Defense Secretary Mark Esper said Thursday that he will take several new steps to improve fairness for service members of color, acknowledging that the military is “not immune to the forces of bias and prejudice.”
Esper announced his plan in a video message, taking no questions about how he reached the decision. He said the military has often led on diversity issues, but still has bias in it, “whether visible or invisible, conscious or unconscious.”
“We know this bias burdens many of our service members, and has direct and indirect impact on the experiences of our minority members, the cultural and ethnic diversity of the force, and representation in our officer ranks,” Esper said. “These things have no place in our military; they have no place in our country.”
The defense secretary’s new steps include immediately establishing the internal Defense Board on Diversity and Inclusion in the Military, which will develop “concrete, actionable recommendations” to increase racial diversity and ensure equal opportunity, especially in an officer corps that is less diverse than the enlisted ranks.
Esper also will begin establishing the Defense Advisory Committee on Diversity and Inclusion, which will meet publicly and eventually replace the internal board, he said. It will be modeled after the influential Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Services, which has advocated for women in the military as the Pentagon has integrated women into roles that had been closed to them for decades.
In the short term, Esper also has directed military and civilian leaders at the Pentagon to propose ideas by the end of June that can be adopted immediately to improve diversity, he said. He cited as an example the removal of photographs from promotion, school and commander selection boards.
The announcements come amid a national reckoning after the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody last month, and amid criticism of President Donald Trump’s advocacy for using active-duty troops to quell unrest. Esper and Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, were against doing so.
Esper’s announcement also comes after a backlash to him and Milley appearing alongside Trump on June 1 outside the White House, after mostly-peaceful protesters were forcibly removed from Lafayette Square with pepper spray and other crowd-control measures.
Former defense secretary Jim Mattis and other former senior Pentagon officials decried the move for politicizing the military, and Esper and Milley apologized. Milley and Esper did not know the president had a photo opportunity planned in Lafayette Square when they walked with him, defense officials said. Administration officials have said that Trump considered firing Esper in the aftermath for his opposition to using active-duty troops.
While the military integrated people of color decades ago, several persistent race-related issues have come under scrutiny. They include a dearth of senior black officers, a disparity in which people of color are more likely to face court-martial than their white peers, and the names of 10 Army installations that recognize Confederate military officers who fought for slavery.
The Marine Corps and Navy also announced plans this month to ban the display of Confederate battle flags on U.S. military installations, but the other services have not followed suit after Trump said he would block any consideration of renaming the installations named for Confederates. Numerous defense officials said last week that they were unclear how to proceed on related efforts after the president’s announcement.
Milley, speaking last week in a recorded message to National Defense University students, called for military leaders to look for ways to improve equality, acknowledging a “mixed record” on the issue. While the military has come to reflect the diversity of the nation, he said, only 7% of generals and admirals are African American.
“We, too, have not come far enough,” he said. “We cannot afford to marginalize large portions of our potential talent pool, or alienate certain demographic groups.”