Defense legislation passed in spite of President Donald Trump’s veto will bring a heightened focus on diversity issues and efforts to combat white supremacy and extremist behavior within the U.S. military.
Along with billions of dollars for new weapons systems and a pay raise for troops, a new deputy inspector general’s position was created by the bipartisan defense authorization bill to carry out audits, investigations, and evaluations of military personnel policies, programs, and systems to ensure they address diversity priorities.
The new watchdog will also have a key role in responding to white supremacist and criminal gang activity by military personnel, according to the legislation passed on Jan. 1 over Trump’s veto.
The deputy inspector general “will keep the heat on the military to make sure that racial inequality does not fade from the priority list, that these provisions are implemented successfully, and that Congress will receive an independent source of findings and recommendations,” said Representative Jackie Speier, the California Democrat who heads the House Armed Services Committee’s military personnel panel.
Once the position is filled, the deputy inspector general could, for instance, review the extent to which the military services are examining social media posts of recruits or personnel needing security clearances to see if they’ve disclosed support for extremist organizations.
Military leaders have been supportive of moves to curb behavior and eliminate symbols that are offensive to service members of color, who now make up more than 40% of the active-duty force. In vetoing the annual policy bill, Trump took issue with a provision to rename military installations that honor Confederate generals.
That provision and the less-noticed move to create a diversity watchdog followed national protests in 2020 over systemic racism in law enforcement that prompted Pentagon leaders to speak out more forcefully on diversity issues.
Then-Defense Secretary Mark Esper called the killing of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man, at the hands of Minneapolis police “a horrible crime” and said that the officers responsible should “be held accountable for his murder.”
The military’s response included an anguished Facebook post by then-Chief Master Sergeant Kaleth Wright, the Air Force’s top enlisted airman, who expressed his fear that “what happens all too often in this country to Black men who are subjected to police brutality that ends in death … could happen to me.”
The move also comes as Joe Biden said he intends to nominate retired General Lloyd Austin to be the nation’s first Black defense secretary. Austin was previously the first African American to lead Central Command, which oversees operations in the Middle East.
While the U.S. military desegregated units years ahead of key civil rights legislation passed in the 1960s, it has continued to lag behind in many critical areas. Last month the Air Force’s inspector general concluded that Black airmen in the Air Force and the Space Force face widespread disparities in opportunities and treatment compared to fellow service members, and many of them feel that the services are racist and biased against them.
The review found enlisted Black troops are 57% more likely to face court-martials and are promoted less often, trends that continued across military criminal justice and professional development. In a survey of 123,000 Air Force members, one-third of Black respondents said the Air Force and Space Force do not provide them the same opportunities as White peers.
One key oversight tool the new watchdog will be responsible for is an annual report with an assessment of the effectiveness of “policies, programs, systems, and processes in preventing and responding to supremacist, extremist, and criminal gang activity of a member of the Armed Forces,” according to the legislation.
In addition to objecting to the renaming of military bases, Trump vetoed the defense measure because he wanted it to include an unrelated provision to eliminate a portion of the Communications Decency Act that protects technology companies from liability for most content published by their users. In his veto message, Trump also called the bill a “gift” to China and Russia, without clearly articulating his reasoning.
But Trump’s repeated efforts to get Republicans to support his veto failed. Beyond the new weapons funding and pay increases for troops, it had become a point of pride for members of the House and Senate Armed Services committees that the annual legislation has been enacted without fail for six decades. With that backdrop, the veto override became the first of Trump’s presidency.