SecDef Proposes Getting Rid of Military Promotion Photos to Eliminate Unconscious Bias

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Defense Secretary Dr. Mark T. Esper holds a news conference at the Pentagon
Defense Secretary Dr. Mark T. Esper holds a news conference at the Pentagon, June 3, 2020. (DoD/U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Jack Sanders)

Defense Secretary Mark Esper said Thursday that the military was committed to rooting out racism in the ranks and serving as an example to the nation of an institution that values diversity and equality.

"More often than not, we have led on these issues. However, we are not immune to the forces of bias and prejudice -- whether visible or invisible, conscious or unconscious," Esper said in a video message to the force. "We know this bias burdens many of our service members, and has direct and indirect impact on the experiences of our minority members, the cultural and ethnic diversity of the force, and representation in our officer ranks.

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"These things have no place in our military, they have no place in our country," he said.

To bring about change, Esper said he met with senior officers and enlisted leaders over the past week on ways to promote inclusion and create equality of opportunity.

The military led the nation on ending segregation after World War II, Esper noted.

"We all agreed it is time to lead once again once again on this issue as America's most respected institution and as a globally recognized leader when it comes to building diverse winning teams and creating opportunity for all," he said.

To that end, Esper said he was standing up within the department a new "Defense Board on Diversity and Inclusion" which will be tasked to come up with a plan in the next six months to increase racial diversity in the ranks.

In addition, the plan calls for a separate and independent body outside DoD to be called the "Defense Advisory Committee on Diversity and Inclusion in the Armed Services."

That new advisory committee would provide long-term guidance on racial issues, and would be modeled on the "well-regarded and successful Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Services," Esper said.

Esper said he also had directed the Pentagon's uniformed and civilian leadership to present him with ideas for promoting diversity that could immediately be put in place.

He suggested that a way to eliminate race as a possible factor in deciding on promotions might be by "removing photos from promotion, school, and command selection boards -- this is something I pushed as secretary of the Army as we worked to overhaul our personnel system."

In his message to the force, Esper described his own roots to convey that he had an understanding of the issues.

"I myself am keenly aware of how diversity is inherent in the foundations of this country," he said, although historians have consistently pointed out the profound differences between immigrants to America and those brought here in chains.

"I'm a second-generation American whose paternal grandparents emigrated from Lebanon around the turn of the last Century and whose Irish ancestors from my mother's side came to this country decades before them," he added. "Each saw America as a land of hope and equal opportunity."

Esper issued Wednesday's message amid growing tensions between DoD and the White House on the use of military forces to quell civil unrest and the renaming of military bases now honoring Confederate leaders.

Esper has also expressed his regrets for participating in a June 1 photo op with President Donald Trump in front of St. John's Episcopal Church near the White House, after local streets were forcibly cleared of peaceful protesters.

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.

Related: Military Leaders to Troops: It's Time to Talk About Racism and Protests

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