military were accused of "being 'woke' or something else because we're studying some theories that are out there.”
He then linked critical race theory to the history of the United States, noting that there were laws, prior to the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation, that created a power differential between Blacks and whites, and it took another 100 years to pass the Civil Rights Act.
Apparently addressing Waltz, Milley concluded: “I do want to know and I respect your service and you and I are both Green Berets, but I want to know and it matters to our military and the discipline and cohesion of this military.”
After the hearing, Houlahan told CQ Roll Call she felt compelled to give Milley a chance to speak on the issue because the point of hearings is to hear from witnesses, and it was clear he wanted to respond to Gaetz and Waltz’s line of questioning.
“I really felt he deserved the time to articulate what I expected he would articulate, and with passion, which is: This is not political, that we need to make sure [our troops] are educated about all threats that face us as a nation, and they need to understand all the aspects of the people that they serve,” said Houlahan, who is an Air Force veteran. “I was very glad that he was so incredibly forceful with his vision for what it means to serve.”
Houlahan said when she left the hearing to attend another meeting, some of her colleagues mentioned that critical race theory had been a topic of discussion at the events they just came from as well, which surprised her.
“It would seem as though this is sort of a coordinated effort, and that disappoints me,” said Houlahan. “We really don’t have time in this nation to divide each other with these kinds of narratives.”