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Military needs "honest reckoning" over racism in its ranks, Black Veterans Project co-founder says

History and impact of America's Black veterans
Black Veterans Project co-founder on the history and impact of America's Black veterans 11:03

A United States Army veteran says the military has to have an "honest reckoning" with systemic racism that historians say has been pervasive within its ranks since its inception.

Black Veterans Project executive director Richard Brookshire said Wednesday on CBSN, "We have seen the military tackle something like gays being able to serve openly, and the witch hunt that was 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell,' and the ruining of careers around 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell.' So we know they have the capacity" to address the issue of white nationalism.

Black service members account for 17% of active duty personnel. More than half of minority service members say they have seen white nationalism or racism among fellow troops, according to the Black Veterans Project. Black members of the military are also between 32% and 71% likelier to face punishment.

Brookshire said the organization, established in 2018, was born out of a recognition that there was a lack of a digital conversation around racial justice and inequity in the military. The group aims to educate not only African Americans, but also Americans nationwide about the heroism and issues facing Black service members, as well as hold the military accountable.

He said he wanted the organization to be one that could provide more in-depth research to push for the military to do "its due diligence, not only about correcting and redressing the long harms that have been made against Black veterans, but ensuring that diversity and equity in the ranks as it stands now — white nationalism in the ranks as it stands now — was addressed."

"Without Black veterans being front and center in the conversation about their service, their experiences, that history will be lost," Brookshire said.

The Black Veterans Project recently called on the Department of Veterans Affairs to release racial data after a New York Times opinion piece criticized what the author called the "racist legacy" of the department under former President Trump. 

Brookshire said last year the group also pushed Mr. Trump's defense department to release racial bias survey data they had been "hiding from public view."

"They only released one year of that data, and in that, almost over 40% of Black folks who experienced discrimination said that they had fear of reporting for fears of retribution," he said, adding the information was "just the tip of the iceberg."

New Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, the first African American to serve in the role, has acknowledged racism in the armed forces. In testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee last month he vowed to "fight hard to stamp out sexual assault, to rid our ranks of racists and extremists, and to create a climate where everyone fit and willing has the opportunity to serve this country with dignity."

In one of his first acts as Pentagon head, Austin issued a "stand down" order across the military to address extremism in its ranks — particularly racism and white supremacy — following the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol. At least 22 of those arrested over the attack are veterans and three are currently enlisted in the military, according to military service records and court documents obtained by CBS News.

Austin later told journalists that the military-wide probe would likely reveal a larger problem than expected.

Though Brookshire acknowledged the appointment of Austin as defense secretary and his subsequent actions were a step in the right direction, he said "a lack of wanting to dedicate resources" and "a lack of real courage in wanting to confront the fact that" white nationalism is "so insidious" have contributed to the military's inaction so far.

The veterans' group leader called Austin's stand-down a "necessary first step," but called on the Pentagon to go further.

"They have to ask more pointed questions. They have to organize resources, they have to actually enforce the policies that they already have in place" he said. "They can't merely continue down the task force rabbit hole. They can't merely just pay lip service by appointing personnel."

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