Defense Secretary Esper lays out immediate actions to address race and inequality in the military

Defense Secretary Mark Esper on Wednesday laid out a series of immediate actions the Department of Defense will take to address race inequality and inclusion in the US military, an issue that was thrust into the spotlight following the death of George Floyd, a Black man, at the hands of a White Minneapolis police officer.

The steps, which Esper laid out in a letter to the force Wednesday, include removing photographs from promotion packets, reviewing hairstyles and grooming standards in order to ensure that they are not racially biased, and a series of training and education initiatives to address racial prejudice and unconscious bias.

Esper issued the steps at the first meeting of the Defense Department’s newly formed Board on Diversity and Inclusion.

“The actions I am directing are a necessary first step, but I have no illusion that these initial actions will fully address the concerns many of us know and which I have personally heard from many Service members,” Esper said after the board’s meeting, according to a Pentagon statement.

“These actions identified today will better ensure a diverse workforce at all levels, an inclusive environment, and equal opportunity for all who serve,” he continued. “But hard work remains as efforts to shift our culture requires steadfast attention.” The effort, he said, would make “the US military a more cohesive, ready and capable force in defense of our great nation.”

The Pentagon statement outlined the three-pronged approach Esper will have the Pentagon take in this initiative against “discrimination, prejudice and bias in all ranks of the Armed Forces,” including a short-term “spring” to identify immediate actions, the creation of a board on diversity and inclusion, and the long-term creation of a committee on diversity and inclusion.

“Today, as prescribed in the mid-term effort of the three-pronged approach, the DoD Board on Diversity and Inclusion met at the Pentagon for the first time as a group,” the statement said. “The Secretary met with members of the board as they outlined the Department’s way forward on addressing diversity, inclusion and equal opportunity.”

Esper had said earlier that the Pentagon would embark on several reform efforts, the first of which would be a series of steps that could be taken relatively immediately — these are the actions outlined in the memo the defense secretary published Wednesday on Twitter.

Other immediate steps Esper is recommending include obtaining and analyzing additional data on prejudice and bias within the force and developing a program to teach commanders how to “have relevant, candid and effective discussions.”

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.

In the weeks before Esper announced his review, senior military leaders had already taken steps to address the issue, speaking to troops, holding listening sessions, sharing personal experiences and reaching out in various attempts to start a conversation about issues of racial inequality in the military.