The Living, Racist Ghosts of West Point
Last week, the Army launched an investigation after blogger John Burk, an Iraq veteran, posted a photograph on Facebook of sixteen black women cadets at West Point posing for their “Old Corp” photo, a time-honored tradition in which modern senior cadets mimic the old-style, black-and-white photos of cadets long past.
Other than showing nearly every black woman in the graduating class (which, in itself, is sad and begs the question of whether the Academy should step up their “diversity outreach” efforts), nothing about it is remarkable. But Burk took issue with the “raised fist” gesture of the cadets, which he claims is meant to represent support of the #BlackLivesMatter movement. Nevermind the wealth of photographs that show white male cadets making the same gesture.
Burk claims in his blog that the cadets are violating DoD Directive 1344.10, which, among other things, states that a member of the Armed Forces cannot “Display a partisan political sign, poster, banner, or similar device visible to the public at one’s residence on a military installation, even if that residence is part of a privatized housing development.”
He believes that this is an example of racism and implies it’s anti-white. Why sixteen black women would go through one of the most rigorous admissions processes in existence, spend four years at a mostly-male, mostly-white institution (spending every waking moment interacting mostly with white white men), and commit five years of their lives to more of the same after graduation (with the possibility of, you know, death) because they, apparently, “hate white people” is beyond me.
But there you have it. This former drill sergeant with a sizable following on Facebook who spends most of his time ranting about political correctness is, himself, hurt that any black woman in uniform would dare show confidence in her existence as a black woman.
Burk compares this gesture to a Nazi salute, which, I gotta say, is arguably the funniest violation of Godwin’s Law I’ve seen in quite some time.
I’ll admit that I can’t be 100% certain that I know why every black woman in this picture has a raised fist. For some, it could be solidarity. For some, it could be an expression of pride in their blackness, a gesture of acknowledging how far African-Americans have come in this country despite the ludicrous barriers put in their way. For some, it could be a way of saying “Goddman, after four years, I’m finally taking this photo. The journey is almost complete.” For some, it could be all of these things.
But as a white male who served in the military as an enlisted soldier and later attended West Point, I can say, without a doubt, that nothing in this photo says “I hate white people”. Nothing about it is insulting or offensive to me.
Their “raised fist” gesture is about life. It’s about celebration. It’s about pride. It’s about equality. It doesn’t represent an ideology on anything other than marching toward a greater good.
The Nazi salute, on the other hand, is about an ideology of superiority, representative of some of the darkest moments of humanity. It’s about death. It’s about destruction. It is racism incarnate.
For Burk to compare the two is completely childish and stupid and reveals his own deep insecurities.
To understand why these black women would feel the need to make such a gesture, it would be good to put their struggle in context. Traditionally, West Point is not a totally hospitable environment for women and people of color.
In December, 2009, President Obama delivered a major speech on America’s strategy in Afghanistan. The speech wasn’t the kind of speech any given luminary makes at any given college. It wasn’t even the kind of speech that a president makes in any given year. It was rare and bold and it would set the tone of American foreign policy in the coming decade, and this was all-too-obvious to everyone in American politics and media in the fall of 2009, let alone the cadets of West Point, where it was announced the speech would be delivered live to the entire Corps at Eisenhower Hall in primetime.
For a speech of this magnitude, one would expect a college campus to be excited and honored to play host. Even the students of an institution like West Point, which has so many famous visitors on an annual basis that the presence of a U.S. senator would scarcely draw attention, would look upon this occasion as a tremendous measure of respect by the President, a nod to how the policies he was set to lay out would directly impact the lives of West Point cadets and their families and most importantly: the Soldiers they were expected to lead after graduation.
Instead, the week prior to the speech saw the most passive-aggressive racism I have yet witnessed, not only from many of my classmates but the upperclass cadets who are charged with leading by example.
I vividly remember overhearing, on several occasions, cadets talk of wanting to get out of attending the speech (which was mandatory), not because it might be boring or a waste of time (a precious resource in the life of a cadet) but because they didn’t want to listen to the President, who they felt was a communist, socialist, Nazi, terrorist-sympathizer, and yes, at least one time that week, I heard the n-word in reference to our Commander-in-Chief.
There were small rumblings of “protesting” the speech by walking out, claims that they’d never salute him, etc.
No, this wasn’t everyone, and perhaps a case can be made that most of the cadets that week didn’t care one way or the other, but the racist reaction to the President was substantial. It wasn’t a small thing.
