The U.S. military is grappling with race after early missteps in responding to the nationwide protests against racial injustice roiling the country.
As the entire country reckons with race, military services are examining racial disparities in their justice systems, removing Confederate symbols and working to better listen to Black service members’ experiences with prejudice.
But the Pentagon must also balance restoring public trust without further invoking President Trump’s ire. Already, Trump has tried to shut down a plan to strip Confederate names from 10 Army bases, though Congress is headed toward forcing the Pentagon’s hand on the issue.
This past week, Defense Secretary Mark Esper announced an internal review aimed at finding ways to “ensure equal opportunity across all ranks.”
“We are not immune to the forces of bias and prejudice — whether visible or invisible, conscious or unconscious,” Esper said Thursday in a video message to the department. “We know this bias burdens many of our service members, and has direct and indirect impact on the experiences of our minority members, the cultural and ethnic diversity of the force, and representation in our officer ranks. These things have no place in our military; they have no place in our country.
Esper’s comments came after the Defense Secretary and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Mark Milley weathered criticism from former military leaders, lawmakers and others for their role in Trump’s efforts to crack down on the demonstrations sparked by the death of George Floyd while in police custody.
Esper later came out in opposition to invoking the Insurrection Act to use active-duty troops to quell protests and expressed regret for referring to U.S. cities and streets as a “battle space.” Esper’s announcement on the Insurrection Act, delivered at a Pentagon press briefing, reportedly so angered Trump that he had to be talked out of firing Esper.
Milley, meanwhile, has apologized for participating in Trump’s controversial photo-op at St. John’s Episcopal Church across from the White House. Esper and Milley, who was wearing combat fatigues, accompanied Trump to the church moments after federal law enforcement used force to clear largely peaceful protesters from the area.
A 1948 executive order from President Truman ended racial segregation in the military ahead of much of the nation, and today, about 43 percent of active-duty troops are people of color.
But the vast majority of top military officers continue to be white men. The U.S. military will only get its first Black service chief this year when Gen. Charles “C.Q.” Brown is sworn in as Air Force chief of staff on Aug. 6.
In the same speech where he apologized for participating in the photo-op, Milley acknowledged the military’s “mixed record on equality.” Just 7 percent of generals and admirals are African American, no Black Navy admiral or Marine Corps general has more than two stars, and the Army has just one African American four-star general, Milley said.
“While the military sets an example for civil society through our inclusiveness, we, too, have not come far enough. We all need to do better,” Milley said in the prerecorded address to National Defense University graduates. “We cannot afford to marginalize large portions of our potential talent pool or alienate certain demographic groups.”
Amid the protests, the first military leader to speak out was the Air Force’s top noncommissioned officer, Chief Master Sgt. Kaleth Wright, a Black man. In a lengthy Twitter thread June 1, he detailed his feelings on the protests.
Wright has since been tweeting out other Black airmen’s stories of experiencing racism, including a staff sergeant who’s been told her natural hair is “nappy” and to “do something with” it before an Air Force promotion board.
“The road ahead is not not an easy one,” Wright tweeted this past week. “The conversations we’re having are difficult, but absolutely necessary. These stories are not just words, they are people. People who have dealt with racism and bias all their lives. We need to listen and help each other understand.”
The protests have also reignited debates about Confederate symbols, as protesters tear down statues, local leaders order monuments removed and Congress debates how to handle figures in the Capitol.
In the military, the most high-profile debate over the issue are 10 Army bases named after Confederate generals and a colonel.
The Army said it would be open to renaming the bases, but days later, Trump said he would “not even consider” doing so.
The Senate’s version of the annual defense policy bill, though, would require the Pentagon to rename the bases and other property bearing Confederate names, and Republicans who want to avoid confronting Trump have an uphill climb removing the provision. The House is also seen as likely to include a similar stipulation in its version of the bill.
Prior to the Army row, the Marine Corps finalized an order banning the display of the Confederate battle flag, and the Navy said it would follow suit. For the Marines, Commandant Gen. David Berger had announced earlier in the year months before the protests he would ban the flag.
No military branch has announced a ban since Trump’s public smackdown of the Army, but U.S. Forces Korea announced this past week it would ban the flag.
Meanwhile, the military justice system is facing renewed scrutiny for racial disparities.
“The way things have always been done is wrong,” Representative Jackie Speier said this past week at a House Armed Services Committee subcommittee hearing she was chairing. “The results are repugnant.”
The hearing was called after reports from the Government Accountability Office and Protect Our Defenders found Black service members are more likely to face courts martial and other discipline than their white counterparts. A May report from Protect Our Defenders showed Black airmen at the second-lowest rank being disciplined twice as often as other demographics.
At the hearing, judge advocate generals for the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps acknowledged the data and pledged to do better. The Air Force inspector general, at service leaders’ request, has launched an investigation into racial disparities in the service’s justice system, but witnesses offered few other specifics at the hearing.
“Today, while we believe that we no longer have intentional discrimination in our processes, the fact is that racial disparity in the aggregate persists,” Lt. Gen. Jeffrey Rockwell, the Air Force’s judge advocate general, said at the hearing. “This demonstrates the complex and challenging nature of the issue, symptomatic or indicative of one or many symptoms. A daunting problem, but one that should not stop us from exploring what we can do in the disciplinary process to serve as part of the solution set.”