Scholars Offer Wide Range of Reactions to Biden’s Defense Secretary Pick

Diversity and military scholars have expressed both optimism and cynicism towards President Joe Biden’s nomination of Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III, who was confirmed last week as the nation’s first Black defense secretary.

Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III

Dr. Gary Packard Jr., University of Arizona dean of the College of Applied Science and Technology praised the decision, adding that he thought Austin was a great choice for the role.

“I think he’s going to bring a really strong blend of operational experience, commitment, respect for human dignity and adherence to constitutional principles as our new secretary,” Packard said.

Packard has more than a decade of experience in diversity and inclusion affairs within the United States Air Force Academy. He was also a lead author of the Department of Defense’s study leading to the 2011 repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”

“I’ve seen him [Austin] quoted as saying that, in essence, it shouldn’t have taken this long, and somebody should have preceded him in that role,” Packard said about the historic nature of his being the first African-American to hold the post. “And I take from that, that he’s got a real strong sense of probably both his struggles coming up through the ranks as a Black man in the military, and he has a deep appreciation for his role in helping those things to get better.”

As his first directive, Austin has ordered his senior leaders to report to him on the efficacy sexual assault prevention programs in the military.

Diversity scholar Dr. Charles H. F. Davis III seemed more cynical about Austin’s appointment, saying that the actions of the U.S. military should be heavily scrutinized

“There are maybe people that do want to celebrate the fact that we have another first Black person to do something of recognition and of stature, but that doesn’t fundamentally change what the military is used for by our nation,” Davis said. “And being able to shroud the extent to which empires expanded for the accumulation and control of natural resources, for expanding itself and its placement within around the world, those things still and can and should be called into question and not strayed away from simply because there is a Black person who is in charge.”

Davis said that despite former President Barack Obama becoming the first Black president in 2008, “the everyday conditions for most Black people and for racially minoritized people more generally did not improve or change.”

Austin’s appointment may serve instead as a distraction from the goings-on of the military, Davis said.

“I think there is something to be said of how Gen. Austin may and can be used by the state, even against his own wishes and desires because of the way that it works and the type of example and distraction from the actual function of the military, both domestic and abroad, simply because it has someone who represents what is perceived to be a more inclusive future,” Davis said.

Racial issues remain prominent in the armed forces.

Almost a third of Black military service members reported suffering racial discrimination and/or harassment during a 12-month period, according to results of a previously withheld 2017 Defense Department survey. Troops who suffered such discrimination were unhappy with the complaint process and, more often than not, did not report.