In 1873, a young black man named Henry Ossian Flipper was accepted into West Point with the recommendation of Congressman James Freeman of Georgia. At the time, four other black men were at the Academy. When Flipper matriculated, he endured something far worse than the typical stress a plebe (that’s Academy parlance for “freshman”) encounters: the Corps of Cadets subjected him to four years of silent treatment. West Point can be a lonely place for anyone. Imagine having only a handful of folks with whom to interact.
He graduated as Lieutenant Flipper in 1877, the first black man to do so, and four years later, was court-martialed and dismissed from service after being framed with embezzling funds by a white commander. Despite the obviously racist nature of the incident and the community rallying around the young officer in a show of solidarity, the trial was swift and harsh.
After his unjust removal from the military, Flipper worked as a civil engineer and later served as an assistant to then-Secretary of the Interior Albert Fall. His request to serve in the Spanish-American War was rejected by Congress.
In 1999, after decades of lobbying by his descendants, Pres. Clinton formally pardoned Flipper, and West Point unveiled a bust of his likeness at the Academy along with an annual award — the Henry O. Flipper Award — given out to a graduating cadet exhibits “leadership, self-discipline, and perseverance in the face of unusual difficulties.”
The presentation of the award is accompanied by an annual dinner that is mandatory for all cadets. In my time there, although the vast majority of cadets looked upon the dinner with at least a tired indifference given to any event by exhausted students, I occasionally heard comments of resentment by white cadets along the lines of “there’s no White History Month” or “white officers have been unjustly court-martialed; where’s their namesake award?”
The election of Barack Obama in 2008 brought to the surface a kind of venom among millions of white Americans who could not stand seeing a black man lead the country. West Point was no different.
On the night of the election, after the result was announced at approximately 11 pm EST, numerous accounts tell of the loudspeaker at West Point’s Central Area (the equivalent of a college quad area) blasting out the National Anthem of the Soviet Union, a sarcastic and blunt act of protest against Obama’s election that many saw as overt racism. It is unknown to me if the cadets in charge of the loudspeaker at the time were punished.
In the following days, black cadets who were at the Academy at the time spoke of encounters with white cadets that could aptly be characterized as harassment.
One such story comes from a friend of mine who was a plebe at the time. All plebes are required to greet upperclass cadets with a simple statement. Usually something like “Beat Navy, Sir/Ma’am!” The morning after the election, my friend passed a white cadet and forgot to greet him, which happens. Plebes fuck up. They forget things. Part of being a plebe is ironing out the wrinkles and getting disciplined.
The appropriate corrective action for the upperclassman would be to order the plebe to greet and if they were a particularly insufferable hard-ass, file a formal negative report. The latter, as you can imagine, is a rarity for such a small infraction.
Instead of reminding my friend of her duties as a plebe, the upperclassman said, “What, you don’t have have to greet now that a black man is president?” My friend, too stunned to respond, quickly greeted the upperclassman and went on her way.
Black cadets who were at West Point in the years after Obama’s election have stories in this vein. Because nearly all of them are officers (the Class of 2009, for example, ended its service obligation in 2014 but many still continue to serve), the odds of you reading these stories in the first person aren’t great.
But there is a long history of racism against black cadets at West Point, both direct and implied.
For example, display of the Confederate flag by members of the military in their barracks rooms has generated controversy for decades. Although there is no Army-wide or military-wide policy on their display for personal use, individual unit commanders can forbid it under Army Regulation 600–20. Last time I checked, West Point has such a policy in place.
That doesn’t always stop cadets from displaying them, even if discretely. Even at an institution as disciplined as West Point, some behavior goes unnoticed, sometimes because it’s seen as unimportant in the scheme of things, sometimes because cadets in authority look the other way. But for black cadets who witness the rare Confederate flag on display, it can be uncomfortable, especially if the white cadet in question is in charge of them.
A few years ago, military leaders attempted to restrict the hairstyle choices of black women in order to streamline the overall regulations on grooming and personal appearance for all Soldiers. Although not intentionally racist, it was certainly tone-deaf and after months of debate, the Secretary of Defense authorized additional hairstyles that are used by black women serving, seen by some West Point cadets as an unfair bending of the rules.
Where this gets bad, however, are the comments that are made in lieu of such a decision. When it comes to issues of race and gender, West Point can be a lot like an online comments section. The insular nature of the Academy and its dominance by white men can create situations that are demeaning and/or insensitive to women and people of color.
