“I do think it’s important, actually, for those of us in uniform to be open-minded and be widely read,” said Army Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, at a House Armed Services Committee hearing on June 23. In what later became a widely circulated video, Milley responded to questions from Reps. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) and Michael Waltz (R-Fla.) about the teaching of critical race theory in the military. Milley explained that he found it “offensive” to describe service members as “being ‘woke’ or something else because we’re studying some theories that are out there,” concluding that “it matters to our military and the discipline and cohesion of this military.”

The idea that understanding histories and theories about race is important for military discipline and cohesion is nothing new. In fact, the hundreds of conflicts between White and Black troops during the Vietnam War, especially major incidents at Camp LeJeune in 1969 and Travis Air Force Base in 1971, prompted the military to launch an educational program that aimed to diminish such tensions through better understanding. The program did not achieve its promise, in part because of the very opposition to teaching service members about structural racism that is recurring today. Yet, the fact that such discussions are happening after a half-century underscores the necessity of addressing racism in our society and institutions, rather than curtailing its study.

In September 1971, the Defense Race Relations Institute opened at Patrick Air Force Base in Florida. The institute trained instructors in small group discussion methods so that they could return to their installations and run mandatory courses in what was called “race relations.” Sociologist Richard O. Hope, the first director of research and evaluation at the DRRI, explained that the training operated from the assumption that “racial conflict originates from prejudices, misunderstandings, and a general lack of knowledge among groups.” Therefore, the institute hoped to teach service members about other racial groups and to have open discussions about their prejudices, often confronting each other directly.

The DRRI drew heavily from academic research on race and racism. The initial curriculum had four sections: “Minority Studies,” (later renamed “American Ethnic Studies”), which was historical and sociological in focus; “Behavioral Sciences,” which discussed psychology, racism and social dynamics; “Educational Techniques,” which focused on discussion-leading skills and a “Community Laboratory Experience,” in which DRRI students spent a weekend in Miami visiting African American, Cuban, Puerto Rican and Native American neighborhoods, migrant camps and incarcerated veterans.

By 1974, the DRRI was producing its own manuals of information about different racial groups, including “Afro-American Culture,” “Asian Americans,” “Latino Studies,” “The Native American,” “Appalachian Studies” and “White Working Class Culture.” One manual, “Signs and Symbols,” reprinted articles that had appeared in major publications, including a satirical feature on White culture from the National Lampoon and an essay by Amari Baraka in the journal the Black Scholar outlining Black cultural nationalist Maulana Ndabezitha Karenga’s theory of Kawaida, an Afrocentric political and philosophical ideology.

As historian Say Burgin has argued, the institute took a fairly radical approach in both its course material and its method. For example, the DRRI provided instruction about the concept of “institutional racism,” coined by Stokely Carmichael and Charles Hamilton in their 1967 book, “Black Power.” By asking service members to be able to identify examples of this phenomenon, the DRRI adopted the perspective that racism was not solely individual, but also structural. The implication of the institute’s training was that communication between members of different racial groups was an important part of conflict resolution, but that it would not itself eliminate racism within the military or within American society.

To some critics, the DRRI seemed to have much in common with the new ethnic studies courses that students at many universities were starting to demand. These critics did not believe race and racism were appropriate subjects of instruction in the military, or that service members ought to be reading the work of Black Power intellectuals.

Yet for others, these programs did not do enough to address racism within the military itself. Instead, the problem called for more attention to structural issues such as discrimination in the military justice system or high concentrations of Black service members in the lower ranks and less technical occupational specialties.

Outside of the DRRI itself, the military promoted other race relations education based in reading scholarly and philosophical literature. A suggested reading list in the Army publication Commander’s Call included several works of African American military history, the novel “Invisible Man” by Ralph Ellison, and Eldridge Cleaver’s essay collection, “Soul on Ice,” a work vastly more radical than the academic scholarship on critical race theory about which Gaetz and Waltz are so concerned about today.

Yet, when DRRI students began returning to their installations as race relations instructors, they encountered some commanders who did not share an interest in confronting racial prejudice. These commanders thought the DRRI trainees were troublemakers and became concerned that the DRRI was a radical organization within the military. In addition to the curriculum itself, the program’s open discussion and confrontational role-playing mixed service members of different ranks, minimizing attention to military hierarchy in a way that some military and political leaders disliked.

Complaints led to changes in the DRRI’s methods and a shift in the focus on race relations education in the military more broadly. Students at the DRRI had volunteered to attend; others in the armed forces, however, were less enthusiastic to engage in race relations training. A 1978 analysis suggested that race relations courses should be “less centered on minority history and culture,” be “less slanted to benefit minorities” and involve “less blaming of whites.” While the report noted some “improvement in racial attitudes and perceptions,” it stated that this progress had ended by 1976. In fact, the study identified a new problem: “the anger of an increasing number of whites who see themselves as being victimized by what they perceived as ‘reverse discrimination’ ” — the “White rage” that Milley stated that he wanted to understand.

In the face of this resistance, the military’s “race relations” efforts soon became subsumed into its Equal Opportunity programs. In 1979, the DRRI was renamed the Defense Equal Opportunity Management Institute. The name reflected the military’s desire to shift focus from racial conflict to “opportunity,” as well as the institute’s increasing inclusion of sexism as an equal opportunity issue. The DEOMI still operates, training advisers and counselors in the military’s equal opportunity programs, though its methods differ significantly from the early years of the DRRI.

Yet, despite the Defense Department’s investment of resources into equal opportunity programs and improvement on some issues, many of the criticisms that Black service members leveled about racism in the military in the 1970s are still present today. In a 2017 Equal Opportunity survey conducted by the Defense Department, 31.2 percent of Black active duty service members indicated that they had experienced racial or ethnic harassment or discrimination in the past year, compared with 12.7 percent of White active duty service members. A 2020 report by the Government Accountability Office demonstrated that Black service members were more likely than White service members to be tried in a court-martial proceeding. In the same year, Reuters reported that many Black service members found Equal Opportunity offices and discrimination complaint processes inadequate.

In other words, many of the issues that led to the creation of the DRRI persist. The resistance to the DRRI’s initial curriculum and methodology not only diminished its potential, but highlighted the limitations of any one program to address the structural elements of racism in the armed services and in society.

In its original iteration, the DRRI was doing what Milley suggested: It was teaching service members about racism and racial prejudice to promote discipline and cohesion in the armed forces. It promoted, as Milley put it, “having some situational understanding about the country for which we’re here to defend.” The DRRI’s advocates recognized that refusing to try to understand the history of racism not only imperiled discipline and cohesion, it was a failure of leadership — one that weakened the military and undermined the mission itself.