Lloyd Austin Becomes the First Black Defense Secretary



Secretary of Defense nominee Lloyd Austin, speaking during his confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Capitol Hill, Tuesday, Jan. 19, 2021.

Jillian Jenks, Reporter

Retired four-star Army General Lloyd Austin became the first African American defense secretary on January 22nd, 2021. He was confirmed by the Senate in a 93-to-2 vote, giving the incoming Pentagon boss a near-unanimous bipartisan congressional mandate. He is now setting about overseeing the 2.9 million service members and civilians around the world who fall under the umbrella of the Defense Department.

“It’s an honor and a privilege to serve as our country’s 28th Secretary of Defense, and I’m especially proud to be the first African American to hold the position,” said Austin in a statement on Twitter after his confirmation. “Let’s get to work.”

Austin faces the task of accelerating and expanding the Defense Department’s involvement in the distribution of COVID-19 vaccines. He must also take on the task of restoring alliances that frayed during President Trump’s four year term, as well as make hard decisions in the Pentagon budget to compete with a rising Chinese military and deal with questions about possible internal threats.

Austin is likely to face the task of fully winding down the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan and Iraq, a goal that President Biden’s two predecessors also campaigned on but failed to achieve.

Austin’s arrival in the Pentagon’s top civilian post has broken down racial barriers. Yet the fact remains that African American’s are underrepresented in the highest-level officer positions in the armed forces.  Austin has stated that he hopes to set conditions that will allow other Black officers to be put in the leadership roles he held during his military career. He wants to ensure that while he may be the first Black defense secretary, he will not be the last.

Austin had to go through some challenges in order to be confirmed. The House and Senate first had to pass a waiver exempting him from a law that requires defense secretaries to be out of uniform for seven years before occupying the top civilian post at the Pentagon. Austin retired from the military in 2016, two years away from finishing his seven years.

A large contingent of senators voted against giving Austin a waiver, citing concerns about eroding the tenet of civilian control over the military. During his confirmation hearing Tuesday, Austin promised to respect the tenet of civilian control over the U.S. military enshrined in the Constitution, by surrounding himself with civilian appointees and including them in critical decisions, rather than relying on uniformed service members or a cadre of retired officers. He also pledged to root out any extremism in the force.

On Thursday, the House approved Austin’s waiver first, by a vote of 326 to 78. The Senate followed suit about an hour later, backing the waiver by a vote of 69 to 27. He is the second defense secretary in just over four years to receive a waiver, after James Mattis, a retired Marine Corps general and Trump’s first nominee for the position, was granted an exception to the law.

Biden signed the law granting Austin an exclusion on Friday, describing his defense secretary’s confirmation as historic in a message posted to Twitter. “I look forward to working with him to lead our military, revitalize our alliances, and ensure the safety of the American people,” said Biden, describing Austin as the right person to lead the Defense Department at this moment.