U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin (L) and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley (R) testify during a hearing before the House Committee on Armed Services on June 23, 2021, in Washington, D.C.

U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin (L) and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley (R) testify during a hearing before the House Committee on Armed Services on June 23, 2021, in Washington, D.C. Alex Wong/Getty Images

Austin, Milley Push Back on Lawmakers’ ‘Critical Race Theory’ Accusations

Republicans ask why West Point cadets learn about ‘White Rage,’ in pointed exchanges with nation’s first Black defense secretary.

Republicans fighting against critical race theory confronted Pentagon leaders in an unusual showdown between white lawmakers, a Black defense secretary, and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff over what kind of teachings about racism were appropriate in military education and training. 

Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., led a series of questions challenging new Defense Department initiatives to address racism and white extremism in the ranks, aiming his criticisms at Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, while trying to minimize responses supporting those initiatives from Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Mark Milley in a House Armed Services Committee hearing. 

Among lawmakers’ objections was a recent seminar on “Understanding Whiteness and White Rage,” held at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, in New York, on whether it was a  “woke” effort to inspire race-based guilt among the academy’s majority white student body, or, as the military’s top leaders suggested Wednesday, an important part of higher education to expose the nation’s future uniformed leaders to all points of view. 

Gaetz’s exchange was unavoidable in its optics of a white lawmaker challenging and interrupting Austin, the nation’s first Black defense secretary, to suggest that the retired general didn’t know everything he needed to on how race discussions were hurting the force. 

“They say that your standdown regarding extremism did not help our military, it hurt the military,” said Gaetz, describing what he said were service members’ private frustrations with having to talk about race. 

When Milley tried to offer his view, Gaetz cut him off.  

Gaetz said service members would only speak privately about how they really felt about Austin’s stand down because of the recent firing of a Space Force commander, Lt. Col. Matthew Lohmeier, who alleged the military was being unduly influenced by critical race theorists. It’s become the “No. 1 issue they raise to me,” Gaetz said, more than deployment problems or readiness. 

In part, critical race theory contends that the nation’s legal, economic, and social systems were purposefully constructed to support a racial hierarchy that oppresses minorities and won’t be fixed if those changes disadvantage whites.

“We do not teach critical race theory, we don’t embrace critical race theory and I think that’s a spurious conversation,” Austin responded. “We are focused on extremist behaviors, and not ideology, not people’s thoughts, not people’s political orientation.”  

As Gaetz continued, Austin grew more incensed. 

“Thanks for your anecdotal input, but I would say I have gotten 10 times that amount of input, 50 times that amount of input, on the other side, that have said, ‘Hey, we’re glad to have had the ability to have a conversation with ourselves and with our leadership,’” Austin said.  

Gaetz interrupted. “It may be that you are receiving that input in the ratios you describe because it was your directive.” 

Austin snapped back. “For you to say that people are telling me what I want to hear … maybe they are telling you what you want to hear.” 

Later in the hearing, retired Green Beret and Florida Republican Michael Waltz provided correspondence he had with the superintendent of West Point that he said shows that critical race theory is taught at the academy. 

“I was provided a presentation slide from one of the workshops with the title of “White Power at West Point” and “Racist Dog Whistles at West Point,” Waltz wrote in an April letter to the academy. “Additionally, another presentation slide shared with me depicted a lecture by Dr. Carol Anderson of Emory University with the title “Understanding Whiteness and White Rage.”

“I cannot think of anything more divisive, and more destructive,” Waltz told Austin and Milley at the hearing. “I want to be very clear. The military needs to be open to all Americans … but once we’re in, we bleed green and our skin color is camouflage.” 

In letters provided to Defense One by Waltz’ office, West Point’s superintendent defended the coursework as part of a larger effort to provide specific and “controversial” voluntary lectures to cadets. The “White Rage” lecture in question was part of two courses: “Race, Ethnicity, and Nation” and “Civil Rights Movements” that was attended by about 40 upper level cadets enrolled in the classes and an additional 100 cadets who voluntarily attended. 

Academy superintendent Army Lt. Gen. Darryl Williams said in his response to Waltz that “with regards to critical race theory, there is only one course that has this theory as part of the syllabus: SS392 - the Politics of Race, Gender, and Sexuality. There are two lessons on critical race theory and the book, Critical Race Theory: An Introduction, is one of several readings in the course.” 

The “White Power” and “Racist Dog Whistles” slides were from a mandatory social media training course, Williams said. 

“Although some controversial topics and guest lecturers are a part of the West Point educational experience, these opportunities are specific in nature and not a systemic part of the 47-month experience for every cadet,” Williams said. 

In the hearing, Pennsylvania Democrat Chrissy Houlahan, an Air Force veteran, chose to yield part of her time back to Milley to get his cut off view on critical race theory on the record. 

The chairman did not mince words. 

“I want to understand white rage, and I'm white, and I want to understand it. So what is it that caused thousands of people to assault this building and try to overturn the Constitution of the United States of America? What caused that? I want to find that out,” Milley said. 

“It's important that we understand that because our soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines and guardians, they come from the American people. So it is important that the leaders now in the future, do understand it. I've read Mao Zedong. I've read Karl Marx, I've read Lenin, that doesn't make me a communist. So what is wrong with understanding, having some situational understanding about the country for which we are here to defend?”