Army leadership found itself in uncomfortable terrain earlier this month when 16 black women West Point cadets posed, in uniform, with raised fists in an unofficial photo. There were other pictures taken, with other poses, but this one made the Internet rounds, with commentator John Burk criticizing the cadets, interpreting the image as a sign of support for groups “calling for the deaths of police officers, and even going so far as to call for the deaths of white Americans.” West Point officials concluded there was no ill intent behind the photo (unlike civilians, cadets are prohibited from publicly expressing overt political views) but decided that, before graduation, these seniors would receive additional instruction to underscore the message that “a symbol or gesture that one group of people may find harmless may offend others.”
Which sounds like a pretty evenhanded way to address the issue — until you consider that the Army is pretty selective about what it classifies as offensive when those under scrutiny aren’t black women.
Consider that when they begin their military careers, it’s likely some of these cadets will be assigned to bases like Fort Gordon and Fort Benning, just two of the 10 Army installations named after prominent Confederates — men who fought against the United States in order to preserve the institution of slavery. But as newly commissioned officers, these women will have to serve their country while looking past the legacies of Gen. John Brown Gordon, cited as a prominent member of the Georgia Ku Klux Klan, and Gen. Henry Lewis Benning, who decried “the fate which abolition will bring upon the white race.”
After last year’s shooting at Charleston’s Emanuel AME Church, when many, like writer Jamie Malanowski, called on senior Army leaders to reconsider base names honoring the Confederacy, Army leaders defended the status quo, saying every installation “is named for a soldier who holds a place in our military history. Accordingly, these historic names represent individuals, not causes or ideologies.”
The statement was brilliant public-relations doublespeak; simultaneously asserting that history matters — and that it does not. Left unaddressed is the question of whether a place like Fort Benning, home to some of the Army’s premier leadership schools, might be more appropriately named after one of the notable figures who have passed through its gates, including Gen. Omar Bradley, President Dwight D. Eisenhower and Secretary of State Colin Powell, all of whom demonstrated great success on the field of battle, and did so while actually fighting for the United States, not against it.
But the Army is content to let the old names stand, and the message to these women, and other minorities, is unfortunately all too clear: In a nation awash with symbols honoring the legacy of slavers and traitors, it’s their raised fists — a momentary signifier of African-American resilience — that will be singled out as offensive.
This double standard, masquerading as a neutral, nonideological stance, isn’t new.
The categorization of names from our racist past as nonideological has deep historical roots. On the whole it has served the Army well in maintaining its reputation for partisan neutrality. But the Army’s official posture is often not neutral at all, and has, in many instances, favored the reactionary elements within society still aggrieved by the outcome of the Civil War. Too often, this dynamic works at the expense of minorities who’ve stepped forward to serve.
In the Reconstruction era, West Point’s Association of Graduates pushed to reunite graduates who fought on both sides of the Civil War. This effort took place during the same era that the first African-Americans to attend West Point found themselves ostracized, part of a climate at the United States Military Academy more open to welcoming those who had fought to destroy our union than supportive of those facing outright racial hostility.
This disparity continued in World War I, when the Army acquiesced to the naming of Camp Gordon in 1917 and Camp Benning in 1918 during the same period that saw an ugly episode at Camp Logan, in which 19 black soldiers were eventually executed after a confrontation with Houston police escalated into what was termed a riot, and later characterized in an Army inspector general’s report as reflecting “The tendency of the negro soldier, with fire arms in his possession … to become arrogant, overbearing, and abusive, and a menace to the community in which he happens to be stationed.”
Once you understand this history, it’s easier to see how military leaders can exercise such sensitivity toward the legacy of former Confederate generals — classifying this part of our past as apolitical — while closely policing a group of future officers for a gesture that, in the words of Mary Tobin, a black woman West Point alum, “wasn’t a sign of formal allegiance to any political movement or party,” but rather, “an act of unity among sisters and a symbol of achievement.”
The double standard can be explained by both an ignorance of history and the Army’s investment in the idea that it stands as a bastion of ideological and racial neutrality. And I have to admit to being complicit myself. Having passed through these bases throughout my military career, I had the luxury, as a white officer, of treating racism as if it were a thing of the past.
Unfortunately, there is a growing body of research indicating that white members of today’s all-volunteer military are likely to express more negative views of African-Americans than their civilian counterparts, upending the view of the Army as a positive force for racial integration. In my own studies of attitudes toward race and ethnicity in the Army, I found that most senior white officers oppose programs designed to help minorities, reflecting a misplaced belief that the legacy of slavery and segregation is behind us. They also believe, almost uniformly, that there is less discrimination in the military than in society at large, a view far less prevalent among the Army’s minority ranks.
Add it all up and the result is that a spontaneous demonstration of pride by today’s cadets can easily be judged as misplaced radicalism.
For these cadets, this episode will serve as a reminder that while they serve, the onus will be on them, as African-American women, to deflect cries of racism every time they openly acknowledge our troubled racial history. For West Point leaders, there’s a reminder, as well: that the 16 women represent all but two of the black women in this year’s graduating class. If Army leaders don’t commit to altering this glaring lack of diversity — and if they won’t break from their selective neutrality when it comes to issues of race — our military and our nation will be weaker for it.
Jason Dempsey is an adjunct senior fellow of the Military, Veterans and Society Program at the Center for a New American Security. He wrote this article for the Washington Post.