WASHINGTON — President Biden paid tribute on Wednesday to Black Americans serving in the military as he made his first visit to the Pentagon since taking office, vowing to embrace diversity as a strength at a time of racial reckoning inside the Defense Department.
Flanked by Lloyd J. Austin III, the first Black secretary of defense, and Kamala Harris, the first Black vice president, Mr. Biden lauded what he called “a long history of Black Americans fighting for this country, even when their contributions are not always recognized or honored appropriately.”
The American military has long described itself as one of the first institutions to integrate. But the much-heralded 1948 desegregation of the military as described in history books belies the fact that the services largely ignored President Harry S. Truman’s executive order for several years, and only took action once the Korean War forced the military to actually get serious about integration.
And while some 43 percent of the American military today comes from minority backgrounds, that percentage is not reflected in the top officer ranks.
Of the 41 most senior commanders in the military — those with four-star rank in the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines and Coast Guard — only two are Black: Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr., the Air Force chief of staff, and Gen. Michael X. Garrett, who leads the Army’s Forces Command. (Women and other minorities are scarce, too; of the most senior commanders, only three more are not white men.)
Mr. Biden referred to that history on Wednesday, noting the barrier-breaking nature of Mr. Austin’s confirmation as the Pentagon’s top civilian official, an acknowledgment of the efforts his administration has made to come to terms with the military’s diversity challenges.
“It’s long past time that the full diversity and full strength of our forces is reflected at every level of this department, including our secretary of defense,” Mr. Biden said.
Mr. Biden also used the Pentagon visit to stress the need for the military to embrace a broader sense of tolerance. He noted that he had quickly ended the ban on service by transgender individuals, and he praised Mr. Austin for issuing a memorandum that makes clear the Defense Department takes seriously sexual assault and harassment.
“Every single person, no matter their gender identity, sexual orientation, race or religious background, deserves to feel safe in the ranks and to have their contributions valued,” the president said in remarks that were livestreamed to members of the military around the world.
But the focus of the visit by Mr. Biden and Ms. Harris was on highlighting Black service members who are part of the institution’s vast bureaucracy and 1.3 million active-duty troops.
After receiving a private briefing by Mr. Austin and other military leaders, the president and vice president walked down the corridor at the Pentagon that is dedicated to African-Americans who have fought in the military.
For African-Americans, whose bloodshed on behalf of the military dates to Crispus Attucks in 1770, the lack of representation at the top has been acutely felt, and many Black service members say they see the confirmation of Mr. Austin as long overdue.
The presidential attention on race and the military comes as Mr. Austin himself is trying to grapple with the issue of white supremacy in the military, which has long existed, service members say. It has come to the forefront of public discussion as the authorities continue to disclose the large percentage of veterans and others with military connections who were part of the pro-Trump protesters storming the Capitol last month.
Seeking to address that, Mr. Austin ordered military commanders last week to review the issue of domestic extremism — white supremacy — in the ranks. Commanders have two months to conduct the review, known in Pentagon jargon as a “stand down.” As part of the review, Mr. Austin has asked commanders to talk to troops about the importance of their oath to defend the Constitution, and to remind them not to take part in hate groups.
Navy officials said that in recent weeks there had been hate incidents aboard two ships. In one case, a Black sailor found a noose next to his assigned area, and in the other, someone left graffiti on a bathroom wall that read, “Nazi life.”
Also at the Pentagon on Wednesday, the president signaled his belief that China could be the United States’ next big military adversary, announcing the establishment of a Defense Department task force to look at what the Pentagon must do to meet the challenge.
The task force, to be overseen by a longtime Biden adviser and Asia expert, Ely Ratner, will provide what administration officials called a baseline assessment on China, with its fast-growing military strength.
Beijing’s forays into the East and South China Seas, where China has militarized long-disputed islands, bedeviled the Obama administration, and while President Donald J. Trump focused more on the trade relationship, Mr. Trump’s own military advisers said they viewed Beijing as a looming strategic threat.
Defense Department officials said that the task force, to include up to 15 civilians and uniformed Defense Department employees, will have four months to complete findings and recommendations.
Mr. Biden also praised the government of Saudi Arabia for releasing from prison Loujain al-Hathloul, an activist who was best known for challenging the government’s ban on women driving. She had been jailed for nearly three years.
“She was a powerful advocate for women’s rights and releasing her was the right thing to do,” Mr. Biden said.
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