Critical race theory fight boils over at defense bill markup

Members of the House Armed Services Committee forcefully debated the role of teaching critical race theory at military educational institutions for more than an hour late Wednesday night, with Democrats sharply pushing back against Republican efforts to include a ban on the concept as part of an annual defense spending bill.

GOP lawmakers — including Republican Study Committee Chairman Jim Banks of Indiana and Rep. Mark Green of Tennessee — backed amendments to the annual National Defense Authorization Act, a sweeping defense bill that authorizes spending levels and outlines priorities for the US military.

Critical race theory recognizes that systemic racism is part of American society and challenges the beliefs that allow it to flourish. While the theory was started decades ago as a way to examine how laws and systems promote inequality, it has taken on new urgency since a series of killings last year of African Americans by police officers, which led to a national reckoning on race. Conservatives, including Banks, have criticized the concept as un-American.

“Every single one of us in this room know that this is the greatest country in the history of this world. Are we perfect? No. Is our history perfect? Of course not. But there’s nothing that comes close to what we have in America. And it is not sustainable to tell our troops anything otherwise. In fact, it’s dangerous.”

Republican Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida called critical race theory “a poison.”

“It otherizes our fellow Americans,” Gaetz said. “It is not what we need in our military, in our schools, in our lives or anywhere in a great nation.”

Democratic Rep. Elaine Luria of Virginia, a US Naval Academy graduate and Navy veteran, delivered one of the most forceful rebukes of the night, blasting her “completely unserious” colleagues for proposing amendments that “are a waste of time and do not do a damn thing to improve our national security.”

“We’ve sat here and debated critical race theory for one hour and 18 minutes,” Luria said. “That’s two and a half times the 29 minutes that we spent on increasing the defense budget by $24 billion, an amendment that actually provides real deterrence to the Chinese Communist Party.”

Luria was referencing the more than a dozen Democrats on the committee who joined Republicans to easily approve a GOP measure boosting the Pentagon’s budget by $24 billion earlier in the committee markup.

Other Democrats stressed the importance of teaching history as well as addressing racism, but they questioned the relevance of the entire debate, noting critical race theory was not a concept that the Defense Department officially embraced or promoted.

“This will have a chilling effect,” the committee’s chairman, Adam Smith, a Washington state Democrat, said of the amendments. “And for what? To stop the military from indoctrinating people in something that they’re not indoctrinating people with. So that’s why bringing up those issues is both harmful, kind of harmful, and pointless at the same time.”

Smith added that passing these amendments would “discourage people in the military from attempting to address issues of diversity and racism.”

“We need to teach the truth about American history. All of American history, including slavery, including Jim Crow,” said Democratic Rep. Steven Horsford of Nevada. “And by being honest about our past, we can actually teach the hard truths about our country.”

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