West Point Graduates' Letter Calls For Academy To Address Racism

Jul 6, 2020

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.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

At the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., a stone carries a list of names. They're names of graduates who fought for the Union in the Civil War. The same stone honors graduates who fought for the Confederacy. Nine recent students at the academy want that to change. In a letter, they also urged West Point to improve anti-racism training. The signers of that letter are not talking with reporters, but one of their mentors is. Her name is Mary Tobin. She's a West Point graduate who retired from the Army with the rank of captain. And she talked with Steve Inskeep.

MARY TOBIN: Cadets, especially cadets of color, addressing systemic racism is a part of a long legacy we have at West Point. There were something called the 1971 Black Power cadets. And these cadets essentially signed a letter to the superintendent demanding that no more Confederate memorials be placed at West Point. During the time, President Nixon was seeking to put more Confederate statues. And they not only wrote that manifesto, but they protested against it, and they won.

STEVE INSKEEP, BYLINE: You know, I think it'd be surprising to some people to think West Point is in upstate New York - it's in a northern state, and that there would be Confederate memorials at all on a United States Army School. But I guess we should note that officers from West Point fought on both sides. And that's the way they've approached that war traditionally, right?

TOBIN: Yes, we have a barracks named after General Lee. I stayed in that barracks. I was not happy living in that barracks, I have to say. And when you go into the library, there's the large portrait of General Lee with an actual slave in the background. And so I think the academy does a fantastic job of teaching military history, tactics. There's plenty of time in which I've learned the military strength of the Confederate generals. But 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 held in a place of honor.

INSKEEP: Now, the United States military, as you know, takes pride these days in having been just about the first really major institution in American life to be legally desegregated - as early as 1948. And people will speak of the military as a meritocracy, where people of all kinds can get ahead. Did you find it so?

TOBIN: Predominately, yes. I think that is what drew me to the military. You're very clear about what it takes to be successful. However, if you are not as intentional about training anti-racism - you're not as intentional about addressing the biases - then all of that meritocracy is subject to subjectivity of a person, right? The military is a literal representation of society.

INSKEEP: Well, now we're getting to the substance of this letter because they argue - the officers argue in this letter that system racism continues at West Point, that anti-racism is not part of the curriculum and that they want to create the conditions for an anti-racist space. What does that mean in a day-to-day sense in life in West Point?

TOBIN: First, you start with making 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, nor tolerate those who do. We have an entire program devoted to that, funded and fully staffed. That should also happen in regards to issues of racism. Anti-racism is saying, I acknowledge that racism is an issue, not just in this organization but in our society. It also says that we value not just everyone being green, but we value your individual uniqueness, be it race, gender, orientation, religion and so forth.

INSKEEP: Captain, I think I heard you refer to the idea of everyone being green. Is that how the Army tries to talk about its personnel? Everyone is the same color, green?

TOBIN: Yeah. In the past, that has been a refrain. Well, while in theory, we may all have green uniforms on, we aren't all green. And I don't want to suppress my blackness. I believe that my unique experiences, especially as an African American woman, make it valuable. I bring a special flavor to my unit.

INSKEEP: As you mentored these West Point cadets when they were cadets in recent years, were there specific complaints they brought to you or specific dilemmas that they had?

TOBIN: There was a young lady, a black woman who was in summer training. So she had her hair in braids. They were in regulation, even provided the regulation because as black women, we have to keep the regulation in our pockets because we know we're going to be confronted about our hair. And even though this young lady was in regulations, this leader, this 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.

INSKEEP: Mary Tobin is a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and is a mentor to some of the former cadets who signed a letter urging changes to policies at West Point. Thanks so much.

TOBIN: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.