West Point Graduates' Letter Calls For Academy To Address Racism

West Point Graduates' Letter Calls For Academy To Address Racism

6:26pm Jul 06, 2020
Stands remain empty as family members of United States Military Academy graduating cadets are restricted from attending commencement ceremonies on June 13 in West Point, N.Y
Stands remain empty as family members of United States Military Academy graduating cadets are restricted from attending commencement ceremonies on June 13 in West Point, N.Y
John Minchillo / AP

At the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., there is a stone memorial engraved with the names of graduates who fought and died in the Civil War for both the Union and the Confederacy.

Some recent West Point graduates want that to change, and they wrote a policy proposal outlining ways they say will help create an "anti-racist West Point."

In a 40-page document sent to West Point leaders, the alumni call for, among other things, removing names, monuments and art honoring the Confederacy; investigating the disciplinary system for racially discriminatory punishments; and improving anti-racism training.

"We are concerned that Black Cadets are experiencing racism in a manner inconsistent with the statement made by the Superintendent in a USA Today interview that the Academy 'does not have a systemic problem with racism,' " nine alumni write in a letter to West Point leaders. "We hope for West Point to become a place where that statement rings true and therefore want to partner with the Academy in striving for that."

The nine alumni are not speaking to journalists. But according to retired Capt. Mary Tobin, a mentor and former West Point cadet who is speaking on their behalf, they were inspired by a group of cadets in 1971 who wrote a manifesto that helped quash an effort by President Nixon to erect more Confederate statues at West Point.

"For cadets, especially cadets of color, addressing systemic racism is a part of a long legacy we have at West Point," she tells Morning Edition host Steve Inskeep.

Tobin says West Point does a "fantastic job" teaching military history and tactics. But recognizing former cadets who became Confederate soldiers — like Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, which was the name on the barracks she lived in while a cadet — is problematic.

"I am also from the South, I'm also a Black woman, and so it is in stark contrast to seeing these generals who sought to keep my ancestors enslaved being hailed in a place of honor," Tobin says.

So an "anti-racist West Point" will require, Tobin says, a declarative statement that racism will not be tolerated.

"From that policy then follows training. We have an honor code: A cadet will not lie, cheat, steal or tolerate those who do," she says. "We have an entire program devoted to that, funded and fully staffed. That should also happen in regards to issues of racism."

She recalls a complaint to her from one cadet in summer training. The cadet wore her hair in braids that conformed to Army regulations, but she was instructed to take them out. The cadet, Tobin says, even provided the officer with the regulation because "as Black women, we have to keep the regulation in our pockets," she says. "We know we're going to be confronted about our hair."

Nevertheless, she says, a "white leader demanded that she take her braids out inside of a port-a-potty. And besides the humiliation of having to go through that, this leader was wrong."

Barry Gordemer and Mohamad ElBardicy produced and edited this story for broadcast.

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