Clarence Page: It is high time to put political differences aside for the good of the country
Recent Republican moves to limit diversity training, transgender rights and other hot-button controversies stemming from the annual defense authorization bill remind me of my own days in uniform back when some of those diversity policies were being created.
Lucky me, I was drafted in 1969, a dark time that some military officials called the “time of troubles” in the late 1960s and early ’70s. The armed forces were facing military defeat in Vietnam and racial strife, poor morale and reports of urban riots back home, where the war had grown increasingly unpopular – and not just among radical activists.
In just two years, 1969 and 1971, the Defense Department recorded more than 300 racial incidents, including “race riots” and other unrest on military bases and other outposts, including two Navy aircraft carriers, according to military reports.
Among other problems, one study found, Black service members were more likely to be assigned to combat than to technical operations and were promoted more slowly – even controlling for test score differences.
The Defense Department, facing transition to an all-volunteer force, took aggressive steps to improve communications, including establishing “equal opportunity councils” in major units and goals and timetables for affirmative action, military-style.
By the first Gulf War in 1991, led by a black general, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Colin Powell, the era of such racial incidents appeared to have passed as the military faced newer challenges, such as the Tailhook scandal, sparked by shocking allegations of sexual harassment.
A foremost study by the late Charles Moskos, a Northwestern University sociology professor, and then-sociology professor John Sibley Butler of the University of Texas – “All That We Can Be: Black Leadership and Racial Integration the Army Way” – described a new military that, as Moskos put it in an interview with me, became the nation’s most integrated institution. “The only place in America where Blacks routinely boss whites around,” he called it.
As a formerly enlisted African American from a family with lots of cousins in the Army and Air Force, I could not disagree with his assessment.
Now, as I see today’s generation of congressional Republicans wage their seemingly endless war against the “woke,” I cannot help but wonder: Do these folks have any idea of how turbulent the issue of military diversity used to be?
The House Armed Services Committee recently debated the possible blocking of DEI, a shorthand for programs to encourage “diversity, equity and inclusion,” and the purging of “critical race theory,” an academic field of study whose title increasingly seems to be used by conservatives to mean whatever they want it to mean in order to gain the most leverage.
Meanwhile, over on the Senate side, Sen. Tommy Tuberville, a first-term Alabama Republican, continued his monthslong blockade of military promotions, all to protest the Biden administration’s decision to provide military personnel with access to abortion care after the Supreme Court overturned federal abortion rights.
Whatever you may feel about abortion rights, it is a violation of simple fairness to hold military promotions hostage to politics, especially when you’re violating a promise to support our troops and their families in their service to our country.
The University of Texas’ Butler has his own criticism of some DEI policies, especially when they go too far. He has a point when policies to improve race or gender relations go overboard and actually discourage the free discussion and debate necessary to honest debate. But the best answer is not to put a blackout on such sensitive topics, declaring them off-limits through a conservative version of political correctness.
In a speech on the Senate floor, Majority Whip Dick Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, urged the body to pass the bipartisan National Defense Authorization Act for the next fiscal year.
Besides authorizing nearly $886 billion for the nation’s defense and a 5% pay raise for our troops and the Pentagon’s civilian workforce, the bill also would expand employment opportunities for military spouses, funding for child care and improved military housing.
Times have changed. We have become accustomed to Democrats stereotypically calling for cuts in defense spending while Republicans seem to throw open the doors to the Treasury.
But, after all the political hoopla between the two sides, there comes a time for good Americans to put partisan divisions aside – in service to our country.