Congressional Republicans are attempting to tie the Biden administration to the argument, made by many progressives in the Democratic Party, that the United States is “systemically racist,” and the GOP is focusing its attention on the Pentagon.
First, GOP Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida confronted Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III at a June 23 House Armed Services Committee hearing, charging that the military is pushing “critical race theory” and that it was undermining cohesiveness in the services.
Then, on Monday, GOP Sen. James Lankford sent a request to the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee asking the panel to prohibit funding for instruction in critical race theory for servicemembers in its fiscal 2022 defense spending bill. He argued that servicemembers “should not have to be subjected to discriminatory intersectional exercises that try to politicize our military.”
The House Appropriations Committee approved a draft spending bill the next day without including the prohibition, and it’s unclear how much money, if any, the military spends on critical race theory training. The Pentagon did not respond to a request for comment.
Defining the debate
The concept of critical race theory, which emerged in academic circles decades ago, holds that inequities in society, in areas such as education, the workplace and wealth, stem from America’s history of racism. That history, the theory goes, continues to lead to disparate outcomes and must be countered with “anti-racist” programs aimed at helping minorities.
The debate over its teaching has become controversial in K-12 school systems, with some GOP states seeking to ban it and proponents of the theory responding that those efforts seek to cover up the history of racism in the United States.
But as Republicans have noticed that the controversy has touched a nerve among conservatives, they’ve begun talking about it more in Washington.
In May, Rep. Mark E. Green, a Tennessee Republican who served in the Army for two decades and whose district includes Fort Campbell, home of the Army’s 101st Airborne Division, introduced a bill to bar the service academies from teaching critical race theory. Fifteen Republicans are co-sponsors.
At the June 23 hearing, one of them, Florida Republican Michael Waltz, said that a guest lecturer at West Point, the U.S. Army college, had given a seminar on “Understanding Whiteness and White Rage” to cadets.
And in a July 14 op-ed for a Fox News site, Waltz said he believed the teaching was more widespread. “I can’t think of anything more dangerous to unit cohesion and morale than to think your fellow soldier of color’s advancement contributes to your white rage,” wrote Waltz.
In a May 5 release, Green said critical race theory “is based on a massive and purposeful misunderstanding of the American founding, American history, and America as it exists today.”
Other Republican lawmakers have also been on the offensive.
Senate Armed Services member Tom Cotton of Arkansas went on Fox News last week to call for the resignation of Air Force Academy associate professor Lynne Chandler Garcia, who wrote in a July 6 Washington Post op-ed that she teaches critical race theory to cadets.
Green has also called for Garcia’s removal, while Cotton told CQ Roll Call that critical race theory is divisive and has no place in the military.
“Servicemembers who encounter CRT-influenced training, which singles out troops based on skin color, or teaches that one race discriminates or is inherently privileged, or that America or the military is a fundamentally racist place, should report it,” Cotton said.
Cotton’s fellow Arkansas Republican, Sen. John Boozman, who sits on the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, took a similar view.
“Our national defense relies on each and every service member’s willingness to risk their lives for our country and the patriots they serve alongside. Teaching critical race theory to our servicemen and women would undermine trust and detract from the core principles that make our military the best in the world,” Boozman wrote in an email.
Democrats, on the other hand, are signaling a tacit resistance to Republican calls for bans on critical race theory, instead saying those decisions should be left up to the military.
Roy Loewenstein, a spokesman for Senate Defense Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Jon Tester, said the Montanan agrees with Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, “that military leaders know best what training our troops need to succeed, and Congress shouldn’t be playing politics with our armed forces or our national security.”
And Monica Matoush, a spokeswoman for House Armed Services Chairman Adam Smith of Washington, who plays a leading role in crafting the Pentagon’s annual policy bill, said Smith is supportive of Austin’s approach to determining the path forward for the DOD to deal with “the effects of systemic racism within the ranks.”
“In multiple public forums, the chairman has been clear that he believes systemic racism exists in our society and that it must be addressed to adequately protect the safety and security of our military personnel while they serve,” Matoush said.
The White House has sent mixed messages on the issue. In March, President Joe Biden issued a statement to mark the “International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination” in which he decried “systemic racism and white supremacy” as “ugly poisons that have long plagued the United States.”
President Donald Trump issued an executive order in September that restricted the federal government and its contractors from teaching critical race theory. Biden rescinded that order on the day of his inauguration.