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Racism Personal for Black Pentagon Head01/23 12:39


   WASHINGTON (AP) -- Newly confirmed Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin will have 
to contend not only with a world of security threats and a massive military 
bureaucracy, but also with a challenge that hits closer to home: rooting out 
racism and extremism in the ranks.

   Austin took office Friday as the first Black defense chief, in the wake of 
the deadly insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, where retired and current military 
members were among the rioters touting far-right conspiracies.

   The retired four-star Army general told senators this week that the 
Pentagon's job is to "keep America safe from our enemies. But we can't do that 
if some of those enemies lie within our own ranks."

   Ridding the military of racists isn't his only priority. Austin, who was 
confirmed in a 93-2 vote, has made clear that accelerating delivery of 
coronavirus vaccines will get his early attention.

   But the racism issue is personal. At Tuesday's confirmation hearing, he 
explained why.

   In 1995, when then-Lt. Col. Austin was serving with the 82nd Airborne 
Division at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, three white soldiers, described as 
self-styled skinheads, were arrested in the murder of a Black couple who was 
walking down the street. Investigators concluded the two were targeted because 
of their race.

   The killing triggered an internal investigation, and all told, 22 soldiers 
were linked to skinhead and other similar groups or found to hold extremist 
views. They included 17 who were considered white supremacists or separatists.

   "We woke up one day and discovered that we had extremist elements in our 
ranks," Austin told the Senate Armed Services Committee. "And they did bad 
things that we certainly held them accountable for. But we discovered that the 
signs for that activity were there all along. We just didn't know what to look 
for or what to pay attention to."

   Austin is not the first secretary to grapple with the problem. Racism has 
long been an undercurrent in the military. While leaders insist only a small 
minority hold extremist views, there have been persistent incidents of racial 
hatred and, more subtly, a history of implicit bias in what is a predominantly 
white institution.

   A recent Air Force inspector general report found that Black service members 
in the Air Force are far more likely to be investigated, arrested, face 
disciplinary actions and be discharged for misconduct.

   Based on 2018 data, roughly two-thirds of the military's enlisted corps is 
white and about 17% is Black, but the minority percentage declines as rank 
increases. The U.S. population overall is about three-quarters white and 13% 
Black, according to Census Bureau statistics.

   Over the past year, Pentagon leaders have struggled to make changes, 
hampered by opposition from then-President Donald Trump. It took months for the 
department to effectively ban the Confederate flag last year, and Pentagon 
officials left to Congress the matter of renaming military bases that honor 
Confederate leaders. Trump rejected renaming the bases and defended flying the 

   Senators peppered Austin with questions about extremism in the ranks and his 
plans to deal with it. The hearing was held two weeks after lawmakers fled the 
deadly insurrection at the Capitol, in which many of the rioters espoused 
separatist or extremist views.

   "It's clear that we are at a crisis point," said Sen. Tammy Duckworth, 
D-Ill., saying leaders must root out extremism and reaffirm core military 

   Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., pressed Austin on the actions he will take. "Disunity 
is probably the most destructive force in terms of our ability to defend 
ourselves," Kaine said. "If we're divided against one another, how can we 
defend the nation?"

   Austin, who broke racial barriers throughout his four decades in the Army, 
said military leaders must set the right example to discourage and eliminate 
extremist behavior. They must get to know their troops, and look for signs of 
extremism or other problems, he said.

   But Austin --- the first Black man to serve as head of U.S. Central Command 
and the first to be the Army's vice chief of staff --- also knows that much of 
the solution must come from within the military services and lower-ranking 
commanders. They must ensure their troops are trained and aware of the 

   "Most of us were embarrassed that we didn't know what to look for and we 
didn't really understand that by being engaged more with your people on these 
types of issues can pay big dividends," he said, recalling the 82nd Airborne 
problems. "I don't think that you can ever take your hand off the steering 
wheel here."

   But he also cautioned that there won't be an easy solution, adding, "I don't 
think that this is a thing that you can put a Band-Aid on and fix and leave 
alone. I think that training needs to go on, routinely."

   Austin gained confirmation after clearing a legal hurdle prohibiting anyone 
from serving as defense chief until they have been out of the military for 
seven years. Austin retired less than five years ago, but the House and Senate 
quickly approved the needed waiver, and President Joe Biden signed it Friday.

   Soon afterward, Austin strode into the Pentagon, his afternoon already 
filled with calls and briefings, including a meeting with Army Gen. Mark 
Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He held a broader video 
conference on COVID-19 with all top defense and military leaders, and his first 
call to an international leader was with NATO Secretary General Jens 

   Austin, 67, is a 1975 graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. 
He helped lead the invasion into Iraq in 2003, and eight years later was the 
top U.S. commander there, overseeing the full American troop withdrawal. After 
serving as vice chief of the Army, Austin headed Central Command, where he 
oversaw the reinsertion of U.S. troops to Iraq to beat back Islamic State 

   He describes himself as the son of a postal worker and a homemaker from 
Thomasville, Georgia, who will speak his mind to Congress and to Biden.

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