It’s not that any given white man at West Point is racist or sexist. In fact, most don’t care or think about race or gender (although they definitely should as future leaders). They just want to get through those fours years and be on their way. But many, indeed, are hostile to women and people of color, even if to a small degree.
The hair thing is only one aspect. A bigger issue is the recurring critique of so-called affirmative action policies that supposedly give spots at the Academy to less-qualifed women and people of color.
Spoiler alert: no such policies exist and women and people of color who matriculate to the Academy are as qualified as their white male counterparts (and in many cases, more qualified than them).
There are intense “diversity outreach” efforts by the Academy to get qualified women and people of color to apply because diversity makes an organization stronger, including the U.S. Army, but this has been mangled by some (and by “some,” I mean insecure white males) to constitute an unfair advantage gained by non-white, non-male applicants to West Point.
This trope is trotted out on a regular basis by some white male cadets and is inflamed when a person of color or a woman bests them at a task or fails to meet standards. There’s no winning.
This dynamic is particularly hard for women of color at the Academy. Writer and activist K. Kylila Bullard writes of her experience at West Point as a black woman:
“I would like to believe that all are given a fair shot at life. I would like to say that when our founding fathers wrote “all men are created equal” in our Constitution, they meant it. I really would want to fall in love with this inclusive rhetoric of equal worth. But the truth and the sad reality is that in 2016, even after the life and death of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Dr., and after electing our first black president, there is still much work to do here in America. I am saddened that these strong 16 black women who have turned down top colleges to instead join the army, some deploying before even becoming a cadet at West Point, accepted an abnormal and regimented college experience in an effort to become the best leaders that they can for America’s sons and daughter, are treated this way.”
West Point graduate Mary Tobin writes:
“I have men in my life, whom I call my brothers, and they are from all over of the world and they don’t look like me. In fact, for some, I was literally the first black friend they had, because of where they grew up. I have women in my life, whom I call sisters, who didn’t understand why my hair felt or looked the way it did. I have friends, white friends, who I consider to be my family, but developing that bond was not without its challenges. When you attend West Point as a black person, there is no possible way to hide among the sea of 4000 plus cadets… Our attrition rates are on par with the class at large, but can you imagine what it must feel like to live, train, study, eat, cry, laugh, struggle, and succeed in an environment where for 4 years, the majority of the people there don’t look like you, it’s hard for them to relate to you, they oftentimes don’t understand you, and the only way to survive is to shrink your blackness or assimilate.”
Of her experiences with racism at the Academy:
“We don’t talk about the microagressions that minority cadets experience every single day. We don’t talk about how many times we have to let racial slurs or crass racial jokes roll off our backs because all we want to do is graduate. I don’t talk about how as a black female leader within the Corps, I was told time and time again, that I was a good leader because I was “not like the rest of them.” I don’t talk about how when I served as the cadet responsible for managing the EO cases within the Corps (Respect Captain), I had to counsel white cadets who thought it was funny to dress up as KKK members and scare their black cadet roommate, who happened to be from the deep south.”
“I cannot explain the nights I’ve cried with my black sisters and brothers, struggling to stay at West Point, because we were battling the psychology of being the “only one” or the pressures of being “the first one in our families to go to college” or feeling like you cannot keep up academically because you realized the disparity between your public school education and your peers private school education felt insurmountable. I would not be able to explain how it felt to be a double minority in a white male dominated institution that didn’t even allow women to attend until 1976. And even now, I cannot explain what it feels like to stand with 15 of your [black sisters] out of a class of 1000, knowing that you did it.”
So, no, I don’t look at this photograph and see angry black women who hate their white peers or are violating Army regulations.
I do, however, see strong leaders who are aware of their place in not only the continuum of black cadets who have attended (and graduated) West Point but the overall Long Grey Line. They are proud of themselves and each other. They are proud to be Americans. They are proud to have overcome a hostile enviroment in an overall society that places a lower premium on the lives of black Americans.
They are proud, and I trust they’ll carry that pride into their leadership of our young women and men in uniform.
Unless you’re opposed to black women being proud (which would make you a racist, sexist asshole), what is so wrong with that?
Charles Clymer is an Army Veteran and blogger based out of Washington, D.C., where they live with their girlfriend and two cats. They have been published in several places and quoted by Time, Newsweek, The Guardian, and numerous other publications. You can follow them on Twitter here.