Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin never pictured any of this, he said Thursday during a White House panel celebrating Black History Month, alongside five other Black members of President Joe Biden’s cabinet.

He thought he’d graduate West Point, complete his service obligation and then go to law school, he said. But after 41 years in uniform and another year leading the Defense Department as a civilian, he said his new goal is to leave the department a more diverse and inclusive place than he found it.

“I’m honored to be the first African-American secretary of defense, the 28th secretary of defense ― but I really don’t want to be the last African-American secretary of defense,” he said.

The diversity, equity and inclusion conversation has been going on in the American military practically since its inception. All-Black, male units eventually gave way to integrated units, and then the integration of women.

But that did little for outcomes. Though people of color make up about 40 percent of the military, that percentage declines sharply in the upper ranks.

That could be due to an implicit bias in promotion decisions, or because of an environment that is not necessarily welcoming to service members of color, who might choose to leave earlier than they might have if they felt more appreciated.

“I equate diversity with being invited to the dance,” Austin said. “Inclusion is when you’re asked to dance.”

Austin said one of his heroes was the former 2nd Lt. Henry O. Flipper, the first Black West Point graduate.

“I felt that if he could do that in that day and age, surely I could be successful as well,” Austin said of Flipper, who commissioned in 1877.

Flipper was later drummed out of the Army under racially-charged circumstances. President Bill Clinton pardoned him in 1999.

This discussion ignited in the summer of 2020, after the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. The Air Force’s senior enlisted airman at the time, himself Black, penned an open letter on his experiences as a Black man in uniform.

His public statements were followed by all of the services, who set up their own diversity and inclusion projects.

Soon after, then-Defense Secretary Mark Esper convened a DoD board to look at diversity and inclusion, with some quick changes that included removing photos from promotion packets and reviewing hair standards that might unfairly burden people of color.

Less than a year later, Austin came on board, with a mandate to pick up that ball and run with it.

“One of my goals is to make sure that we have that environment that’s not only diverse in the ranks, but diverse in leadership, and inclusive as well,” he said.

Meghann Myers is the Pentagon bureau chief at Military Times. She covers operations, policy, personnel, leadership and other issues affecting service members.

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