Sen. Tom Cotton and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin had a heated exchange of words during a hearing this week over Defense Department efforts to address “extremism” within its ranks, with the senator asking bluntly if the United States military is a “fundamentally racist organization.”
The intense back-and-forth occurred while Austin was testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee Thursday.
The Arkansas Republican, who recently set up a whistleblower campaign for members of the armed forces to expose extremist training programs, began by noting that his office had received “hundreds” of complaints thus far.
“We’re hearing reports of plummeting morale, growing mistrust between the races and sexes where none existed just six months ago, and unexpected retirements and separations based on these trainings alone,” Cotton, a former Army captain, told Austin.
The senator, who is largely seen as a potential 2024 contender, went on to ask a series of questions to the defense secretary that he requested “yes-or-no” answers to.
Asked if he believes the military is a “fundamentally racist organization,” Austin replied, “I won’t give you a yes-or-no answer on that, senator, because it deserves more than a yes or no. The military, like any organization, will have its challenges, but I do not believe it is a fundamentally racist organization.”
Cotton prevented Austin from continuing, saying that his “time is limited” before asking him “yes-or-no,” whether service members should be treated differently based on the race or sex.
Austin told Cotton that, “Again, this question deserves more than a yes-or-no answer. I do not believe that, and that is why we have diversity, equity, and inclusion focus in the military.”
“The military for decades has been one of the institutions in this society where you are most likely to get ahead based on your own performance, on your own merit, irrespective of the color of your skin or where you came from or who your parents were,” Cotton told the defense secretary he wanted to note to him.
“I absolutely agree with that and I am an example of that. But I would also — I would also say that—” Austin said before being cut off by Cotton again.
The senator then asked Austin, the first black defense secretary, if he agreed with a quote from Ibram X. Kendi’s “How to Be an Antiracist,” which read that, “the only remedy to past discrimination is present discrimination.
“I’ve not read that and I certainly don’t agree with what you just said,” Austin said as Cotton interrupted him again.
Before Cotton could cut him off, Austin added that, “it’s always important to have the full context of anything that you’re being asked to evaluate.”
Prior to his time expiring, Cotton asked if troops “subjected to the kinds of trainings drawing on critical race concepts” should report them to the proper authorities, to which Austin said yes.
“They’ve always had that ability to do that and I would recommend that in the future. I would also say that diversity, equity and inclusion is important to this military now and it will be important in the future,” Austin added.
“We’re going to make sure that our military looks like America and that our leadership looks like what’s in the ranks of the military.”