Clarence Page: Critics of black women cadets read too much in a gesture
West Point officials have decided against punitive action for 16 black female cadets who sparked nationwide controversy by posing for a group photo with their fists raised.
Good. They’ll get some counseling but graduate on time, which they have earned in spite of the crazy commotion the photo stirred up.
The women are young. They were celebrating their upcoming graduation. Maybe they didn’t how easy it is for some black people to alarm some white people — especially when we are black people in groups.
The 16 women were following an old school tradition by posing in historical-style uniforms before graduation later in May. Controversy erupted because of the upraised fists.
An investigation determined that the cadets had no political message in mind. That would have violated the academy’s and the Defense Department’s prohibitions against political activities by active service members.
Meanwhile, Internet chatter about the matter exploded.
The New York Times quoted blogger John Burk, a white former drill sergeant, as calling the pose an “overt display of the Black Lives Matter movement.” Burk told the Times via email that he had “disciplined soldiers for making Nazi salutes in photos, and felt the raised fist was not much different.”
And you don’t have to be white to feel that way. In a post titled, “Here’s EXACTLY what I’d do to the West Point cadets who took this dishonorable photo,” former Rep. Allen West, a Florida Republican and retired Army lieutenant colonel, said the young women should apologize to their class and to the academy.
“(W)hat if these were 16 white male West Point cadets from the South who took a picture in uniform with the Confederate battle flag?” West asked in his blog post. “… And you know those white male cadets would be in serious danger of not graduating and receiving their commission as an Army officer.”
Excuse me? Confederate battle flag? Nazi salutes? If you think every raised black fist automatically means Black Lives Matter, you need to learn more about black people — just as we black folks always have been obliged to know what gestures might upset white people.
I was reminded of how, back in 1968, a similar fist-raised gesture by black American athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos caused a commotion at the Summer Olympics in Mexico City. As the athletes turned to face their flags as the American national anthem played, they each raised a black-gloved fist. Media exploded with chatter, as I recall, not much of it was complimentary.
In his autobiography, “Silent Gesture,” Smith explained that the raised fists were not a “Black Power” salute, but a “human rights salute.” But in that era of the black power movement and Black Panthers, to many folks all raised black fists looked alike.
Although the current cadets weren’t talking as the matter is investigated, NPR helpfully quoted the Facebook page insights of Mary Tobin, who graduated from West Point about 13 years ago. The raised fists, she wrote, were not a “sign of allegiance to any political movement,” but “an act of unity amongst sisters and a symbol of achievement.”
“Our attrition rates are on par with the class at large,” she wrote, “but can you imagine what it must feel like to live, train, study, eat, cry, laugh, struggle and succeed in an environment where for 4 years, the majority of the people there don’t look like you, it’s hard for them to relate to you, they oftentimes don’t understand you, and the only way to survive is to shrink your blackness or assimilate.”
It’s a familiar story to many of us who ever have been one of the first members of a minority group in a school or workplace. Having an extended family of “brothers” or “sisters” who share the pain helps ease anxieties, even when your signals of celebration alarm folks who don’t know much about black folks besides crime stories.
More than a century after Henry O. Flipper became the first African American to graduate from West Point in 1877, the 16 cadets in the photo represented all but one of the black women in a graduating class of about 1,000, according to the Times.
Yet, as an Army veteran from the last century, I am proud to see even that tiny percentage of black women. It signals a growing respect in this country for the contributions that every race and gender can make to our nation’s defense, even if we sometimes make each other nervous.
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