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In Defense of the Military’s Study of Critical Race Theory: The Pursuit of Cross-Cultural Competence

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Hayden C. Thomas
July 22, 2021

As lawmakers, pundits, academics and the larger American public continue to engage in a contentious dialogue regarding the teaching of Critical Race Theory (CRT), a surprising voice recently weighed in on the topic in the form of the United States Department of Defense by way of Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark Milley. While being questioned by lawmakers about the teaching of CRT at U.S. military service academies in June, General Milley defended the study of CRT as one way to aid military officers in understanding the nation they defend and indicated his expectation that those he serves with be “well read” and “open minded.” While General Milley stopped short of endorsing (or denouncing) the underlying premise or merits of CRT, his comments make it evident that he values the theory on an academic basis as a means to promote intellectual thought, personal reflection and cultural awareness. To this end, the teaching of CRT at military service academies like West Point is not to teach young budding leaders to despise the country that they will soon defend as some lawmakers and pundits have suggested, but rather to build their capacity to critically assess and understand perceptions of their culture and the culture of others in the pursuit of cross-cultural competence.

The military views cross-cultural competence as a critical skill that allows service members to successfully operate in and adapt to the changing multicultural environments that have come to define its modern operations. However, becoming cross-culturally competent requires more than a terse understanding of other cultures; it requires a significant degree of self-reflection and understanding of our own culture, history and the perceptions that others have of our own culture and history. CRT offers this type of cultural and historical self-reflection by presenting a framework that challenges the traditional perceptions of our country and its institutions that many of us have grown accustomed to.

Contrary to the misconceptions promulgated by those engaging in the current hyper-partisan discourse around CRT, CRT is not simply a form of diversity training, nor is it an educational conspiracy designed to promote racial hatred, blame or intolerance. Rather, CRT views race as a social construct removed from the conventional biological theories of racial attributes. CRT further suggests that as a social construction, racial bias and prejudice have been foundationally woven into the fabrics of our society, law, culture and institutions to the benefit of the social dominating racial majority, ultimately restricting the opportunity, mobility and progress for those within the social racial minority. When viewed from this perspective, many of our long-held attitudes and beliefs of American ideals, such as equal protection, opportunity and meritocracy are surely to be viewed in a different light. While there are legitimate critiques of CRT as an academic lens by which to evaluate the totality of American jurisprudence, culture and institutions, the potential value of CRT to promote cultural awareness and cross-cultural competence should not be dismissed solely due to its controversial nature—especially when it is employed within large institutions steeped in multiculturalism at nearly every facet of operations.

The military could aptly be described as an institution fully immersed in a multitude of culture and sub-cultures. These cultures permeate from the diverse backgrounds of every individual service member, the locations where they are stationed, the structure and mission of each individual service branch and from a very micro-organizational level of commands, divisions, wings, brigades, squadrons and companies from which the military has strategically crafted to control its forces around the world. The amalgamation of cultures and sub-cultures within our armed forces is so great that military and civilian defense leaders have consistently emphasized the criticality of developing forces that can successfully integrate and operate in joint-force, interagency, intergovernmental, and multinational environments. The multicultural and often multinational environments in which our military operates is likely to only grow more complex as the forces of globalism, technology and a seemingly arduous return to great power competition have become hastened in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. To meet the growing demands that our nation faces domestically and abroad, our military forces must be equipped with more than just arms and ammunition. Our military forces must also possess the knowledge and capacity to employ soft-power strategies that require cross-cultural competence and high degrees of cultural acuity to build relationships and foster multinational collaboration to respond to and solve the pressing problems of our time.

While CRT is surely not the singular solution to impart cross-cultural competence upon the young leaders serving or preparing to serve our nation, it is nonetheless one of many intellectual tools available to promote the necessary critical analysis and self-reflection that is foundational to achieving cross-cultural competence and succeeding in multicultural and multinational environments.


Author: Hayden C. Thomas, MPA, is a veteran of the U.S. Air Force and a graduate of the Park University Hauptmann School of Public Affairs and the Bellevue University College of Business. Hayden can be reached at [email protected].

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