Open Letter

Open Letter: An Anti-Racist West Point Is Possible

We hope Academy leadership will agree we are espousing the same values West Point seeks to instill in its graduates.

Letter from West Point graduates / Reposted from Medium

From Danny Sjursen: Please take a moment to read the brief open letter from 9 impressively credentialed recent West Point grads. (I taught 4 of them, all among the best students I ever had.) They are young lieutenants and actually call-out generals officers at the academy.  This is, frankly, almost unheard of in its rarity. The risks are real: professional, social, covert/overt. The risk-reward was low from the start, these young men and women knew oh so well. I feel as though the least those of us supportive of their “cause” or “movement” can do is get the message out as widely as possible. To that end, if you are so moved, please repost to social media or otherwise distribute as you can.

Lieutenant General Williams, Brigadier General Jebb, Brigadier General Buzzard, and Athletic Director Buddie,

We are writing as a group of alumni invested in pursuing anti-racism at West Point. From our perspective as recent members of the Long Gray Line, we are concerned that Black Cadets are experiencing racism in a manner inconsistent with the statement made by the Superintendent in a USA Today interview that the Academy “does not have a systemic problem with racism.” We hope for West Point to become a place where that statement rings true and therefore want to partner with the Academy in striving for that.

In addition, we want to respond to Secretary Esper’s June 18th request for the Pentagon to “immediately present actionable ideas that the department can begin implementing now,” to ensure that the military leads the way as it “embraces diversity and inclusion, and rejects hate, bigotry, and unlawful discrimination in all forms.” On June 25th, he extended this request to the entire military force, asking us to “have the hard conversations with [our] leadership.” This is our attempt to do so: we have written the attached proposal containing action steps West Point can take to lead the effort as an anti-racist institution.

We are inspired by the historical precedent of the Black Cadets who wrote the “Black Manifesto” in September 1971, resulting in the termination of President Nixon’s proposal to build a Confederate monument at the Academy. These Cadets delivered the manifesto to their Superintendent, who — knowing it was not in his power alone to stop the President from setting up this monument — presented it to the Pentagon in order to generate the adequate level of authority to meet their demands. Our proposal seeks to follow in their example: respectfully organizing support for a cause about which we are passionate in order to see meaningful change that benefits the mission of the Academy in producing leaders of character.

We hope Academy leadership will agree that, by writing this proposal, we are espousing the same values that West Point seeks to instill in its graduates: leadership, duty, respect, selfless service, honor, integrity, and personal courage. “I will have the courage to choose the harder right over the easier wrong,” says the Cadet Creed. Amidst the ongoing anti-racist movement around the world, our easier wrong is to join in the finger pointing, to lay bare West Point’s racism, and to do so without thinking strategically about the ways the Academy can improve. The harder right is for the Long Gray Line to lead the war to eradicate racism and normalize anti-racism — a war that has never been won. Will West Point lead the way for service academies, for the Department of Defense, and for the Nation?

Though we agree that racist individuals can “be redeemed,” as quoted by Lieutenant General Williams, by learning to be anti-racist, we believe that the Academy must first acknowledge its own institutional racism and establish norms and practices that lead to institutional anti-racism. Given West Point’s troubled history of racism — evidenced by its treatment of Henry O. Flipper, and countless recorded and unrecorded stories of racism since Flipper’s graduation — we feel that the need to continue fighting racism at the Academy is obvious. West Point’s barracks were only desegregated 70 years ago. The racial disparities between enlisted and Officer personnel in the military as a whole are stark, especially in senior positions. There are far more Black people bussing the tables of West Point’s Mess Hall than there are teaching Cadets. This is unacceptable and necessitates that more work be done. Improving West Point’s diversity is important — but only one of many steps in fighting racism.

Because West Point has many stakeholders, we later plan to share this proposal with the Association of Graduates, the Academic Board, and the rest of the Board of Visitors. We also plan to release it publicly in conjunction with a long form publication of firsthand narratives, intended to sustain the conversation inside and outside of the Long Gray Line, and heighten the public accountability that drives change.

We ask that you begin making the changes available to you by following through with the action steps detailed in this proposal, rather than waiting to be pressured into action by outside forces.

We ask that you begin making the changes available to you by following through with the action steps detailed in this proposal, rather than waiting to be pressured into action by outside forces. We propose that you consider releasing a public statement acknowledging the existence of systemic racism at West Point, demonstrating commitment to anti-racism at West Point, outlining anti-racist education that will be provided to staff and faculty, and detailing plans to eradicate Confederate memorialization. Such positive, tangible actions will put West Point on a trajectory toward eradicating racism, and will display to the public the Academy’s commitment to anti-racism.

Among other actions in this proposal, we offer ways that existing teams within USMA, such as the Office of Diversity, Inclusion, and Equal Opportunity (ODIEO), could be improved. We want to be very clear: this proposal is not for those teams. We believe that these teams would make the necessary changes if given the authority and vision to do so. Rather, this is directed toward you, the Academy’s leadership, who have the power to make the necessary changes — changes that will empower ODIEO and all entities at West Point to work together to be anti-racist.

We know that this has been a very busy time for you, and we thank you for your leadership during the challenging time of the pandemic and the ongoing discussion about racial injustice in our Nation. We would be happy to discuss any of the proposal’s topics with you, and look forward to engaging in further dialogue on the insidious issue of anti-Black racism in America.

Very Respectfully,

Lieutenants Simone Askew, David Bindon, Maria Blom, Care Kehn, Jack Lowe, Nette Monaus, Ashley Salgado, Joy Schaeffer, and Tony Smith