Representation at the Top: The Importance of Race in the Austin Nomination Debate

Since the official announcement on Dec. 8, the nomination of retired Gen. Lloyd Austin for secretary of defense has elicited a wide range of responses. Many in the national security community have, rightfully, raised concerns about nominating a general officer so recently out of uniform, potentially weakening proper civilian oversight of the department and bringing the military deeper into partisan politics. However, as this dialogue continues, we cannot and should not lose sight of what Austin’s selection also means for a country that finds itself engulfed in societal discourse and upheaval focused largely on race in a way the United States has not engaged the topic, arguably, since the 1960s Civil Rights Movement.

At the outset, I acknowledge that I, myself, am no disinterested party in this. I am a proud graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point, a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom, an alum of the Obama-Biden reelection campaign and administration, and the 2016 Clinton campaign. And, in my personal capacity, I’ve supported President-Elect Joe Biden and his team as they envision a new path forward for America. I am also a Black American from the South whose father served in Vietnam, and grandfather served in World War II. Both navigated discrimination and obstacles while proudly serving their country.

As article after article after article has indicated, not only is the debate about the issues associated with having a recently retired general officer leading the Pentagon, but what such an appointment could mean for maintaining a healthy distance between the senior ranks of uniformed service and civilian control. That debate shouldn’t be taken lightly. As my colleague, retired Army Lt. Col., civ-mil expert, and fellow West Point graduate Jim Golby articulated in a New York Times opinion piece,

After four years of relative, if erratic, autonomy under Mr. Trump, military leaders may chafe when civilian national security leaders ask to check their homework. To some extent, that is healthy. Too much friction can also stop or slow progress, true, but a certain level is necessary for proper governance. The need for experienced leadership in the Pentagon to manage this friction is vital.

No doubt the need for sharp, skillful, and keen civilian oversight isn’t simply a good idea but an imperative for the long-term health and stability of the national security apparatus. This is a debate that should be rigorous and difficult, if not outright uncomfortable, as we all reconcile how civilian control of the Pentagon can be properly maintained by a longtime Army leader whose professional career has been wholly in the institution of uniformed service.

But the pushback against Austin’s nomination has left little room to celebrate what is also a milestone for Black Americans in and out of uniform. As the New York Times notes, “The military is one of the most diverse institutions in the country, but its senior leadership (as in many other American institutions) is virtually all white.”

Throughout his military career, Austin has been a trailblazer, reaching positions previously closed to Black soldiers. He was the first Black commander to lead a Corps in combat, the first Black commander of an entire theater of war, and the first Black commander of U.S. Central Command, responsible for the Middle East, Central and South Asia. If confirmed by the Senate, he’ll once again break down barriers that should never have been in place. As another colleague and friend, Meg Guilford, mentioned on Twitter about Austin’s selection, “Watching the President-elect formally nominate Lloyd Austin, III as his Secretary of Defense was pretty emotional for me. I never thought I would see a Black person nominated to be the Secretary of Defense. Working for DoD, I never had a Black boss & rarely had Black co-workers.”

As I’ve reviewed many opinion pieces and comments online, I’ve noted that many commenting on Austin’s nomination explain that they understand the necessity of representation and celebrate this selection for those reasons, but immediately go no further. Instead, their next statements tend to deal with their belief that dissent in this space is a necessity given the legal, policy, and even philosophical challenges it presents. In other words, in this case, the concerns of civilian control immediately trump the opportunity for diversity. Ultimately, the refrain acknowledges that representation matters, so why couldn’t Biden select another capable person of color? Why isn’t there a Black civilian capable of serving in this capacity? Therein lies the issue: From what pool of talent could we pull a qualified individual who also maintains the appropriate acumen essential to success in the position? There will soon only be two Black senators in Congress. Diverse leadership in the senior ranks of the intelligence community continues to be a major issue. In the private sector, Fortune 500 CEO diversity remains incredibly low. For instance, there are currently only five Black chief executives accounting for approximately one percent of the total. There are currently no Black governors and only four in the country that identify as a minority. Austin is a historic leader because he has often been the first to blaze the trail.

