West Point’s Empty Promise of Diversity and Respect

Written May 2019

As long as Lee Barracks stands, it serves as a permanent barrier to the inclusion of Black students into the Corps of Cadets.

I will continue to feel unwelcome at this academy knowing that in the mid 1960’s, at the height of the Civil Rights Movement, West Point dedicated a building to Robert E. Lee as an institutional celebration of our school’s rejection of integration and inclusion.

50 years later, I attended a ceremony celebrating the opening of West Point’s newest barracks named for its fourth Black graduate, General Benjamin O. Davis Jr. Hundreds of people, including descendants of the Davis family, six of the remaining Tuskegee Airmen and the first Black female First Captain, filled the seats and stood wherever they could find room. They were all gathered to to witness history. For the first time, West Point would name a building after one of its Black graduates.

When I left my room that day, I was proud of our school for taking the step to name a building after a Black man who had accomplished so much in the face of incredible injustice. I felt empowered by this enormous symbolic gesture from the institution to show that as a Black cadet, I, too, was a part of West Point’s historical legacy.

But in that moment of celebration, I’d forgotten — however briefly, that less than one hundred meters from the barracks named for Benjamin O. Davis was a barracks named for Robert E. Lee. The hypocrisy of it all was appalling.

At the ceremony, LTG Caslen, the school’s Superintendent, said the names on our barracks are “etched in stone as a perpetual reminder of [the] incredible legacy and example” of the men they’re named after.

But I can not celebrate the progress Davis Barracks is supposed to represent as long as Lee Barracks stands next to it as a “perpetual reminder” of the still present legacy of racism in this institution.

When I was named the Brigade Respect Captain, I thought I would have the institutional support to point our school in the right direction and positively impact the lives of cadets. I knew the pain I felt was shared by many others, and I thought I could take action to change this.

I wanted to create spaces to have important and challenging conversations about difficult social issues in a time when the vitriol of American politics made some people uncomfortable sharing their beliefs. I wanted to empower cadets to stand up for what is right and help people find the words and courage to stand up to racism, sexism and other forms of discrimination and harassment.

I wanted to transform the perception of minorities in leadership positions and emphasize the importance of diversity and inclusion in all parts of our organization. Most importantly, I wanted to create a culture where no one felt unsafe, unwelcome, excluded or like they did not belong here at the United State Military Academy because of their race, gender, sexuality, or any other characteristic.

Instead of being supported in these aims, I found resistance at nearly every turn. It was made clear that my work was an afterthought. There was always something more important. The same people who said that diversity is one of their priorities, did nothing to support it. It meant I had to fight with Company Commanders who didn’t want to appoint even a single person in their unit of over a hundred to be the Respect representative. It meant that the officers overseeing our program always had something more important going on and never had time for our committee. It meant that Respect trainings and conversations about diversity and inclusion were completely cut, without notice or much explanation, from the Cadet Character Education Program.

In the midst of the national outcry over the spike in incidents of sexual violence at the academy, I suggested we use the time dedicated to Honor Committee elections and conversations about the Honor system to have conversations about sexual violence and the culture surrounding it. I was quickly told that this wouldn’t even be considered since in the past, a reduction in Honor trainings was correlated with an increase in Honor violations.

I was appalled at the fact that a potential increase in Honor violations was more important than addressing the fact that there are currently real people dealing with the effects of the sexual violence occurring at this school. It was clear to me that these people were completely out of touch with the problems impacting the Corps.

By the end of the year, high ranking officers at the academy set out to eliminate the Respect Committee all together. The same people who claim to be “developing leaders of character” decided to take a knee and wave their white flag in the fight against discrimination and injustice. I was told that the committee had “not made enough measurable impact for it to be worth the time and resources put into it.” I sat in offices and listened to officers tell me that we didn’t need the Respect Committee because “over four years, the majority of cadets would naturally reach a minimum level of tolerance” acceptable for a so-called “leader of character.”

Is this how we create a culture of character growth? Are we really on the path to long term culture change? Is this the way we build a culture of dignity and respect? By determining that adressing cadet’s lifelong scars caused by sexual violence is “not worth your time”? By accepting a minimum standard of tolerance instead of expecting and aspiring to excellence? This is an example of our leaders choosing to take the easier wrong over the harder right as they claim to prioritize diversity while systematically dismantling the groups and systems that put it into practice.

