The chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, Gen Mark Milley, defended the study of critical race theory in the military when pressed on the issue before the House armed services committee, saying he wanted to “understand white rage”.
Critical race theory is a longtime academic concept centered on the idea that institutions in the US inherently create economic, political and social inequities between white people and people of color.
The methodology has been misinterpreted and used as a talking point by Republicans in more than 20 states to propose legislation that would limit discussions about race and systemic oppression in classrooms, arguing it is divisive.
Now the debate is seeping into the military. At a defense budget hearing, the four-star general responded to Republican lawmakers who implied the Pentagon was accepting of critical race theory, decrying the inclusion in West Point courses, and saying that embracing the concept would weaken the military’s mission.
“I personally find it offensive that we are accusing the United States military … of being ‘woke’ or something else because we’re studying some theories that are out there,” he said. Milley said service members should be open-minded and widely read because they “come from the American people”. Milley was joined by the defense secretary, Lloyd Austin.
Michael Waltz, a Republican representative from Florida and a former Green Beret, raised concerns of critical race theory being included on a syllabus at West Point.
“This came to me from cadets, from families, from soldiers with their alarm and their concern at how divisive this type of teaching is that is rooted in Marxism, that classifies people along class lines, an entire race of people as oppressor and oppressed,” said Waltz.
Milley defended the curriculum and said: “I’ve read Mao Zedong. I’ve read Karl Marx. I’ve read Lenin. That doesn’t make me a communist. So what is wrong with understanding, having some situational understanding about the country for which we are here to defend?”
He said reading about political theories, and fostering open discussion could lend to understanding the more recent violent events in the US, and creating an environment of anti-extremism in the military.
“I want to understand white rage – and I’m white,” Milley told the committee. He said he wanted to know and analyze what caused thousands of people to storm the US Capitol during the 6 January insurrection, and “try to overturn the constitution of the United States of America”.