Meanwhile, we have a military where, of the 1.3 million men and women on active-duty, approximately 43 percent of them are people of color. Until this year, however, it had never witnessed a Black man serve as a service chief of staff, a barrier broken by Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Q. Brown. As the New York Times’ Helene Cooper reports, of the 41 most senior commanders in the military,  only two are Black, and that includes Gen. Brown. No Black person has ever served as deputy secretary of defense or undersecretary of defense for policy. Only 6.6 percent of the civilian senior executive staff, or SES ranks, is Black when Black people make up roughly 20 percent of the civilian workforce. Only a few people of color have served in Senate-confirmed positions in the Pentagon over the course of decades, and only a couple as service secretaries or undersecretaries. In essence, there is, and has long been, a historic lack of color in the executive levels of national security, broadly, and in civilian defense positions, specifically. Instead, it is the uniform service that has long acted as a path of upward mobility for Black Americans and the present day is no different.

The military once led the country in integration, having officially desegregated in July 1948. Though, it took roughly a decade to fully implement the change, it still far outpaced American society. Even still, the most senior positions and ranks within the military remain elusive. Leaders such as Austin are unique in the fact that he has continuously navigated racial barriers successfully.

Of course, there are other competitive candidates (former Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, himself a man of color, has proven he is beyond capable of serving in this capacity and could no doubt be a leader to help shepherd the department through this arduous time) and populations that are also starving for representation at the highest levels of national security. Women have and must, unfortunately, continue to navigate misogyny and a variety of hardships in the national security and foreign policy space. And, Michèle Flournoy is a well-known, incredibly well-respected, and trusted leader who epitomizes the values one should wish to see in the secretary of defense. She maintains many fiercely loyal mentees, colleagues, admirers, and supporters who were disappointed that she was not selected for the job. While Biden has done a tremendous job with gender parity overall in selecting his Cabinet, to include the nomination of Avril Haines as the first female Director of National Intelligence, the necessary mandate for a future female secretary of defense has not dissolved. But this isn’t an “us versus them” or marginalized group versus marginalized group issue. When reviewing these circumstances, the test should not be why not another capable leader, but instead, why might it be so important, in this moment — even in the face of these legal and procedural hurdles — that Biden sees Austin as his top candidate and confidante for the role?

Austin served in close partnership with the former vice president in the efforts to bring the bulk of 150,000 American service members and assets home from Iraq. But, what Biden sees in Austin, and his willingness to step out in front on this nomination, apparently runs much deeper. In his recent op-ed in The Atlantic explaining his choice, Biden speaks to the empathy, thoughtful leadership, and compassion of Austin, relaying stories of the relationship between the general and Beau Biden, the president-elect’s late son, and the bond the two men built while serving together in Iraq. It is that bond that transcends politics and has led to Austin’s place as a trusted adviser. Biden’s willingness now to push this conversation and process forward amidst the concerns and opposition of parts of the national security community is a testament to how important he believes this diverse leader is for the country and department at this moment. As white supremacy and domestic terrorism threaten our country and continue to plague the military, this is the level of allyship and representation required to face both issues head on.

Whether or not the nominee has been out of the military seven years rather than four shouldn’t be the only thing that matters. It is incumbent on Congress via a legal waiver, and the Senate through the confirmation process, to engage in a rigorous review of Austin and determine if the legislative body will provide the consent necessary for him to serve at the president’s pleasure. Due diligence remains an absolute necessity in choosing the right person for the position, and that requires a great deal of honest dialogue. The selection of the first Black defense secretary, with a record of service such as Austin’s, doesn’t negate any of this process. But his nomination should not be viewed in a vacuum either. He should be given the opportunity to demonstrate why Biden would go to such lengths to see him in the position.

Image: U.S. Army (retired) General Lloyd Austin speaks after being formally nominated to be Secretary of the Department of Defense by U.S. President-elect Joe Biden at the Queen Theatre on December 09, 2020 in Wilmington, Delaware. Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

 

About the Author(s)

Bishop Garrison

Co-founder and President of the Rainey Center, a public-policy research organization in Washington D.C.; Director of National Security Outreach at Human Rights First; and a former Army officer. Follow him on Twitter (@BishopGarrison).