Black cadets on US military campuses report ongoing issues of racism

by Erika DuBose
VMI Confederal Statue
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While military academies have done their best to recruit more Black students into their ranks, white supremacy and systemic racism still exists within the historical schools.

Today, most military schools have policies against racism and discrimination. However, few are specific and many are rarely enforced. 

Monuments to Confederate soldiers still found on campuses across America

One school, the United States Military Academy in West Point, New York, still has a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee on its campus. The life-sized monument also depicts a slave. 

Jeffrey Easterling, a 2013 graduate of West Point,  expressed disbelief at the statues presence on campus.

“How did the only Black person who got on a wall in this entire humongous school — how is it a slave?”.

Easterling says seeing the statue on campus left him “devastated”.

And the statue is not the only reminder of Confederate General Robert E. Lee, who fought on behalf of maintaining slavery in the South. Cadets also encounter Lee Road and company barracks named after the infamous white supremacist and proponent of slavery.

Easterling, who was a recruiter for the army after graduation, notes the difficulty he faces in encouraging Black students to enroll in military academies.

“It was so hard to tell people like, ‘Yeah, you can trust the military,’ he said. “Then their kids Google and go: ‘Why is there a barracks named after Lee?’”

Black cadets question military’s commitment to combatting racism

Other graduates question the military’s position that all members receive equal and equitable treatment.

Major Charlie Dietz, a spokesman for the Department of Defense, said military academies have a policy to provide equal opportunities to all students regardless of their background.

However, many Black students believe the military’s policy position is more words than actions.

Carlton Shelley II, who was recruited to West Point to play football, says he was “repeatedly in trouble or being corrected for infractions that were not actually infractions.”

“It was a very deliberate choice to dig and to push on certain individuals compared with other cadets — white cadets.”

Others cite daily micro-aggressions as the norm on campus.

“We just feel it, we feel the energy behind it. It just eats us away,” said Xavier Bruce, a 24-year veteran who graduated from the Air Force Academy in 1999.

The military, for its part, has attempted to change the culture across communities. It has implemented diversity programming and launched other committees to promote equitable treatment for Black cadets.  While there has been an increase in Black students in military academies, many still leave the institutions. Some of those who do leave cite racism as a reason for their departure.

Following George Floyd’s murder in 2020, a group of West Point alumni and leadership penned an open letter pleading for change. The letter encouraged the academy to fight white supremacy and systemic racism.

“Though we are deeply disturbed, we hold fast to the hope that our Alma Mater will take the necessary steps to champion the values it espouses,” the letter read.

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