miight years after he graduated from the US Military Academy at West Point, Nueva York, Geoffrey Easterling remains astonished by the Confederate history still memorialized on the storied academy’s campus – the six-foot-tall painting of the 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 remembers feeling “devastated” when a classmate pointed out the enslaved person also depicted in the life-size Lee painting.
“How did the only black person who got on a wall in this entire humongous school – how is it a slave?” he recalls thinking.
As a diversity admissions officer, he later traveled the country recruiting students to West Point from underrepresented communities. “It was so hard to tell people like, ‘Yeah, you can trust the military,’ and then their kids Google and go ‘Why is there a barracks named after Lee?'" él dijo.
The nation’s military academies provide a key pipeline into the leadership of the armed services and, for the better part of the last decade, they have welcomed more racially diverse students each year.
But beyond blanket anti-discrimination policies, these federally funded institutions volunteer little about how they screen for extremist or hateful behavior, or address the racial slights that some graduates of color say they faced daily.
In an Associated Press story earlier this year, current and former enlistees and officers in nearly every branch of the armed services described a deep-rooted culture of racism and discrimination that stubbornly festers, despite repeated efforts to eradicate it.
Less attention has been paid to the premier institutions that produce a significant portion of the services’ officer corps – the academies of the US army, the US navy, the US air force, the US coast guard and US merchant marine.
Some graduates of color from the nation’s top military schools who endured what they described as a hostile environment are left questioning the military maxim that all service members wearing the same uniform are equal.
That includes Carlton Shelley II, who was recruited to play football for West Point from his Sarasota, Florida, high school and entered the academy in 2009.
On the field, he described the team as “a brotherhood”, where his skin color never affected how he was treated.
But off the field, él dijo, he and other black classmates too often were treated like the stereotype of the angry black man – an experience that brought him to tears at the time.
“I was repeatedly in trouble or being corrected for infractions that were not actually infractions," él dijo. “It was a very deliberate choice to dig and to push on certain individuals compared with other cadets – white cadets.”
Xavier Bruce, who graduated from the Air Force Academy in 1999 and rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel during his 24 years of duty, said that for him, it was the ongoing slights directed at him as a black man, rather than openly racist behavior, that cut deep.
“We just feel it, we feel the energy behind it, and it just eats us away," él dijo.
Some students of color have spotlighted what they see as systemic racism and discrimination at the academies by creating Instagram accounts: “Black at West Point”, “Black at USAFA” and “Black at USNA”, to relate their personal experiences.
“I was walking with a classmate and we were both speaking Spanish when a white, male upperclassman turned around and said ‘Speak English, this is America,’” a 2020 Air Force Academy graduate wrote in one post.
In response to the AP’s findings, a spokesman for the Department of Defense, Maj Charlie Dietz, said the service academies make it a policy to offer equal opportunities regardless of race, color, national origin, religión, sex, gender identity or sexual orientation.
He said the DoD formed a special team in April to advance progress on diversity, equity and inclusion across the entire department, including the academies.
West Point did not respond to repeated requests for comment, beyond reiterating the importance of diversity to its admissions process and to preparing cadets for leadership.
Following the murder of George Floyd in 2020, which sparked protests around the globe, a group of prominent West Point alumni had released a 40-page letter urging the academy to address “major failures” in combatting intolerance and 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,"Decía la carta.
An appendix offered anonymous testimonials gathered last year from West Point cadets about incidents they said went unaddressed by school officials.
“I had a racist roommate that would call me the N-word and spit on me,” one cadet wrote. “I told the 4th Regimental Tactical Officer about it, and they did nothing.”
Shelley acknowledges West Point has become more racially diverse, but said the academy has significant work to do to retain and support students of color.
En un sentido, the tributes to Lee that still dot the West Point campus illustrate the academy’s dichotomy: Cadets studying military history are taught that Confederate soldiers were no heroes, yet the references to Lee – a West Point graduate who later became the academy’s superintendent – remain.
The US armed forces were segregated until the mid-1950s, when an influx of fighters were needed for the Korean war.
Today most students who enroll, sobre 60% a 70%, are nominated by US senators or representatives from their home states. But only 6% of nominations to the army, air force and naval academies made by the current members of Congress went to black candidates, aunque 15% of the population aged 18 a 24 is black, according to a report on the service academies released in March by the Connecticut Veterans’ Legal Center.
Eight per cent of congressional nominations went to Hispanic students, though they make up 22% of young adults, el informe dijo.