Secretary of Defense Mark Esper announced an ambitious and sweeping internal review Thursday aimed at improving diversity and “ensuring equal opportunity across all ranks” of the US military.
Esper made the announcement in a video message to the Department of Defense, outlining two new boards he will establish to address diversity and inclusiveness across the department and pledging that “this issue will have my personal time and attention every step of the way. ”
“My goal is to effect an enterprise-wide, organizational and cultural shift,” Esper said, outlining an effort over the next few months to find ways to create lasting change in recruiting, career track selection, retention, assignments, schools, and promotions, “to military justice and everything in between and beyond.
“We are not immune to the forces of bias and prejudice – whether visible or invisible, conscious or unconscious,” Esper said. “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. These things have no place in our military; they have no place in our country.”
Esper said addressing racial inequities was central to the military’s ability to function as the world’s elite fighting force. “Removing bias and prejudice in all its forms and ensuring equal opportunity and respect for all will make us stronger, more capable, and more ready as a joint force,” Esper said. “A diverse and inclusive DoD draws out and builds upon the best in each of us… it brings out the best in America.”
‘The first steps’
Thursday’s announcements “are just the first steps, but there is more to be done,” Esper said.
“The actions I have identified today are just the first steps, but there is more to be done,” Esper said, emphasizing that the military’s diversity is a source of strength.
Esper announced a new internal board, the Defense Board on Diversity and Inclusion in the Military, that will “conduct a six-month sprint to develop concrete, actionable recommendations to increase racial diversity and ensure equal opportunity across all ranks, and especially in the officer corps.”
He also announced an advisory board called the Defense Advisory Committee on Diversity and Inclusion in the Armed Services that will be a permanent structure with a diverse membership. The Board and later the Advisory Committee will provide updates on action items, along with associated metrics, covered in the quarterly readiness briefings that are presented to Esper by the chain of command, he said.
Esper also called on senior leadership to speak up with their own ideas to implement immediately, “such as removing photos from promotion, school, and command selection boards – this is something I pushed as secretary of the Army, as we worked to overhaul our personnel system.”
The defense secretary framed diversity as an important source of strength for the military, alongside its doctrine, technology, tactics and warfighting skills.
“Our military has also reached this level of excellence because we attract the best America has to offer,” Esper said. “Young men and women across the land and beyond our shores who not only love our country and share these values, but who also represent a wide range of creeds, religions, races, ethnicities, sexual orientations, and other attributes that not only distinguish us as individuals, but also make us stronger when combined together.”
“Removing bias and prejudice in all its forms and ensuring equal opportunity and respect for all will make us stronger, more capable, and more ready as a joint force,” Esper said. “A diverse and inclusive DoD draws out and builds upon the best in each of us… it brings out the best in America.”
Esper’s announcement underscores the stark contrast between the Pentagon’s approach to weeks of convulsive national anger about racial injustice after the death of George Floyd at the hands of white police officers and the White House response.
President Donald Trump has criticized the protests and refused to entertain a Pentagon proposal to begin a conversation about renaming military bases named after Confederate generals who owned slaves and defended the institution of slavery.
Despite that, multiple officials tell CNN that leaders in the military – one of the most diverse and integrated institutions in American society – recognized this moment required them to take a stand, an effort that meant dealing with inequities within the military itself.
Imbalance in the military
Black service members are still disproportionately under-represented among the officer ranks despite enlisting at a higher rate than other minorities and whites relative to their share of the US population, Department of Defense data shows.
Black service members represent 19% of all enlisted personnel, but just 9% of officers. For white service members, the trend reverses. Two-thirds of all enlisted service members are white. But among officer ranks, more than three-quarters are white.
The imbalance also means that black service members are more likely to be seriously injured serving their country than their white colleagues.
In the weeks before Esper’s announcement, senior military leaders had already taken steps to address the issue, speaking to troops, hold listening sessions, sharing personal experiences and reaching out in various attempts to start a conversation about issues of racial inequality in the military.
On Thursday, Esper said he and senior civilian and military leadership – “both officer and enlisted” – had been discussing racial diversity. “We all agree that it is time to lead once again on this issue as America’s most respected institution, and a globally recognized leader when it comes to building diverse, winning teams, and creating opportunity for all.”
He also asked all members of the military “to reflect upon the issues of race, bias, and inequality in our ranks, and have the tough, candid discussions with your superiors, your peers, and your troops that this issue demands.”
The defense secretary said this would be an added responsibility for military officers and leaders “who must also double down on your mentorship of up-and-coming minority leaders, and make diversity and inclusion a priority. This is what I expect of leaders.”
CNN’s Barbara Starr and Zachary Cohen contributed to this report.