Exclusive: These Alums Want West Point to Have an Honest Conversation About Race
Not long after she entered the United States Military Academy at West Point in 2010, Jozlyn McCaw criticized a white male cadet for showing disrespect toward other cadets at summer training. The student retorted, telling McCaw, who is black, that she was an affirmative action placeholder.
"I know why you got into West Point, and it wasn't because of your qualifications," he said.
The remark was one of many racial and gender-based slights McCaw heard during her time at West Point. She succeeded despite them, majoring in sociology and becoming a first lieutenant after graduation in 2014 — one of 74 African-Americans to graduate.
But during her senior year, McCaw decided to channel her frustrations in a way that, she hoped, would start a constructive conversation about minorities at West Point.
With around 50 other cadets — students of color, gays and women — she created a social media campaign in which participants took self-portraits holding whiteboards with racist, sexist and homophobic remarks they had heard while at West Point. The project, titled #ITooAmWestPoint, took its inspiration from the #ITooAmHarvard campaign at Harvard University.
But #ITooAmWestPoint never made it onto social media. West Point administrators discouraged McCaw and others from releasing the photographs so close to graduation, fearing that doing so would run afoul of military regulations that bar active service members from engaging in certain political activities while on active duty.
Now, as West Point prepares to graduate over 900 cadets on Saturday, McCaw is speaking out.
"West Point was the best place I could have gone. What these photos say is, 'Let's have this conversation.'"
McCaw was reluctant to go public with the campaign, fearing reprisal against her and other participants. She stressed that it is her admiration for the institution that drives her effort to see it become better at handling issues of race and gender. But in light of last week's controversy over an "Old Corps"-style graduation photo taken by 16 black female cadets — in which the students posed in dress uniforms with raised fists — she changed her mind.
"I love my alma mater," McCaw said in a phone interview. "West Point was the best place I could have gone. What these photos say to West Point is, 'Let's have this conversation, if we're going to learn and grow from this experience.'"
Mic has exclusively obtained the photographs from the project, and they are published here.
Hoping to start a meaningful conversation, graduate goes public with #ITooAmWestPoint.
Mic interviewed a handful of West Point graduates for this article. The cadets said they've cemented lifelong friendships at the school that carry on into Army careers and beyond. But African-Americans and other students rarely went through West Point without hearing racial micro-aggressions, the former students said.
"I felt that with #ITooAmWestPoint, it helped shed light on what a lot of people don't understand — what minorities have to go through in a predominantly white military," McCaw said.
Micro-aggressions — brief and commonplace verbal or behavioral acts that express hostility toward minorities — aren't harmless. A growing body of scientific research shows that, cumulatively and over time, these seemingly innocuous interactions have psychological and physiological effects, impairing performance on the job and in the classroom.
West Point culture is infused with its own lore and slang. McCaw explained some of the most common insults she heard during her undergraduate career, couched in West Point lingo.
West Point has a prep school that serves as a pipeline to the school for students of color and those from disadvantaged backgrounds. Calling a recruit a "prepster" — while it's not always an insult — is a way to suggest they are not there on their own merit, former cadets said.
"Recruited athlete" is used to refer to a cadet who got into West Point because of their athletic ability, but not intellect.
Some cadets, especially African-Americans, are called "rock swimmers" if they test into a beginner-level swim class as part of required physical education. It's a hit tap to the stereotype that blacks cannot swim. This slight is particularly insulting given the history of African-Americans being segregated or banned from using "whites only" swimming pools and beaches.
Other slights aren't unique to the military academy. Cadets who participated in the #ITooAmWestPoint project called out a range of micro-aggressions common to students of color at predominantly white institutions across the country — from the "you're so articulate" backhanded compliments to jokes that play on stereotypes of black criminality. Telling any African-American student that he or she is articulate suggests they are intelligent in spite of their skin color.
With the end of the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy in 2011, a gay cadet called out homophobia:
West Point said it is "dismayed and disappointed" by racial slights.
Asked for comment about the campaign and the larger issue of tolerance on campus, Donald Outing, West Point's chief diversity officer, said the academy takes the development of its cadets seriously and considers racial tolerance an integral part of their experience. "We are very dismayed and disappointed by micro-aggressions," Outing said.
