Racism plagues U.S. military academies despite diversity gains

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Eight years after graduating from the United States Military Academy at West Point, Geoffrey Easterling remains amazed at the Confederate history still commemorated on the academy’s campus – the six-foot-tall painting of Confederate General Robert E. Lee in the Library, the Barracks Dormitory named for Lee, and the Lee Gate on Lee Road.

As a black student at the Army Academy, he recalls feeling “devastated” when a classmate pointed out the slave also depicted in Lee’s painting. “How is the only black person who climbed a wall in this whole gigantic school – how is that a slave?” He remembers thinking.

As an admissions officer for diversity, he then traveled the country to recruit students at West Point from under-represented communities. “It was so hard to tell people, ‘Yeah, you can trust the military,’ then their Google kids and say, ‘Why is there a barracks named after Lee? ” “, did he declare.

The country’s military academies provide a key pipeline in the leadership of the armed forces, and for much of the past decade they have welcomed more students of diverse racial backgrounds each year. But beyond general anti-discrimination policies, these federally funded institutions do little to volunteer about how they track down extremist or hateful behavior, or address the racial slights that some graduates of color say they face on a daily basis. .

In an Associated Press article earlier this year, current and former recruits and officers from nearly every branch of the military described a deeply ingrained culture of racism and discrimination that stubbornly escalates, despite repeated efforts to eradicate it. Less attention has been paid to the top institutions that produce a significant portion of the service officer corps – the academies of the US Army, US Navy, US Air Force, US Coast Guard and the US Merchant Marine.

Some colored graduates from the country’s top military schools who have endured what they describe as a hostile environment question the military maxim that all servicemen wearing the same uniform are equal.

This includes Carlton Shelley II, who was recruited to play football for West Point from his high school in Sarasota, Fla., And entered the academy in 2009. On the pitch, he has described the team as “a fraternity. », Where his skin color did not matter. But off the pitch, he said, he and other black classmates were too often treated like the stereotype of the angry black man.

Some students of color have brought to light what they see as systemic discrimination in academies by setting up Instagram accounts – “Black at West Point”, “Black at USAFA” and “Black at USNA” – to share their personal experiences .

Responding to the PA’s findings, a Defense Ministry spokesperson Major Charlie Dietz said the academies had a policy of providing equal opportunity regardless of race, color, or nationality. national origin, religion, sex, gender identity or sexual orientation. He said the DOD formed a team in April to advance progress on diversity, equity and inclusion across the department, including academies.

The latest annual defense spending bill required the Department of Defense to examine all of its military properties for any references or symbols that may commemorate Confederation, including at West Point, which the commission overseeing the work has chosen as the first site to visit earlier this year. But the deadline for acting on the recommendations is still over two years away.

In the wake of George Floyd’s murder in 2020, which sparked global protests, a group of West Point alumni issued a 40-page letter urging the academy to address “major failures” in the fight against intolerance and racism, adding “we maintain the hope that our Alma Mater will take the necessary steps to defend the values ​​she defends.

Shelley said the academy has important work to do in retaining and supporting students of color. In his class, he estimated that about 35 black students had graduated – “an incredibly low number,” he said. “And we started with a lot more.”

West Point did not respond to repeated requests for comment, beyond reiterating the importance of diversity in its admissions process.

Academies are a growing path to officer status for black cadets, according to 2019 data from the Under Secretary of Defense, with about 13% of active-duty black officers commanded at the five institutions, compared to 19% of white officers on active duty.

Most of the students who enroll – around 60-70% – are appointed by US senators or representatives of their home state as part of a system created in the 1840s to form a body of officers geographically. diversified. But today, the country’s changing demographics mean the system gives disproportionate influence to rural congressional districts which tend to be whiter.

According to a report released in March by the Connecticut Veterans’ Legal Center. Eight percent of congressional appointments went to Hispanic students, although they represent 22 percent of young adults, according to the report.

The diversity of nominations has improved slightly over the past 25 years, but the report noted that 49 members of Congress did not nominate a single black student during their tenure and 31 did not nominate any Hispanic candidate.

Curtis Harris said he received one of three nominations at West Point out of more than 300 nominations for his congressman. Now he helps review applications for a New York congressman and visits schools to encourage young applicants from diverse backgrounds to apply.

West Point’s diversification “is not going to happen on its own,” he said.

According to data provided to the AP by the four schools, the academies of the Navy, Air Force, Merchant Navy and Coast Guard have generally become less white over the past two decades. West Point did not provide complete data, but said it was welcoming more and more diverse students, with 37% of the class of 2024 identifying themselves as non-white, up from around 25% ten years ago. year.

While the number of Hispanic cadets has increased over the past two decades in Coast Guard and Navy academies, black cadets have shown no noticeable increase during this time. In the class of 2000, there were 73 black midshipmen in the Naval Academy and only 77 in 2020. At the Coast Guard Academy, there were 15 black cadets in the class of 2001. And in 2021? Only 16.

Two of the five academies – West Point and the Air Force Academy – now have their first black leaders. But West Point graduate Easterling noted that the faculty there remains predominantly white, which means students who “don’t see each other and don’t want to stay” may find it difficult to ask for help.

Greg Elliott said he often found himself struggling at Merchant Marine Academy and was asked to leave without graduating. He said he hadn’t faced overt racism, but wonders if a more diverse faculty and student body could have changed his course by making him feel like he belongs.

He remembers a black comrade who told him to dig his head down and realize that the academy was “a terrible place, but it is a great place”.

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