The words and the actions of West Point’s leadership continually perpetuate the myth of colorblindness. They create a culture where racism is contantly written off as a historical mythology never seen or heard.

The reality is that the weight and the pain of racism is physical. It raises blood pressure, it changes the way people interact with others, it bring out tears, extreme stress, anxiety, depression, and sometimes attempts at suicide.

The physicality of racism manifests when I feel the eyes of all my white classmates turn on me when the topic shifts to race. I have to listen to comments like “I just don’t buy the whole idea of institutionalized racism” and “Black people just need to take some responsibility and pull themselves up by their bootstraps like everyone else.” Whether I speak up or stay silent, the expectation to speak on behalf of my entire race eats at me for the rest of the day. Because I know no matter how clearly I article myself, I will just have to wait until I am put in this position again.

These experiences cement in my mind that I am different. That I am misunderstood. That my ideas are unwelcome in this space.

This colorblind culture is one where a white person can walk up to me and say “What’s up my nigga?” and be genuinely surprised when I take offense. It is also a world where a white person can call someone else a nigger, then look at me and say “you can’t be offended, you’re only half Black.”

This is a culture where we’ve had a Black president, but the work of Black people is still overlooked and devalued. I’ve been asked over and over if I went to the West Point Prep School. People wrongly assume that the Prep School is a place for people who couldn’t cut it or needed an advantage to get in. People assume that my Blackness makes me somehow less qualified. That becasue I am Black I needed help getting into West Point. They tell me I was brought in to fill a quota. That my Blackness was an unfair advantage they didn’t have. That I am less deserving of my place here at West Point.

This is the personal cost of colorblindness. As we lie to ourselves and pretend our problems do not exist, people continue to be hurt by them.

It is the leaders of this academy who can least afford to submit to this mythology but they are the ones most deeply blinded by it. They cannot see that when I walk past the haunting portrait of the unnamed slave beside his owner Robert E. Lee that hangs in Jefferson Hall, it stares down at me as a physical reminder of the alienation I feel as all the eyes turn to the “angry Black kid” in class. They cannot understand that Lee Barracks stands as an institutional symbol walking in step with the comments suggesting that I am less deserving of my place at this academy.

It is in this colorblind culture that I am made to feel unwelcome because of the color of my skin, only to be misunderstood for feeling that way in the first place. This lie of colorblindness has been tolerated for too long. It is a lie we cannot afford to tell because as we celebrate our false victories, people continue to suffer in silence.

Our leaders seem to believe that the moral arc of the universe naturally bends towards justice and conveniently forget the blood and sweat that has been poured by those with the courage to bend it. With the genuine support of West Point’s leaders, we could have the power, the leverage, and the tools to apply the pressure needed to move the arc. Instead, students like me try in vain to use our heads and our fists to pound the arc in the right direction, as our institution and our leaders look on as bystanders. It is only after we fail that we find the cost of trying to bend the arc without support only adds to the pain and frustration we feel in the first place.

I want to share my story to show what senior leaders prioritizing diversity looked like through my experiences. I did everything I could, but it wasn’t enough. I asked for help and was told no. Where I thought I had support, officers turned their backs. At the end of it all, I sat down with these people and was asked why I hadn’t made “more measurable impact.” I was asked “Why did West Point need a Respect Committee anyway?” and “Is racism even still a problem here?” I spent many long nights frustrated, angry and hopeless. The personal cost of continuing to fight when the people who claim to “prioritize” diversity, refuse to support it.

I failed to bend the arc far enough. I wonder if I should have done more, or if there are things I could have done differently. I wish that I had more time or another opportunity to do it over again. Maybe then I could’ve gotten it right. Instead, people who I set out to help were hurt in the same way that I’ve been because I failed to bend the arc.

But our institution and our leaders have also failed. They have failed to be brave enough to confront the lies of colorblindness that have plagued us for too long. They have taken away tools and leverage that those brave enough to fight could be using to bend the arc. It has actively worked against efforts to bend the arc towards justice and added to the weight that racism thrusts upon Black bodies.

West Point will continue to fail every day as long as the monuments to Confederate leaders are allowed to remain. Their legacy of racism, exclusion and intolerance will forever be written into the blood and the culture of this institution until the leaders of this institution have the courage to stand up and use their power to bend the arc towards justice.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store