Students at West Point are not without resources or protocols to bring allegations of racism, sexism and homophobia to their superiors. They are first asked to seek resolution with their company commanders before elevating complaints up the chain of command.
McCaw said West Point's commitment to diversity is more than a public relations ploy. During her time at the school, McCaw said she enjoyed unparalleled academic support and extracurricular opportunities.
But she and others said the recent controversy at the school over a photo of black West Point cadets doing a clench-fist salute presents an opportunity for the institution to show just how much it values diversity. In May, a photo showing 16 black cadets making the gesture, which is associated with the Black Power movement of the 1960s, drew national headlines; alumni and other observers responded with racist insults, alleged the students were expressing support for the Black Lives Matter movement and called for them to be punished.
Officials announced last week that the young women in the photo would not face reprimand because they intended to show "pride and unity." But in a letter to students, the school's superintendent warned against making gestures that might "offend others" or be misconstrued as unsanctioned political speech. The women were cleared for graduation Tuesday.
The answer to clearing up cultural misunderstandings is more diversity.
In-person interactions with people from a variety of backgrounds challenges prejudices and racist assumptions; in the same way that public acceptance of LGBT individuals grew as visibility increased, so too does exposure to people of other races make it harder to hold ignorant views.
In the last few years, West Point admitted the largest number of women and the most racially diverse class of cadets in its 214-year history. This year, the school will graduate a class that is 72% white, 7% African-American and Asian, respectively, and 8% Latino.
Despite diversity initiatives, blacks are still underrepresented among military officers, and overrepresented among active duty enlisted members, Department of Defense data show. West Point, founded in 1802 in New York state, graduated its first African-American cadet in 1877 and welcomed women in 1976.
Increasing racial diversity can help change a culture, but it's not the entire solution. McCaw and other West Point alumni said they hope #ITooAmWestPoint inspires a larger conversation about race and gender in the military and spurs more, not less, diversity. West Point said it hopes so, too.
The military isn't far removed from a time when its forces were racially segregated. David Segal, professor emeritus of sociology at the University of Maryland at College Park, said that while the armed forces were officially desegregated during World War II, true integration happened during the Korean War, when integrated units performed better than segregated units. This made it hard for naysayers to reverse the policy when the war ended, according to Segal, who established and ran the Army's sociological research program on race and integration in the early to mid-1970s.
"Blacks overcame the institutional barrier established by segregation, but it did not obliterate prejudice in the Army or in the larger society," Segal said in an interview.
Segal said blacks are underrepresented among officers because receiving an officer's commission requires a college degree, and military academies are highly competitive and limited on space. ROTC programs at historically black colleges and universities play a larger role than West Point in growing the pool of African-American Army officer candidates, he added.
At West Point, officials recognize that all cadets come to the institution with baggage — including racial prejudice.
"We would love it if within the first week, day, or hour that [cadets arrive,] they all magically get it," said chief diversity officer Outing. "That's why we call [West Point] a 47-month experience."
Outing said he remembered hearing about the #ITooAmWestPoint project a couple of years ago and thought the idea was "so cool." While he wasn't among the officials who discouraged students from releasing the project, he acknowledged he may have done the same out of concern that it could be interpreted as a violation of Department of Defense rules.
For the last couple of years, it's been Outing's job to implement West Point diversity initiatives, which include offering racial-sensitivity training to all cadets and staff. He said the controversy over the raised-fist photo started a conversation among administrators about how to address racial slights at West Point.
"We're going to use it as a case study," Outing said, noting the racial polarization the photo caused within and outside of the West Point community. "We're going to grow from this. I absolutely guarantee that."
McCaw is now a first lieutenant at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington state. She leads a platoon of soldiers and prepares them for deployment in a military police unit. She said she was not surprised that West Point decided not to punish the 16 cadets in the raised fist photo — punishing the young women would have sent the wrong message and stunted diversity efforts.
She said she hopes the photo controversy, like the #ITooAmWestPoint campaign, will push the institution to further address issues of racial tolerance and gender equality on campus.
"We can't be afraid to have these conversations as leaders," McCaw said. "We have to lead from the front. Why would we act like this is a taboo topic, when the Army deems it important? We are mandated to do this."
Correction: May 18, 2016